VSI Tampa Bay FC hosts the Charleston Battery tonight in Plant City in a match with significant implications for the USL PRO playoff race.
A win tonight would put VSITBFC level with Charleston with 27 points. The expansion team currently holds the 8th and final playoff seed with 24 points, while Charleston has dropped all the way to sixth thanks to a 0-1-4 record since June 15.
The Battery sleepwalked through its first-ever meeting with Tampa on June 22, a dreary scoreless draw that also happened to be the team’s first home game after its most grueling road trip of 2013. Charleston got a couple of weeks of rest afterward, but was only able to post a single point from its back-to-back home-and-away series with Orlando. Likewise, Tampa is coming off its own two-week midseason break tonight.
Not too much should have changed for the teams, at least in terms of personnel. Tampa is an experienced unit that features veterans Maricio Salles, Tony Donatelli and Shawn Chin at forward, with Joseph Noone, Andriy Budnyi and Darren Toby in midfield fronting for a defense that relies on former Battery man Kyle Hoffer , plus Josh Rife Alex Frietas and goalkeeper Alex Horwath.
Tampa arrived in Charleston on short rest, dragging a three-game losing streak, yet beat the odds and took points at Blackbaud Stadium. The visitors played chippy, clogged the midfield and took advantage of Charleston forward Dane Kelly’s absence to turn the night into a boxing match that consisted of two teams jabbing at each other. With neither team able to land a big blow against the other, Tampa skipped town with a welcome draw.
Since then Tampa has earned another welcome draw against red-hot Richmond and maintained its place in the league’s tight table.
Charleston finished its series with Orlando with a 2-3 aggregate score, yet out-shot the league leaders 34-20, controlling the run of play in both matches but falling short of the wins the Battery thought it had earned. Which means that this match in Tampa basically demands a result.
If Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser holds true to form, backup keeper Kevin Klasila will get another road start tonight. Right back Mark Wiltse sat out Thursday’s match in Tampa and would be a likely starter, too. But the rest of the lineup could be greatly influenced by Anhaeuser’s reading of which players look the most fresh and sharp. The team’s all-out push for a late equalizer in Orlando took a lot of energy from a lot of legs.
The view from Orlando
There’s plenty to talk about from the Orlando trip, if only because it’s so difficult to sort out what the last two weeks say about the Battery and the 2013 season.
Did Charleston outplay the Lions? Sure. We’re not talking about dominant Battery performances at either house, but Charleton’s quality play led the Lions on all the standard indicators of performance except one: an obscure little statistic called “goals.” That’s not to say that Orlando played poorly, either — although most league observers would probably agree that July’s Orlando City roster is a slightly diminished version of the first-half-of-the-season monster that went 10-1-2.
But what does it say when a team outplays a quality opponent but can’t come through with a win?
The other thing I really wanted to see was Orlando City soccer in its full fan context. Because while Charleston is probably the best small-market soccer club in the United States over the past decade, there is no doubt that Orlando has gone from USL PRO expansion club to MLS dark horse to the current favorite to win the senior league’s next expansion franchise. And they’ve done it based largely on their success on the field and the passionate commitment of an intense fan base.
More on that later…
Let’s talk about the officials (sigh)
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I always hate writing about the officials after a disappointing outcome. Even if the officiating was memorably horrible, there’s practically no way to talk about how a game was called that doesn’t come across like whining — at least to the ears of anyone predisposed to hear it that way.
But when you read the post-game comments below, you’ll notice that how the game was called is a major theme throughout.
So let’s answer the first question first: Did the officials cost Charleston a win in Orlando?
From my perspective, no. The Battery squandered its chance at victory on its own. But the referee almost certainly cost the Battery a precious road draw.
As inconsistent as the officiating was, it’s not as if the officiating prevented the Battery from generating the chances it needed to win this match and paint an enormous exclamation mark on their season. So while the players in Charleston’s road-red jerseys have no one else to blame for the shots they missed, I’m afraid they’ve got a legitimate beef when it comes to the game-winning penalty kick awarded to Orlando.
