“Winning ugly” is one of those sporting cliches that exists for a reason. Sometimes it’s your team that decides to thug-it-up and hope for the best. Sometimes it’s your team’s opponent. But the point in any ugly game is that once one side decides to turn the contest into the sporting equivalent of trench warfare, the winner is going to be the side that executes when the rare opportunity presents itself.
In the Battery’s 2-0 win over Pittsburgh Saturday night, opportunity presented itself to central midfielder Michael Azira.
The do-it-all-25-year-old from Uganda scored off a deflected cross in the first half, then finished an assist by another emerging Battery contributor, utility midfielder Zach Prince, in the second. But while Azira was clearly the Man of the Match, it wasn’t a night when Azira asserted himself or pressed for chances. In fact, he shows up in my notes only four other times — making a steal, winning a free kick off a midfield foul, passing to Prince for a nice shot that rose just above the crossbar, and chipping accurately to center forward Heviel Cordoves.
So basically, Azira did what he usually does — excelled at all the little things coaches and teammates love, stayed in the flow of the game, and outsmarted his opponents.
In retrospect, it was as if the Riverhounds came to Charleston with scouting reports on weapons like Dane Kelly, Nicki Paterson, John Wilson and Quinton Griffith. While the visitors couldn’t keep those men bottled up all night, they generally did an excellent job of frustrating the hell out of them. But it only took the quiet Azira two opportunities to beat them.
Look at his stat sheet: Two shots, two goals.
In fact, let’s do more than just look at his stat sheet…
The Michael Azira Fan Club
In his first season with the Battery, Azira looked like a talented player who lacked confidence. And off the field he looked occasionally… lonely. Lonely enough that some concerned fans made a point of seeking out the quiet young man from East Africa to make sure he knew that he was welcomed here.
His teammates noticed, too.
“To be honest, Michael’s a quiet lad anyway,” said Battery Captain Colin Falvey during a preseason conversation last month. “He’s obviously a little more comfortable now, but he’s just quiet, goes about his job, keeps to himself. And I like that, because I’m not worried about him. I know he’s going to be professional and do his thing. We joke and I try to get the lads onto him, just to get him out of his shell a little bit more. Which he has done. He can be quite funny when he says things and you’re not expecting it. He’ll chime in sometimes.”
You could see it at practices this spring, even if his quiet voice didn’t carry to the sidelines: Azira chatting and smiling with teammates, his body language relaxed and easy.
Who knows what it was? Maybe it was scoring the only goal in the Battery’s dramatic 1-0 championship win over Wilmington in September. Maybe it was just adjusting to life in the United States. But whatever it was that changed in Azira this offseason not only integrated him fully into the team, it also improved his game. When I asked Falvey in March which of the new players was likely to make the biggest contribution he called out speedy edge player Quinton Griffith (this was before Cuban immigrant Odisnel Cooper claimed the starting goalkeeper job). That was no surprise. But when he called out Azira as the most improved returning player, that really caught my attention.
“Last year was his first year pro,” Falvey said. “He wasn’t always a starter. He got some minutes under his belt last year, got good experience, ended up playing in the championship game and getting the winning goal. I think this is going to be a big year for Michael. He looks like he’s got a spring in his step since he’s come back. He’s playing with a smile, he’s playing with confidence. He’s really comfortable on the ball. I think he’s going to have a standout year. I think he feels like he’s a starter now, and he’s got that presence about him now… I’m looking forward to having him in front of me.”
The thing about Falvey’s praise was that — at the time — Azira was still one of those players who looked capable of playing several positions, but hadn’t nailed down any one of them. But in multiple short interviews and conversations with Battery personnel, Azira’s name kept popping up.
Which brings us to last night. On the field after the match, I managed to collar both Prince and Azira simultaneously and asked them to describe their second-half scoring combination. Both deferred credit to the other, but Prince went a step further. Once Azira finished speaking, Prince made sure I understood his point. “You’re probably talking to one of the most consistent players on the team,” he said, emphasizing the message with his expression. “Night in, night out.”
OK, I get it. How can you not like Mike Azira?
But the question is, if Azira is an emerging star in USL PRO, where does he fit into the Charleston Battery’s plans right now? So far we’ve seen him play in positions usually occupied by defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang and central midfielder/striker Jose Cuevas, both of whom are expected to return to the lineup soon. He also spent some time at fullback during the preseason. But what’s his best position? And how does Coach Mike Anhaeuser manage a team that features so many talented players?
I made a mistake (since corrected) last night and referred to Azira as a Ghanaian. Wrong. That would actually be the newest member of the Battery, Emmanuel Adjetey, who arrived on loan this month from Vancouver. He’s a natural left footer that Anhaeuser is working in at fullback, but he made his USL PRO debut in the 75th minute last night by subbing on for the more offensive-minded Prince, and spent the rest of the night playing in front of John Wilson.
