The NP Interview, Part 4: 2013

The NP Interview, Part 4: 2013

(Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series is here. You’ll find Part 2 here, and Part 3 three here.)

Nicki Paterson with former Red Bulls teammate Joel Lindpere after their matchup on the second night of the Carolina Challenge Cup.

Nicki Paterson with former Red Bulls teammate Joel Lindpere after their matchup on the second night of the Carolina Challenge Cup.

For Nicki Paterson and the other returning Battery players who showed up in Charleston for training camp in February, their 2013 season began with an almost understated, reasoned form of optimism.

The team was coming off a third-place regular season finish and a home win in the 2012 USL PRO Championship. It boasted a veteran back-line led by team captain Colin Falvey. Jamaican forward Dane Kelly was expected to return on loan, and the midfield featured at least three MLS prospects. There had been losses — most notably goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra — but the newcomers included former Antigua star Quinton Griffith, a West Coast midfielder named Jarad van Schaik, and three mysterious defectors from the Cuban national team that the club treated like a state secret.

So while questions remained, the team assembled for the Carolina Challenge Cup had the look of a unit that stood poised to not only match its 2012 output, but improve on it. The Battery went 1-2-0 in the CCC and — except for the first 20 minutes against Vancouver and the last 90 seconds of stoppage time against Chicago — looked every bit as good as its Big League competition. A lengthy preseason of friendlies and exhibitions against colleges and minor-league opponents revealed a well-balanced squad with stunning quick-strike ability. In a minor-league landscape dominated by dreary boot-and-scoot soccer, the Battery attack looked more like Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus.

Then a bizarre season-opening loss at Richmond grounded that high-flying style — at least for road games — and a series of early season injuries kept the group from recapturing its preseason promise. In retrospect, the 2013 Battery season was really quite good — but for Paterson and the players, it often seemed a rolling lesson in managing ambitious expectations. When the team won, they fretted about their scoring. When the team drew, they gritted their teeth and spoke about missed opportunities. And when the team lost, it was often best that they just didn’t speak at all.

Paterson turned in his third top-quality season for the Battery, playing 24 games and scoring seven league goals with another three assists, while extending his U.S. Open Cup scoring streak to a record five years. Yet despite his successes on the field, Paterson often seemed vaguely frustrated after matches. Having set the bar for himself at the MLS level, every performance that fell short of his expectation increased the pressure he felt. With every uninspired mid-season draw, it was as if his big-league dream receded.

His agent, Justin Stone, helped keep his spirits up (“He did a great job with New York, even though in the end it didn’t work out, which was outside of our control”) and his close friends on the team were a support. But no person was more important to him than his fiance, Cheryl McSeveny, who arrived from Scotland in mid-season and moved in with Paterson and his roommates, van Schaik and Kevin Klasila.

The Paterson I sat down with on Sept. 2 was a different man than jaunty Scot I met for the first time back in February. The humor and charisma were still obvious, but there was an added introspective quality and candor I’d not experienced before. And when we started talking about the season just ended, you can see from the transcript that he often literally interviewed himself.

The interview

(How do you view your performance this season?)

Paterson starts a drill in February.

Paterson starts a drill in February.

This year it was a number of factors. Was it deflating coming back to Charleston after New York? I came back and I had a great Carolina Cup, thought I done quite well. For me, I thought it was my last chance to get an MLS contract that season. Like I said, when I was in New York, that was the best football I’ve played in my career. So I came in fitter than everyone else, I came in sharp, I came in strong, 100 percent healthy, already had a month under my belt while some of these guys it had been a week. I was probably in better shape than some of the MLS guys.

(Editor’s note: Paterson scored and looked like the best player on the field at times against Vancouver, leading the Battery back from a 3-0 deficit to a respectable 2-3 loss, then assisted to Jose Cuevas in what looked to be a 1-1 draw to the Chicago Fire… until the visitors found a header in stoppage. He started against Houston in the Battery’s dramatic 2-1 win, but his spectacular run of form ended when he tore his groin at some point during the match.)

