If you’ve never worked in the press, the occasionally bizarre qualities of staged media events are probably not something you’ve experienced first-hand. I covered my first in 1988, and the miracle is, they still feel just as weird — sometimes awkwardly, sometimes pricelessly — today.
The Charleston Battery don’t do many dog and pony shows (the newsroom term for scheduled media “opportunities”). The closest thing to a media event around here is usually the post-game scrum around Coach Mike Anhaeuser. But the Battery do throw these nice lunches each February to introduce the local media to the MLS teams that come to town for the Carolina Challenge Cup.
Today was my second, which means I don’t have a lot of reference material. But it was still kinda weird. And still pretty cool.
For starters, this has to be the first media event I’ve ever attended at which nobody got up and “said a few words” to get things started. After everyone ate, people just started working. There was nothing scripted, nothing that felt forced or more artificial than it had to be. And essentially nothing went quite to plan.
The Battery showed up with their entire current squad. The visiting teams were each supposed to bring coaches and five players. Instead, Seattle showed up with Coach Sigi Schmid, rising star DeAndre Yedlin, former Battery Sounders Osvaldo Alsonso, Lamar Neagle and Alex Caskey — and the one player the Sounders and the Battery currently share: Mike Azira, the Charleston midfielder in the final stages of a tryout with Seattle.
As for D.C. United, they showed up with their entire squad — but so late that the Sounders and much of the media had already gone home.
Houston Dynamo blew off the media lunch days ago, and for the second year in a row. Late travel plans.
There was some business to attend: Battery jersey sponsor SPARC is promoting a new product this season, so there was a new home shirt to unveil. And there were several TV cameras that needed to put people up in front of the team’s new media backdrop (complete with sponsor logos!) for interviews. But the whole thing was remarkably informal, cooperative, and … human. Which is so much better than the typical 21st century media event, which just makes everyone involved want to go home and shower.
Some interesting bits…
Seattle’s only coach in the club’s MLS history suffered through a fairly miserable August and September in 2013, a run of bad form and bad feelings that began not long after U.S. Men’s National Team captain Clint Dempsey arrived from England. The Sounders faltered under the pressure of league-fueled expectations, and when it all ended with a playoff loss to hated rival Portland Timbers, many Seattle supporters figured they’d seen the last of Schmid.
Instead, the iconic coach joined the front office in engineering a massive overhaul of the Sounders’ roster, rebuilding the club around Dempsey and former Battery hero Asvaldo Olonso.
TV REPORTER: (Asks a question about the Challenge Cup)
SS: (The CCC) is something that we’ve heard about. The old USL Sounders and Charleston have had a long relationship, so it’s been something that we’ve wanted to do but just hadn’t worked out yet timing-wise.
There’s a connection that has existed between our two team with a lot of players going back and forth. Players that are now with us that used to play here. So it’s a great thing to be here.
Alonso is the first one who came to us from Charleston, and he’s a mainstay of our team and is now a (Designated Player) in our league. Lamar Neagle, the year he spent here I think was very important for his formation as a player, and really helped establish his confidence again. And when he came back to us he was certainly a different player.
Alex Caskey is another player that we drafted and recommended that he come down here to play. And he had good season here, came back and had a very good season with us. So you look at those players that have made that transition, they’ve all been very important to us.
CHS SOCCER: Where does Mike Azira stand with the team right now, and how’s he been doing?
SS: Mike’s been doing well. He’s been training with us and has done very well. We’ve played him in games. This is an important week for him with us as we make our final decisions. And if everything can work out, he’s a player that we certainly have an interest in, but at this point we haven’t reached our formal decisions yet.
TV REPORTER (Asks a question about what this return to Charleston means to the former Battery players)
SS: It’s nice. It’s almost like going home to your hometown, where you can say, ‘Hey, I’ve done pretty well. I’ve done OK for myself.’ And you can see your friends and be proud of it.
CHS SOCCER: You’ve been staying downtown on this trip. Have your guys been able to go out and enjoy the city at all?
SS: They get out there. They’ve been walking around, for sure, seeing some of the sights, and there’s a lot of historic things downtown. I know we’re going to give them a day off next week and when they have that day off that will allow them to some more sightseeing.
But obviously some of the guys who’ve been here and played here before are giving the guys recommendations for restaurants and things like that.
DANE ARLAUKAS: This is a young team. Give me some expectations for this season.
SS: Our expectations are always high. Because we’re Seattle. And even as an expansion team our expectations were that we were going to make the playoffs. And we continue to maintain those high expectations. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes that’s a little bit of a curse. Because it’s tough to win that ultimate prize.
At the end of the day, we’ll see how we come together. But I’m happy with our squad.
CHS SOCCER: How much did personality, experience and lockerroom style fit into your offseason choices?
It was more a choice where, when you have a team together for a while, sometimes you just need to make some changes, and you need to get some fresh blood in there and get younger. So we signed a couple of homegrown players, we had good success with DeAndre Yedlin a year ago. Bringing in a Tristan Bowen, people like that, Marco Pappa.
Along with that we wanted to get a little bit faster as well, a little more athletic. And some of those same players fulfilled those needs for us. We felt that we gave up goals last year… so we needed to revamp our defense a little bit. Chad Marshall was obviously a key addition there for us, and Jalil Anibaba as well.