He doesn’t really figure in my notes, but I have a mental picture of him looking nifty out wide and shifting fluidly up front. But it’s early yet. All we really know about Adjetey so far is that he’s fast, 5-7, has a nice, bending free kick (according to his YouTube highlight reel) and was just the most recent in a series of players from Ghana to impress the staff in Vancouver.
Unlike our first Rent-A-Canadian, Ben Fisk, Adjetey isn’t a youth player. He’s 24. And he showed up nicely enough on trial this winter to rate a contract. Just not a Whitecaps contract. Like Fisk, he’s signed to their PDL roster.
The coming Nicki Paterson explosion
At the start of the season, the guy I kept an eye on was Nicki Paterson, a tough-guy Scot who was coming back from a February groin injury. I’m done worrying about him, but if you’ve watched him carefully you know that the most amazing statistic of 2013 so far is that Paterson has yet to score. Though he logged an assist on John Wilson’s goal in the Richmond opener, his own chances came up empty. Overzealous officials waved off two Paterson goals against Antigua on questionable offsides calls.
And then there was last night, when only former College of Charleston goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap‘s best play of the match denied a dangerously pacey Paterson free kick. In the 19th minute, forward Dane Kelly held up the ball just outside the penalty area, winning a foul that set the Battery up for a free kick from about 22 yards and just beyond the right post. Paterson and left-footed midfielder Jarad van Schaik lined up over the ball to force Gilstrap into a neutral position, and Paterson’s screamer was denied only by a dramatic punch-save.
Paterson remains a player capable of running box-to-box while still finding opportunities to shoulder the scoring load. He’s been held off the stat sheet so far, but I’m getting a feeling that once the goals start to come for him, they might not stop for a while.
The hardest-working man in show business
Another Battery player on the upswing is Dane Kelly, a Jamaican forward who joined the Battery in 2011 as Navion Boyd‘s pacey partner. Though he remains one of the fastest players on a team with plenty of them (speedster John Wilson figures it’s between Kelly and Quinton Griffith for this year’s sprint king), the days of Kelly as a one-tool player are long, long gone.
The tough Riverhounds back line offered no free runs for Kelly Saturday night, but that hardly mattered. The club still lists him as 5-11 and 150 pounds, but Kelly looks much stronger than that now. He demonstrated this repeatedly against Pittsburgh.
Kelly started the opener at Richmond. Last week, Anhaeuser started center forward Heviel Cordoves. Cordoves opened the scoring against Antigua before giving way to Kelly late in the second half. Then Kelly scored, too.
On paper, Cordoves is supposed to be the Classic No. 9. But what struck me Saturday was how many times Kelly found an opening in front of the Pittsburgh goal, settled an entry pass, and then held off one and two defenders, opening lanes for Battery midfielders. It won’t show up on the scoreboard, but Kelly’s ability to keep opposing centerbacks at bay in some of the most dangerous real estate on the field is a remarkable development.
Notes and quotes
PERFECT SO FAR: Jarad van Schaik turned in another lunch-bucket performance Saturday night, his second turn at central defensive midfield. The former Portland Timbers U-23 came to Charleston after spending 2012 with the Puerto Rico Islanders in the NASL, demonstrating a quality left foot and earning himself a starting role as the left midfielder. But when Jose Cuevas went down in Richmond, van Schaik moved inside to DM as Azira moved up.
So that’s two starts at defensive midfield for van Schaik, and two clean sheets.
“It’s a little different. I played there a lot in Puerto Rico,” he said. “You just kinda hold your shape and focus on keeping the game flow good for the team, and winning as many tackles as possible.”
Does Anhaeuser ask him to be more of a stopper, or more of a connector?
“Connector when I can, I think is the right answer. This game, they pressed pretty high, and they got a couple of forwards, and it wasn’t as open as maybe some other games. But when I can he wants me to fill that role.”
LOS TRES CUBANOS: Rather predictably, the three biggest national celebrities on the 2013 Battery are Odisnel Cooper, Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang. The defectors have attracted all the mainstream media attention one would expect, and while they often haven’t been the story on the field for Charleston so far this season, they’re at least getting valuable minutes.
Cooper actually faced fewer shots this week than he did against Antigua, recording 1 save on 11 shots. Cordoves subbed on for Kelly in the 73rd minute, but had a generally quiet performance. And the Maikel Chang Experiment continued with a five-minute cameo in relief of Quinton Griffith out wide.
Speaking of Griffith, the Antiguan international had a quiet night by his standards, finishing the night with one shot, no fouls and none of his trademark back-scorching runs. Griffith injured his hamstring on Tuesday and didn’t return to practice until late in the week.
TOP IMAGE: Michael Azira scores off a header in the first half. Kim Morgan Gregory photo.