Anyway, these are the facts. Thursday’s officiating crew called 12 fouls on Orlando and 10 on Charleston. They called Orlando offsides five times and Charleston three times. And you can’t say the referee was particularly active in shaping the game with cards, either. He handed out just one yellow (to Cody Ellison in the 25th minute), and seemed to keep his cool even under occasionally intense lobbying by Nicki Paterson and other Battery players. So if you’re looking at the game stats for some evidence of pro-Orlando bias, you’re never going to find it.
But here’s the legitimate beef. On three separate occasions, Battery forward Dane Kelly received heavy contact in the Orlando penalty area three times Thursday night, and — in theory, at least — the referee could have pointed to the penalty spot on any one of those plays. Realistically, however, the first two fouls on Kelly in the penalty area were the kinds of fouls that USL PRO referees almost never call.
But the third foul on Kelly was, to put it mildly, the kind of contact that routinely generates a penalty kick. And its proximity to the kick awarded to Orlando made the non-call on Kelly particularly annoying.
In the 69th minute, Jose Cuevas played a beautiful ball ahead to Kelly, who did a great job of staying on sides and bursting through to create a game-winning chance. With goalkeeper Jon Kempin coming off his line and a central defender leaning on him, the Battery forward managed to maintain possession, keep his feet and beat Kempin. So at the moment when Kempin has miscalculated and the goal is open, an Orlando defender in a trailing position appears to contact Kelly’s torso, playing man, not ball, and prevent him from finishing the chance.
Should that have been a penalty kick? Don’t ask me. But it’s the kind of defensive play that routinely results in a penalty kick.
And the thought that will burn Battery fans for the rest of the year is that Jamie Watson’s game-winning penalty kick came off contact that occurred in the Battery penalty area just a minute later.
I couldn’t make out from my vantage point in the visiting seats which Battery player made the contact (my best guess was Emmanuel Adjetey, but it could have been someone else), but it wasn’t phantom contact. It was the kind of contact that gets called for a penalty kick in USL PRO. And on the road, playing the top team in the league, you have to assume that calls like that aren’t going to go your way.
So when you read Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s comments, and those of his players, keep these thoughts in mind. When they’re talking about poor officiating, I think they’re talking about inconsistency when it comes to crucial calls. And given the bang-bang juxtaposition between the non-call on Kelly and the call at the other end about a minute later, it’s the kind of thing that ought to drive the league office nuts.
(What will you say to your team after this outcome?)
I don’t know yet. The best soccer we’ve played here.
Honestly, the score should be at least opposite. I don’t know if you disagree. We scored. Shoddy penalty call. We get two of them and the guy doesn’t call it. But that was happening the whole game, so we talked about it. Unfortunately, we knew if we bumped them that they’d get the call. It happens every fricking year. And it’s embarrassing, actually, that referees can’t handle their business a little bit.
But we can’t worry about it. We played some good football. We created great chances. We gotta score them. We were a little late shooting, but we scored a good goal, kept pressure on them. I think they only had that shot, and then right after the goal they got that other one. I thought we played very well. It’s unfortunate. Nicki got in. Dane got in. On the second one, Dane got fouled, but he tried to stay up instead of just going down. If he would have gone down he probably gets the call.
All you can say is we created plenty of chances. We got back in the game. And that’s Orlando. They get that. The thing is, for our guys, we out-played them, we created chances. If you look at the game, in both games, we have to keep our focus and make sure we regroup for Saturday, because this is where it’s difficult. Because we’ve got to use other guys, because a lot of energy was expended trying to come back tonight. Which I do anytime in two games anyway, but it’s hard getting that focus when you have a tough loss. And this is a tough one, because the guys know. I’m going to have to go in there and… there was no way we should have lost the game. A draw would have been probably a decent result for them, and a win for us would have definitely been deserved.
Ellison has been on a good run of form for weeks now. The only blemish on his night was a first-half yellow card that I assumed was going to go for simulation on the Orlando player. While shielding his man off a ball headed for the touch line, Ellison positioned himself to keep the guy from getting around him — and suddenly the dude flopped to the ground as if hit by a lightning bolt. Still can’t believe that got called.
