USOC 2014 preview: Panama City Beach Pirates

USOC 2014 preview: Panama City Beach Pirates

Charleston Battery vs. Panama City Beach Pirates
U.S. Open Cup Second Round
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 14
Blackbaud Stadium, Daniel Island
Tickets: $5 – $10 
Video stream: www.youtube.com/thechsbattery

GEEKY PRELUDE: OK, let me just get this out of my system so I can concentrate:

Charleston’s defensive battery repels pirates!

Get it? Get it?

(See why it’s so embarrassing to be me?)

ACTUAL PREVIEW…

LHUSOpenCupLogo copyCharleston hosts what it hopes will be its first USOC match of 2014 on Wednesday against one of the newest teams in this year’s bracket. The mid-week match is shoe-horned awkwardly between the May 10 and 17  home-and-away series with Wilmington (who, for those of you keeping score at home, are on the road at Chattanooga FC of the National Premier Soccer League — advantage, Charleston…).

First off, think of them as the Panama City Beach Pirates, not the Panama City Beach Pirates. Panama City Beach is a separate municipality in the Panama City and Lynn Haven Metropolitan Statistical Area. Roughly 12k full-year residents. White sand beaches. Lots of college kids on spring break. And, since 2012, a PDL franchise. The club’s short-term mission is to bring high-level soccer to the Panama City area, but if things develop… who knows?

The coach for the Pirates since its founding is 31-year-old Greg DeVito. He’s a former fullback for the Atlanta Silverbacks and the director of coaching with a soccer club in Destin, Florida. His first Pirates’ squad went .500. Not bad for a start-up.

“Everything was very new,” DeVito said on Sunday. “First-year coach, first-year owners, first-year team. But we made a lot of progress in our second year and qualified for the PDL playoffs.”

“A lot of progress” is probably an understatement. DeVito’s 2013 team went 10-3-1 in the Southeastern Division of the PDL’s Southern Conference. The Pirates’ reward for all that progress was dubious: A first-round playoff date in Texas against the mighty Austin Aztex. Austin thumped the Pirates 4-0 en route to their first PDL National Championship, and that was that.

But the Pirates’ ill-fated 2013 playoff qualification came with a door prize: Simultaneous qualification for and a first-round bye in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup. Which is how Panama City Beach got here.

downloadOf course, the dirty secret of the Open Cup is that not only are the amateurs underdogs when they play teams manned by veteran professionals, PDL teams made up primarily of college players typically haven’t been together long enough to run out of the clean laundry their mothers packed for them. When I spoke to DeVito on Sunday, the Pirates — who are roughly 90 percent comprised of college players — were in just their third day of team training.

To put that in context, the Battery held its third day of official training on Feb. 20th. If you include preseason scrimmages, Charleston has already played 20 matches in 2014. Some PDL teams won’t play that many times in a full season. So while the Battery can speak truthfully about needing to build some continuity in its attacking rotation, it’s got no problems in the “getting to know each other” department compared to the Pirates.

Total number of returning players on the 2014 Pirates? Six.

Panama-City-Pirates-Logo1 220Sean Lewis is a goalkeeper who just finished his career at Oakland University in Michigan. Mickey Lightbourne is a defender and midfielder from Coastal Carolina, where he played alongside Battery rookie Justin Portillo in the fall. Midfielder Ricardo Oliveira and forward Eric Pajunk are Brazilians from Barton College in North Carolina. Andrew Beasley is a Panama City kid from the United Kingdom who blew out his knee in high school and returned this month for his second year of PDL ball.

DeVito mentioned goalkeeper Lewis and the final returning player, Brandon Barbero, as Pirates of note. Barbero is an underclassman at Missouri State, and plays a holding midfield role for Panama City Beach.

The current squad is comprised of one Canadian, nine foreign players, and 10 amateurs from the United States.

DeVito wasn’t giving much away when I asked him about the Pirates’ style of play. They play a possessive style and like to dictate the tempo, he said, but their formation fluctuates based on their opponents.

Fair enough, coach.

Dude, seriously, turn off your targeting computer already.

Dude, seriously. Turn off your targeting computer already.

From the Battery point of view, trying to game-plan for the tendencies of a PDL team that hadn’t even trained together before Omar Salgado returned to the Whitecaps would probably be missing the point. For Wednesday’s match, the Pirates are the Rebel Alliance and the Battery are the Death Star. Conventional wisdom holds that if they see to their own performance they should move on — barring some great disturbance in The Force.

(See? It’s that geek thing slipping through again…)

There are some concerns, of course. The team stubbed its collective toe in Saturday’s 0-1 loss to Wilmington, and with just 20 players on the roster the Battery are now back to where they were in 2013 when it comes to depth and health during the hectic Open Cup portion of the schedule.