So we feel we were able to address the needs that we had, and it’s more just a situation of making some changes, bringing some fresh blood, moreso than saying ‘OK, we need to move these people for a different reason.’
CHS SOCCER: Will you know whether what you’ve built so far really works until Dempsey returns?
SS: You don’t know 100 percent for sure until you’re maybe about five or six games into the season, and then you can tell how the team is really gelling. But certainly Dempsey plays an important role within that, so getting him back into the team and seeing how the mix mixes. Because everybody always talks about ‘Well, this team plays this formation or that formation,’ and teams can play the same formation and every formation is different because of the personalities of your players. So until you see the mix of the players, what their tendencies are, how you can fit those tendencies together, you don’t know for sure.
But right now I’m pleased where we’re at, and I have a good idea, having had the chance to coach Dempsey, of where he fits in. And I think we’re going to be petty good.
TV REPORTER: How crazy is it that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year?
MA: I don’t think it’s crazy, I think it’s great.
We started this way back when, and we had one, two thousand people, and every year it seems to get bigger. The media coverage gets more and more, the national coverage, because MLS is growing, soccer is growing. And I’ll tell you — these players names are getting big.
TV REPORTER: How much bigger can this thing get?
MA: We were just joking about how maybe in the future you look at eight teams maybe. But at the same time you don’t want to grow too much, do you?
So it could get bigger, but at the same time, just like our city, we’re not the biggest city.
TV REPORTER: How important is this for your team?
MA: It’s tremendous. We get to see right away who can step up to the plate and play at this level. For a guy who is on trial… they go on to earn a contract. If they do well in these games, and can step up and play against the first teams of Seattle, Houston and DC, they’re going to be getting a contract and they’re going to be earning minutes during the season.
For me it’s exciting because it’s in Charleston, and we get to showcase this club, and our stadium and the community and just the whole town.
CHS SOCCER: How are the Cubans (Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang, who returned from playing an indoor season in Wichita on Wednesday) looking?
MA: They trained for the first time today. Yesterday we had to let their legs get back a little bit. They were very tired.
They looked sharp today. Probably won’t play them too much, because we don’t know where they stand. But I think you’ll definitely see them on the field tomorrow, which is good.
CHS SOCCER: What’s the experience been like with the Sounders?
AZIRA: It’s been a good experience so far. They’re great guys. They’re great players and mostly the experienced players are so nice, and try to help you as much as they can. You try to learn as much as you can from them.
CHS SOCCER: I read yesterday that Seattle has four open spots and seven unsigned players still on the training roster. Is that the math that you’ve heard?
AZIRA: So far, like, I don’t focus on the number of spots. Just go out there and do my best and work as hard as I can. If I win a spot, it would be good. But I just have to go there and learn, and hopefully I can make the team. Nothing much to lose, you know?
CHS SOCCER: Have they told you whether they see you more as a midfielder or as a right back?
AZIRA: You have to be flexible to make the team, so usually they like versatility where you can move, they can put you in different positions, so they like that if they can play me at right back, or I can play the midfield, so they keep on rotating me around.
CHS SOCCER: What feedback are you getting from the coaches? What are they asking for?
AZIRA: It depends on what position I’m playing that day. If it’s midfield, they want me to move up a little bit and to be more, like, to get the ball forward as much as I can.
You’re always learning every day. So you usually look up to the big players in the team and you say “What is he doing? What can I learn from him?” And the coaches have been very supportive and encouraging.
CHS SOCCER: When you’re in midfield do they have you back, forward, out wide?
AZIRA: When I play in the midfield I usually play in front of the back four. But usually we play two midfielders, so we keep on rotating back and forth?
CHS SOCCER: Has the staff told you who you’re going to suit up for in this tournament?
AZIRA: For Saturday I’m playing for the Battery.
CHS SOCCER: But for the other ones? Will you be playing for the Sounders?
AZIRA: Yeah. We’ll see.
How good is Ozzie Alonso? So good that Seattle — a team with a fondness for acquiring big-name stars from prestige leagues overseas — spent one of its three precious Designated Player slots in order to sign him to a new contract for 2014.
Of course, any player with that kind of pedigree is going to get national team attention. The problem is, Alonso was playing for Cuba when he defected to the United States, the first step on his journey to Seattle via Charleston. The saga of Jurgen Klinnsman’s attempts to get him cleared to play for the U.S. is one of the ongoing stories as the US heads off to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
CHS SOCCER: Have you heard anything about your status with the U.S. Men’s National Team?
OA: No. Still waiting. It’s been hard. We’re still waiting for Cuban. I don’t know what’s been going on.
CHS: What was the last communication that you or your representatives have had?
OA: We sent a letter to Cuba, and to FIFA. And we’re still waiting. Nothing.
CHS: How about U.S. Soccer?
OA: They tried to help me. They sent a letter to Cuba.
You know, it is what it is now. You have to move forward. My team is Seattle. Whatever comes, we’ll see what happens.
Today was also the first CCC media day for reporter John Ace, who interviewed Neagle and Yedlin. We’ll see what he has to add later.
TOP IMAGE: Former USL MVP and member of the 2010 Battery championship team Lamar Neagle fields questions from the press at Friday’s media lunch at the Three Lions Club. Dan Conover photos.