(Was Saturday’s 4-4-2 formation, with Sporting Kansas City forward and 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong partnered up top with former MLS forward Long Tan a big change from the defensive-minded 4-5-1 Orlando played in Charleston?)
Yeah, especially at the end of the game. When we tied it up, they pushed about three up there, so it got real tiring real fast. It wasn’t that much different from the other game, it was just this pitch is a lot bigger and a lot smoother than ours, so the ball ran a lot faster, so it was a lot more running, a lot more tracking.
In the final minutes of stoppage, Kelly lost a ball under pressure at the touchline just a few feet in front of me. What struck me most about the play was Kelly’s labored breathing as he tried to hold off the Lions defender. Earlier this year I’d have named Nicki Paterson as the hardest working-guy in a Battery uniform. Right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone expending more watts of power than Charleston’s Jamaican forward.
(How are you feeling? Did you expend a lot of energy?)
I’m feeling good, other (than) not getting a goal. I’m upset at not scoring, because I got a lot of chances and I should have put away even one.
(Why struggle to stay on your feet when you’re being fouled in the penalty area?)
I do go down, but the referee’s not blowing. So I don’t know what to do again. He’s just not giving me a call. I don’t know why.
JARAD VAN SCHAIK
The low-key, unsung hero on this roster is van Schaik, who turned in another unspectacular, essential performance Thursday. Remember — this is a man who started the season as an outside midfielder, but has taken over the defensive midfield role that is so key to allowing Paterson and Michael Azira to chase opportunities farther up the field.
(Any differences you noticed between this match and the one last week?)
Not a ton. I thought they were a little better finding their one-twos that they like to do and getting through, but it’s kind of the same story as last (Friday). We’re struggling to finish right now, in a bit of a funk, and it hurts us, and they managed to sneak one and make it a tough game on us.
It’s like we can’t score more than one a game. This whole streak, we keep tying games. We’re not finishing, you know? So hopefully we’ll get out of this funk toward the end of the season and go on a bit of a run.
How much longer can I write about Griffith’s recent run of form without using the words “goal” or “assist?” Griffith is wicked fast, but his recognition and passing on crosses and through-balls to runners is remarkable.
(Was there much difference between this week and last?)
Well, it was a lot different because they had 12 men on the field.
The referee made (12), and that’s not nice, because the game was going good until the referee started to blow on one side. If you’re blowing, you’re blowing on two sides. That’s my take on it.
In addition to another solid defensive performance, Falvey also forced a save by Orlando keeper Jon Kempin in the late going when he snapped a header on frame.
(Do you want to talk about the referees?)
No, I don’t. It was a big turning point in the game, but I’ll be honest: For me, (we were the) better side. Outplayed them. Our boys have taken a lot from that. We’ve nothing to fear. I think they’ll be more worried about us. Because if they have to come to our place in a playoff or something. They know we’re every bit as good as them.
It goes back to, again, we had our chances tonight. We need to be a little more clinical. But as I said, I don’t want to talk about the referee, but obviously it had a big bearing on the game. But outside of that, we played well, we passed well, we moved it. I think we can hold our heads high.
Obviously this is the crunch time of the season, so we need to get back to finding a way to get a result and getting a win and getting ourselves over the line to collect three points. But I think there’s enough to go on. A lot of teams come down here and get outplayed and try score on the counter and set pieces and that, and we stood toe-to-toe. Passed it, moved it, got in their face. And I thought we were the better side. That’s two weeks in a row now. It’s not a coincidence. I wouldn’t be too worried one way (or the other). We’ll take more out of the two games than they will.
I didn’t record Nicki Paterson’s comments Thursday night because I’d cut off my recorder by the time we talked. But the first thing he said was, basically, “Go ahead and ask me.” And then he answered the question he thought I was going to ask — about the shots he missed — by saying that, yes, he should have scored them.
Paterson is the Battery’s scoring leader with five. Along with Falvey he’s a vocal and acknowledged leader on this club. Gutsy player, too.
But at the moment he’s not quite the box-to-box whirling dervish he was in February. And while he made great plays to put him in position to score equalizers in the 77th minute and in the dying seconds of stoppage, his finishing mojo seemed to desert him. Which has got to be frustrating for a natural striker like Paterson.