I was having fun, man. I was enjoying it. I felt if I can beat up on some of these guys, then why not? I’ve got three chances to here to prove that I’m better than the guys on those teams.

(So what happened?) 

Nothing happened. I was still in Charleston.

Paterson passes to Quinton Griffith during the Battery's win over the Carolina Railhawks on March 30. The Battery went 11 straight preseason games without a loss, yielding only a scoreless draw to the College of Charleston.

Paterson passes to Quinton Griffith during the Battery’s win over the Carolina Railhawks on March 30. The Battery went 11 straight preseason games without a loss, yielding only a scoreless draw to the College of Charleston.

Not that it’s a bad place to be, but I kinda felt that my window was gone a little bit. I don’t know. At the start of the season I maybe had a little chip on my shoulder a little bit. Kinda wanted to prove people wrong a little bit.

Did I think my MLS chance was over? To a certain extent. But I mean it’s not really the point where I would have been sulking about it. Or maybe I wasn’t clear in my mind. Or maybe I was a bit more chip-on-my-shoulder as opposed to point-to-prove. I don’t’ really know. I mean, I felt like I started the season on a complete romp as well. I played quite well against Richmond. Hit the post. Antigua, I scored two that were called offside. Missed that easy chance…

I could have had four or five goals in two games, which might have made the season completely different.

I look at that now that the season is over, and I’ve had a few discussions with coach through the year where he thought I was maybe trying too hard, or come into the game thinking I need to score today. Could have had to press for myself that I need to be the leader of this team, and I need to drive us forward. I mean, at one point in this season, me and coach had the discussion where he just said “Get back to being you, and doing your own thing. Focus on your position and stuff.”

The way the season started, (Jose Cuevas) was injured (a hamstring pull in the first half of the season-opener at Richmond), so it was Jarad, me and (Mike Azira). It was a real good balance in there. Mike was on a good start for the season. Jarad was a great pickup for us, and we had a real good balance. I was the guy that could go and get in the box.

We started great, 5-1, and the goals started to come for me after a few games, and everything was good. Jose came back, and he’s a guy you need to have on the field. Sort of around the same time we lost a few game in a row, and then the Open Cup…

(It seemed like part of the problem was just lack of continuity as a group. Jose comes back, and immediately Quinton goes out. From the beginning of the season, you could see what the possibility of the whole was. If you could fit everybody in and define their role. Instead, you could look at the season based on who was healthy, who was coming in, who was getting back into form…)

Paterson tries to thread a ball through the Tampa midfield during the Battery's draw against the expansion club. Between May 25 and July 13, the Battery went 1-3-5 in league play.

Paterson tries to thread a ball through the Tampa midfield during the Battery’s draw against the expansion club. Between May 25 and July 13, the Battery went 1-3-5 in league play.

So when Jose came back in, I wouldn’t say it changed my whole role, but it definitely … we were on a high at one point, and then (unintelligible). We had a little rocky spell as a team. We conceded a few. We had a lot of road games, a lot of minutes.

At that point, Falvey, Jarad, were playing every minute of every game. You can’t keep the same level of performance and keep going. And we were sorta tinkering with the lineup, guys were getting injured. So I think it took us a while to figure what was our best 11, what was our most healthy 11.

And for me at that point in time, it was the point where I was kinda the guy off of Dane, which in the way we were kinda playing, I wasn’t really involved as much. I was just waiting on the ball coming up and then kinda fighting for the scraps. Having played midfield for so long, I was almost like a second forward, not really knowing the best runs to make. And I wasn’t having as much of an impact as I was used to in the Carolina Cup and even before.

And all of the sudden I was playing center-right midfield toward the end of the season.

A moment of frustration in Orlando during the semi-final.

A moment of frustration in Orlando during the semi-final.

So for me, whether it was the change of position or just me, personally, I never had the same level of consistency. The year before, me and Jose were the attacking mids, and that was it. This year, every game was maybe the first 20 minutes figuring out what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe that (unintelligible). But I look back now and I think, Auggie said to me (unintelligible) “How many goals have you got right now?” And like five or six.

He said, “Are you happy with that?” And was like, “No!” And he was like, “Why?”

