Rivalry Weekend: Hammers & Kickers, back-to-back

Rivalry Weekend: Hammers & Kickers, back-to-back

Life in USL PRO has its quirks. For instance, we have this traveling team that never wins and never plays a home game, kinda like that team that always lost to the Harlem Globetrotters. And everybody plays two games against MLS reserve teams, and the results count… in two completely different tables.

But if there’s one quirk that really defines USL PRO, it’s the back-to-back-games-in-24-hours road trip. Implemented as a cost-control measure, it means that every now and again teams have to climb on a bus, play one match, then drive to another city and play another match the next night. Nobody likes it, but everybody familiar with the finances of third-tier soccer North American soccer understands why its something of a necessary evil.

usl-pro-schedulingBut every now and then, USL PRO scheduling just gets downright possum-stupid.

Exhibit No. 1: The Charleston Battery’s schedule this weekend. The Battery plays both its top league rivals. On back-to-back nights.

One on the road. The other at home.

So we’re realistic. We get the travel-costs logic of the standard two-games-in-24-hours road trip. But why would you send Charleston up to Wilmington on a Friday and then drive them back home to play Richmond on a Saturday? Seriously. Anyone with insights into this one, please chime in. Tell me what I’m missing.

In the meantime… Let the games begin!

Wilmington away

Remember last summer, when both Wilmington and Charleston got hot down the stretch, knocked off the two top seeds in the playoffs and played for all the Skittles at Blackbaud Stadium?

Yeah, that was awesome.

This season? Not so awesome if you’re a Hammerheads fan.

Why has Wilmington plunged so far down the table? They’re still a big, physical team. Several of their best players returned from their 2012 edition. I mean, was Corey Hertzog really that important?

I haven’t watched them enough to analyze them in depth, but a couple of numbers jump out at you when you study their 2013 season.

The first is 22. That’s how many goals they’ve scored in 21 games. The polite word for that is “anemic.” Even when you remove hapless Antigua from the comparison, Wilmington’s scoring still looks sad. Only Rochester (18 goals) is worse.

The second number is 35. That’s how many goals the Hammerheads have conceded. Only Dayton (and, of course, Antigua) is worse.

How does that happen? This is still a team that can pack it in, muscle it up, and make life unpleasant for opposing forwards. It might boil down to one simple fact: Wilmington sucks on the road. They’re actually OK at home, but they’re matadors away, giving up 25 goals in 11 matches.

One more bonus number: -1. That’s the penalty the league assessed Wilmington for use of an ineligible player on July 21. In classic USL PRO style, the league press release doesn’t say which player, or why he was ineligible, or whether it was a mix-up, or, well… anything (new USL PRO slogan? USL PRO: Making MLS Look Like A Shining Beacon of Transparency Since 2010). The always informed Mikey Buytas has some idea of what happened, but without independently corroborating it, I’m not going to publish it. Anyway, something happened, and now Wilmington has 21 points instead of 22, which drops them into 12th place.

Last meeting: 2-4 loss at Charleston on May 11
Last match: 1-2 loss to Wilmington at home on July 26
2013 record: 21 points (one deducted) on 6-11-4, 22 goals for, 35 goals against
Home: 17 points, 5-3-2, 12 goals for, 10 goals against
Away: 5 points, 1-8-2, 10 goals for, 25 goals against.
Last Five: W-L-D-L-L

The good news for Wilmington is that they’ve been playing people close lately. The Hammerheads haven’t had a result with a margin of +/- 2 goals since an 0-2 loss to Harrisburg on June 5, a span of 10 matches. That’s an improvement over April and May, when the boys from Cape Fear still seemed to be getting acquainted after an alarmingly short preseason slate, and opposing teams were hanging big numbers on them.

Seventeen points at home isn’t bad. And the Hammerheads come into this match with a full week’s rest. Plus, it’s Charleston. You have to figure they’ll be up for this one.

But the biggest dynamic at play in this match-up has nothing to do with Wilmington. It’s that Charleston’s coaching staff will be rotating its lineup to cover two matches on two consecutive nights.

Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Steres, who spent 2012 as a Seattle Sounders reserve, leads the Hammerheads in scoring with six goals and an assist. He also leads the squad in shots.

But here’s the problem: Steres is a defender/defensive midfielder. I mean, good for him. He was named league Player of the Week on July 9 after the Hammerheads took four points from quality opponents Orlando and Harrisburg, scoring three goals. But if defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang were leading the Battery in scoring after 21 games, we might well ponder the question ‘Why?”