In the 77th minute, Dane Kelly played ahead to Paterson, and the two got behind the Orlando line. The Scot, who spoke about the need to stay poised in the late going last week, set up his man calmly from the left and got off a quality shot. But like his wall-beating free kick in the first half, that final bit of bend didn’t show up when he needed it, and the shot drifted wide.
In stoppage, John Wilson got off a volley from distance that deflected just beyond the post for a goal kick. It turns out the player to put his head on that hopeful shot/pass was Paterson – and the physics of that deflection going wide instead of beating Kempin for the equalizer have got to be a tiny fraction of an angle.
But that’s where Charleston soccer is at the moment. Quality play. Outstanding defense. But it’s as if there’s a force field around the goal.
Though he had one shaky moment when he left the goal empty to challenge a ball in the right corner, Cooper otherwise turned in an above-average night, recording four saves on 11 shots. The goal he allowed in the first half came off a rare central defensive breakdown in the run of play that left him isolated, and he generally looked tough to beat.
But the other moment that stood out for the Battery was Cooper’s play on Watson’s penalty kick.
The big Cuban read Watson’s shot perfectly, and while Cooper isn’t a particularly big keeper, he’s athletic enough to get from the center of the goal to the far corner in a split second. So when I saw him stretch out there and get his body in front of that penalty kick, I had this momentary sense that the win I’d expected from the Battery was going to happen. If you missed the live stream, then you have to understand: Watson’s penalty chance came against the run of play, at a moment when Charleston was on the front foot and Orlando was struggling to hold on. A stop on that PK would have been magical — and well-deserved.
The only way I knew that the kick had scored was the sight of Watson celebrating with Orlando’s supporters groups.
According to Paterson, the shot somehow managed to get under Cooper’s body as he tried to control it. But even watching it on television later that night I couldn’t quite make out how it got through.
So here’s the thing about Orlando as a city. It’s huge. One hundred and ten square miles of interstates and traffic. The population of the city proper is just 238,000, but the “urban” population is 1.4 million, and the metro number is 2.1 million. It’s got a downtown with skyscrapers and a prominent arena, but the city that comes to mind while driving through it isn’t Miami or Jacksonville, but a miniature Los Angeles — eight-lane interstates, sprawling neighborhoods, a manicured Magical Kingdom decorated with billboards for law firms that promise to help homeowners get out of foreclosure.
A lot of people consider Orlando and its vacation attractions a beautiful destination, and I can see why they would. But that kind of sprawling urban setting isn’t my cup of tea, and neither is the football club’s home: The Florida Citrus Bowl. It’s a big-time venue that dates back to 1936 in a transitional neighborhood, and right now the Lions are its only regular tenant. It’s nicer on the inside than that description makes it sound.
But the thing is, like RFK Stadium and Foxboro Stadium, it’s just too big for soccer at the moment. As good as Thursday’s game was, as great as the fans were, you just can’t put 9,000 people into a space designed for 65,000 and not be aware of all those empty seats.
Several things counterbalance those drawbacks. The team is talented and fun to watch. And the Orlando fans are vocal, passionate, engaged — the kinds of supporters who lay the ground work for an MLS future that would almost certainly be successful.
The members of the Ruckus we met were excellent hosts. We had good conversations with some folks from the Iron City Firm, too. And while we’ve heard that the fan groups used to tailgate separately, that appears to be coming together into one large tailgate with interaction between the multiple supporters’ group identities that make up Orlando soccer. It’s a very cool scene — and their march to the stadium is a great tradition that fans of other USL PRO clubs should emulate.
Will Orlando City make the jump to MLS in 2015-16? Who knows? But with their well-capitalized ownership group and ambitious vision for the future, the Lions are well positioned to be the dominant force in second and third tier soccer in North America for the foreseeable future. It’s the reverse image of Charleston and the Battery, which should make these showdowns interesting for years to come.
TOP IMAGE: Orlando supporters party at their multi-group tailgate Thursday night under roiling tropical clouds at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Dan Conover photos.