I was looking at it like I’d had enough chances to have 10 goals, whereas he thought I was maybe wanting to have 10 goals. I mean, I wasn’t going into the season thinking I need to get 10 goals, but the chances that I’ve had – Antigua, and hitting the post, and the keeper making Man of the Match on saves, I thought I should have 10 goals. So maybe that was getting me frustrated a little bit.

He was like, “You have nothing to be frustrated about. You’re a high-scoring midfielder every year. You score more goals than any other midfielder in the league. Why do you get frustrated?”

And I really had to look at it and go, “Yeah, you’re right.”

Taking a shot against the LA Blues.

Taking a shot against the LA Blues.

Sort of the same time, he moved me to right midfield, and I think at that point it was just trying to get the best guys on the field and find a system that worked. Push Jose up into that No. 10 spot where he has his best possessions. And I can play right, I can give us something. Mike, Sanny (Amadou Sanyang), Jarad can hold the middle down, Q was probably better on the left than he was on the right, because for whatever reason, he was a little bit more dangerous down the stretch.

Maybe that meant I had fewer chances, but the team was better. And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.

(I remember a time early in the season when I was asking Anhaeuser about the scoring being down, and he basically stopped the interview to go through every freakish thing that had denied you a goal.)

He remembers everything. It’s amazing.

(When he was talking to you about this, do you think he was mostly trying to find the right place for you, or to keep you from pressing for goals with all the other things you were asked to do?)

A bit of both. He could maybe tell I was getting a little bit frustrated, without me even knowing it. He knows how much I want to win, and I don’t care who scores the goals. I’m delighted Dane scored 10, 11 goals this year, because it made us successful as a team. I was a defensive mid for years. I never scored for years. So I appreciate it’s the forward’s role to score and if the team is doing well, you’ll get looked at individually.

But for me I was definitely getting frustrated because I felt I could have those goals. And then we would be doing better as a team had I got those goals.

I look back on the season, I had eight goals, three or four assists, and I think to myself, the league leader had 14 or 15 or whatever. And I could have easily been up there. And again, had I been up there, maybe the team is a little bit higher up the league. We’re maybe in second instead of third, and maybe I’m sitting in the same position this off-season as I was last off-season.

(I remember at one point in the season we sat and talked on the curb and it was the first time I’d heard you sound depressed.)

Nicki-Paterson-July-11-web

Taking the field at Orlando in July.

Yeah. Probably round about two-thirds through the season.

I mean like, the first third of the season, the team was sitting top of the league, doing well. Doing well in the Open Cup. Another success against MLS teams. Individually and as a team we done real well. And then we hit that little rocky patch, and I think everybody wanted… We know how fine the lines and margins are. Yeah, definitely, that’s the point when coach and I sat down and had the exact same talk we just spoke about.

I talked to my dad and we analyze ever single game. And I can score two goals and he tells me about the things I can improve on. So I’m always looking to improve. No matter what. Even he could see that I’m not I’m maybe not touching the ball as much. “You’re not completing as many passes as you once were. You’re snatching at chances as opposed to being cool and calm and collected like you normally are.”

(You got hurt in the third Carolina Challenge Cup game, sat out most of March, came back had a good start to the season. But before you tore your groin I thought you were spectacular, a true box-to-box, dominant guy against those MLS teams. When you came back, though, I typically saw a more conservative player, not taking all those chances quite so recklessly. Is that correct?)

Maybe.

(But I know that people see what they expect to see, and I know I expected to see you being cautious after that injury.)

What you’re saying is probably true.

Paterson in June.

Paterson in June.

I mean for me, I went from being in the best physical shape of my life to having to sit on the sidelines for three weeks and then just jumping straight back in again. So maybe the margin from where I was to where the guys were had sorta closed. Maybe I wasn’t having the same impact, and maybe I was even a little step shorter.

I remember coming back my first three games and not feeling quite as sharp. When I was in New York it was something sharp to start every session. And when I came back, we had obviously entered the season already, so it was like, back into your routine of the season. You’re not doing that short, sharp stuff anymore. I probably wasn’t at the same place then that I was at the start (of camp).