“I think it speaks a little bit to their play,” said Charleston Battery Assistant Coach Dusty Hudock, who filled in for Coach Mike Anhaeuser at practice on Wednesday while Anhaeuser took care of some family business. “They’re very direct. Probably fair-to-average chance that a lot of their goals are scored on set pieces. And being a holding midfielder, essentially a defensive guy, he’s probably a very good player, has good timing in the air, maybe a nose around the box. But it probably speaks more to how they’re scoring their goals as a team than any type of philosophy.”

Three other players — forward Kyle Greig, midfielder Paul Nicholson and defender Jamel Wallace — each have three goals. And eight players — Steres, Grieg, Nicholson and Wallace, plus defenders Michael Daly, Gareth Evans and Shaun Utterson, plus midfielder Shawn Nicklaw — have logged more than 1,000 league minutes. So there is a solid core in place.

But probably the biggest chance has been in goal. Keeper Philip Tuttle entered 2013 as the regular starter and rang up a 1.9 goals-against average over 10 games. Eventually the Hammerheads switched back to Troy Hernandez, who filled in as the starter in the 2012 Championship match at Blackbaud. Hernandez has now logged 11 starts, with a GAA of 1.523 and 39 saves. Not great numbers, but better in comparison.

The view from Charleston

After suffering through a two-loss Florida road trip, which included a 2-4 pratfall in Plant City, the Battery have run off three straight wins. Their last two matches — 5-1 over Phoenix, and 3-0 over the Los Angeles Blues — represent their best play in consecutive games this season.

They enter the match in relatively good shape. Midfielder Maikel Chang will miss another weekend with a hamstring injury — basically the story of his season. And right back Mark Wiltse, a key contributor for Charleston who suffered a broken nose and a concussion in training before the Phoenix match, is not available, according to trainer Bobby Weisenberger. But here’s the good news: Weisenberger said Wiltse’s head injury is no longer keeping him out of games, but that he’s being fitted on Friday for a custom face mask to protect his nose.

That means there aren’t enough healthy bodies on the squad to give everybody at least one night off.

The team has a few iron men. Colin Falvey has played the full 90 in back-to-back games this season, and Emmanuel Adjetey has shown remarkable fitness as a fullback on either side of the field. Nicki Paterson and Michael Azira log plenty of minutes in the central midfield.

But with Richmond coming to town on Saturday, Coach Anaheuser’s starting lineup on Friday will be one of his most interesting calls of 2013. How much of a team will he save for the top-ranked Kickers? How much inexperience can he risk against a Hammerhead squad that isn’t horrible at home?

With just six defenders at his disposal (Falvey, Adjetey, Cody Ellison, John Wilson, Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson), it’s a safe bet that most of that group will get at least one start. And he has lots of options at central midfield.

But when it comes to forwards and wing players, Anhaeuser simply has fewer pieces to move around the chess board. That means that usual substitutes Heviel Cordoves, Zach Prince, Ben Fisk and Austin Savage could all see significant minutes, with several names from this group picking up a start this weekend.

So I could guess at a lineup, but that’s all it would be. But like most fans, I’ll be paying close attention to Friday’s starters — because they will likely signal how the Battery plan to approach not just one match, but two. And given Wilmington’s general style of play, Friday might be the night to play for a low-scoring result.

“You’re going to see a contrast any time you see Wilmington play against Charleston,” Hudock said. “In Charleston, generally speaking, we’re looking to pass the ball over shorter distances than they are. They’re not booting it, they’re just looking for longer type passes. Thirty, 40-yard-type passes, as opposed to ours, which are in the 15- to 20-yard range. So it’s going to take us a few more passes to get to goal. Consequently, we’ll need to have a little bit more possession than they have in order to generate our chances.

“But you know how they say in boxing that ‘styles make fights?’ It’s one of the allures of World Cup is that you have different styles of play playing against each other. That’s a little bit of what brings flavor to a Wilmington-Charleston affair is, well, they’re going to play in a style that’s different from ours, and we’re going to counter it with ours and see how that kinda works out tactically. It’s always an interesting game when we play them, it’s always high-spirited and passionate.

“Here’s the truth: The coaching staff has to focus on both legs (Friday and Saturday). But the message we have to give to the players is, ‘You don’t worry about any (of that). Take care of the first 90.'”

The match starts at 7:30 and will be carried live on SportsRadio 1450 and USLNation.com. It’s The Regiment’s annual bus trip, and the supporters’ group bus will be leaving for North Carolina from Blackbaud Stadium at 1 p.m.  I have family visiting from out of town so I won’t be on it, and Jonathan Ace will have tonight’s game coverage.

TOP IMAGE: (Clockwise from left) Defender Shaun Udderson has been a stalwart; Forward Kyle Greig has three goals; midfielder Daniel Steres (in yellow) leads the Hammerheads with six goals; center back Gareth Evans is a physical force; Troy Hernandez has overtaken Philip Tuttle as the Hammerheads’ primary keeper.