(I thought you had a good game at Harrisburg, and that was early in the season. And at Richmond, it looked like you were on the verge of breaking that game open in the first five minutes. That was probably the weirdest game of the season.)

Me and Falvey are the only two guys who don’t sleep on the bus rides home from wherever. Ten hours, six hours, five hours, whatever. And we could not believe we lost that game 4-1, because we should have been up by a few. We were down 2-1, I hit the post. And then all the sudden it was 4-1. Boom-boom.

(What changed for the team after Richmond? It seemed like there was a change in what you were going to be on the road. And it was a successful change.)

Auggie decided that first game we were going for it. We were fast, we were flying, we had guys like Q and Dane on the team. Why would you not go and attack? I was going box-to-box, Jose was already up there. We had a great defense. A returning defense. That’s cool. Let’s take it to them. We had a few new guys, a few younger guys. Let’s take it to them.

And usually when we go on the road it’s “Let’s keep it tight to start, let’s go win ugly, 0ne-nil. And if you look back, we’ve won a lot of games ugly, one-nil.

(But you went into that one at Richmond like you were going to take the league by storm. Was this team a better team than last year’s team?)

The best way to look at it for me, we lost Ryan Richter, Navion Boyd, Tony Donatelli and we brought in guys like Jarad and Q. I think it’s very similar.

(I can make a really strong argument that this was a better team than 2012. More points. More goals. More wins. Better record.)

Individually, guys probably had more talent this year. But last year, there was something about the team. We had a few more veteran heads. Guys like (Sallieu Bundu) and Tony Donatelli who had been there and done it. Who could go on the road and get in and win dirty. You know when, and you know when not to.

I mean, Q’s got exceptional pace, but he’s still a young guy, you know?

(Q had a freaky season. Last time I looked he had 37 shots and one goal. And he’s a better player than that.)

I mean I think it will come. The age. At the moment, he gets (the ball), he just wants to blast it in the top corner. If he learned to blast it right at the goalie, he’d probably score every time, because he’s got one of the hardest shots ever. I think composure will come for him.

I think putting him out on the left was great, because on the right he maybe tried to smash in that Beckham cross, and maybe not hit them as many. On the left, he’s not got the same quality, so he just passed it across and we scored goals. Auggie almost simplified his game, and it brought out the results you want. That’s a credit to the coach for seeing that.

Dane has started to show a bit of that maturity as the years have went on. He’s still learning. He’s still young. But I think that this year will have helped him a lot.

(Did you go into Orlando with the gut feeling that this was going to be a good result?)

8-30-Kelly-and-Wilson-react-to-missed-equalizer-web

Dane Kelly and John Wilson react as Kelly’s late chance at an equalizer in the semi-final at Orlando sails over the crossbar.

We were definitely winning that game. I thought if we got through the first 10 minutes, we would beat them.

(And the first two touches y’all had were complete doinks.)

Yep. I don’t know what happened down there. It’s still a bit of a blur, the first five minutes. But I think we went in over-enthused and over-excited maybe, as opposed to not ready. We were not not-ready for that game. We were ready for that game.

It was comments maybe that you had made, and Orlando had made, that made us want to go there and beat them. We know they’ve got the bigger budget, but this whole “We want our trophy back” pissed us off. Like, it’s not their trophy. It’s a two-year-old league. We won it once, they won it once. Yeah, they’ve got a bigger budget, better overall season record. But to us, this year, opposed to any other year, we were the better team twice against them.

(Editor’s note, that’s a tough argument to make, given that the Battery drew the Lions at Blackbaud Stadium on July 5 and lost at Orlando on July 11 in their next appearance, but it’s one I’ve made and still believe. True, it took a stoppage-time goal by Heviel Cordoves to earn a share of the points at home in a 1-1 finish, but the Battery out-shot the Lions by a 2-to-1 ratio, Orlando’s goal came off a truly weird set-piece, and goalkeeper Jon Kemp earned a Team of the Week honorable mention for his performance. Less than a week later, the Battery did everything but outscore the Lions in the Citrus Bowl, and only a Jamie Watson penalty kick in the late going sent them away without a point. That said, soccer doesn’t award points for quality, and Orlando’s ability to find a way to win ugly against Charleston in July despite losing several key players went a long way  toward defining their gutsy championship season.)

I said it for two weeks. The same thing is gonna happened. Me and coach both said that Charlotte was gonna win. I just thought it was going to line up. I said something about the stars were aligning off the bench, and (people) couldn’t really believe how optimistic I was about this game.

(Why so optimistic?)

With them not having (high-scoring forward Dom Dwyer) anymore, they’ve not been as good. Simple. I think the midfield is aging. I thought we’d boss the midfield, get better legs around the field, and I thought defensively we’d be strong enough. And I thought with Watson injured for them, he’s the thorn in our side against them. And I thought everything was just lined up for us to go beat them.

(Editor’s note: Going into the semi-final in Orlando, Anhaeuser said the key for the Battery was to avoid Pittsburgh’s mistake of giving up early goals in the Lions’ den — which is exactly what happened. Orlando caught left back John Wilson in an awkward upfield position twice during the opening minutes and punished the stretched Battery defense both times with with clinical finishes by forwards. A brilliant reaction-recognition goal by Mike Azira gave the Battery life just before halftime, and the visitors dominated the run of play in the final 45, pulling to within a goal on a Cuevas cross to Sanyang before bombarding their hosts with furious attacks in the closing minutes.)

Paterson passes to Kelly in the second half.

Paterson passes to Kelly in the second half.

(We lost) 3-2 in the end. But you can say we should have been 3-3 if Dane takes the chance right after the second goal… (If) Falvey doesn’t get the red and their guy gets the red and we go up a man, that maybe changes things as well. It was a game like the whole season. It was moments in that match that could have changed them.

(It seems to me that so much of being a professional athlete must be just coming to terms mentally with the slim “what-if” margins of sport.)

I mean, for me, I’ve been through everything in soccer you could possibly go through. I’ve won a championship. I’ve been in the lows where the teams have almost been out of business. I’ve been on teams that have gone out of business. Nothing fazes me anymore. I have good years and bad years. This year I’ve learned something else. I’ve learned not to get frustrated, if anything else, because I was that far away from maybe even having a better season than last season.

I mean, the team overall had a better record this year than last year. But we still look at it as not an amazing season.

(I think that needs to change. There were a lot of expectations from people inside and outside. I think that’s what you were chasing all year. It wasn’t the performance necessarily.) 

On the ground after losing a midfield battle in the first half against Orlando on Aug. 30.

On the ground after losing a midfield battle in the first half against Orlando on Aug. 30.

I mean, let’s be honest. Last year we won the championship, we weren’t the best team. Alright? I think we deserved to be third last year, definitely agree with that, because it could have been a better season. But this year we should have been no worse than third. We looked at it like, right, we’re the No. 1 team, we’re the champions, lets go work like champions.

The first game was a reality check. The next six games we were the best team in the league. And over the course of the season, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to have good moments and bad moments. I think the only way you can tell who the best team was is you look at the table at the end of the year, because it doesn’t lie. At the end of the season, we finished third. So in my opinion, we were the third-best team in the league.

We played Harrisburg twice, we were by far the better team. We played Richmond twice, we smashed them, they smashed us. We played Orlando twice, we were the better team twice. So their problem was they lost a couple of games to Charlotte.

So I mean the margins are so small individually, collectively as a team, for sure. I think, looking at the future, a lot of guys will learn something from this season, whether they’re still here or whether they’re not.

(Your future is about to change because you’re about to get married.)

Finally there’s a smile on my face! (laughs)

NEXT UP: Paterson talks about family, career, and his future in soccer.

TOP IMAGE: Paterson launches a brilliant bending free kick to beat the Houston wall in the Battery’s 4-1 win over the Dynamo Reserves on June 8. Dan Conover photos.

Paterson celebrates his free-kick goal against Houston.

Paterson celebrates his free-kick goal against Houston.