Wanna know when Vancouver loaners Jackson Farmer and Marlon Ramirez would have really come in handy? Now.

John Wilson

John Wilson

The calculations start along the back line, where Coach Mike Anhaeuser has just five bodies to manage, and one of them is 36 years old. With Taylor Mueller hobbled by a knee knock he picked up during his short substitute appearance on Saturday, it’s not clear whether the team even has that many options. So if Anhaeuser wants to protect Mueller and rest left back John Wilson for Saturday’s trip to North Carolina, he’ll need to look for fullback help from one of his regular midfielders. Right back Quinton Griffith can play either side, and versatile midfielder Jared van Schaik is considered an MLS prospect at left back. We’ve seen Zach Prince fill in as a right back in preseason.

Also on this week’s health watch list: Forward Dane Kelly, who hasn’t made the 18 since he went down with a knee bruise at Harrisburg; attacking midfielder Andre Lewis, who hurt his foot on the play that produced Manu Aparicio‘s dramatic ejection tantrum; and defensive mid Amadou Sanyang, who required stitches to his cheek after a head-to-face collision in the first half against Wilmington.

Bobby Weisenberger, the team’s athletic trainer, reports that Lewis returned to training on Tuesday, but the others were all out.

It all adds up to a simple conclusion: There’s just no way the Battery are going to make it to Wilmington with a fully fresh XI. Then again, it’s not likely that Wilmington will be particularly fresh after a trip out to Tennessee, either.

Michael Kafari

Michael Kafari

This might be a great opportunity to get quality minutes for some of Charleston’s younger players. Midfielder Michael Kafari made the 18 on Saturday for the first time and could be in line for his professional debut. Portillo and Dante Marini are usually stuck in traffic in the Battery’s midfield rotation. And Anhaeuser has expressed an interest in finding games for backup keeper Eric Shannon. So keep on eye on how he uses those guys.

Meanwhile, if you wanna talk about the difference a few weeks can make, consider this. When I interviewed Anhaeuser the morning before the team left for Harrisburg, the Battery had five healthy forwards. This afternoon, that number is down to three: Heviel Cordoves, Mamadou Diouf and Adam Mena.

Charleston has enjoyed a great deal of success in the Open Cup over the years. It’s the last non-MLS team to make it to a Cup Final, losing a heartbreaker at D.C. United in 2008. In 2013 the team set “a good Cup run” as one of its goals, and beat the Timbers U-23s in Portland and the San Jose Earthquakes at Blackbaud to advance to the Fourth Round against Real Salt Lake in Sandy, Utah. The road-weary Battery actually led that match 2-0, but conceded a late tying goal on a controversial penalty kick, and then collapsed in the two overtime periods to lose 5-2. Absent that penalty, the Battery would have hosted Carolina Railhawks of the NASL in the fifth round. Instead, RSL advanced to the final, losing 0-1 to champions D.C. United.

The 101st Open Cup features the largest field in its modern era, with a new emphasis on regional play in the early rounds to cut down on travel expenses. And the good news is that if Charleston wins, it will host either Jacksonville United FC of the National Premier Soccer League or Orlando City’s U-23s entry in the PDL on May 28. That’s between their May 24 home match against Pittsburgh and their away match at Orlando on May 31.

Not even MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski was a big enough draw to attract Charleston soccer fans in 2013. Seriously.

Not even MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski (left, high-fiving Justin Morrow) was a big enough draw to attract Charleston soccer fans in 2013. WTF, over?

The not-so-good news is that the MLS teams don’t enter this year’s tournament until the Fourth Round, and even with Charleston hosting 2012 Supporters Shield Champion San Jose Earthquakes last season, the club drew so few fans that it didn’t even bother to open concessions under the East Stands. In order to host a match against an MLS opponent, the Battery will have to win its first two Open Cup matches, apply to the U.S. Soccer Federation to host in the fourth round, and then win a coin flip if the opponent they draw also applies to host.

Former Charleston striker Edward Teach.

Former Charleston striker Edward Teach.

Whatever else happens on Wednesday, one historic streak will end.  Nicki Paterson tied an all-time record in 2013 when he scored against RSL, giving him at least one goal in five consecutive Open Cup tournaments. The former Battery midfielder now plys his trade in Canada for the Ottawa Fury. So much for that record, eh?

And lest we fans get over-confident about this date with the Beach Pirates, a reminder from history. Despite the battery of cannons deployed to defend the walled city, Blackbeard successfully blockaded Charleston in May of 1718, and the city fathers gladly paid the pirates to leave.

Here’s hoping the modern Battery fare better against this crew on Wednesday night.

AAARG!

TOP IMAGE: You know, pirates. Not-Dan-Conover photo.

1 Comment

  1. Great article, Dan. Loved it. I’m looking forward to the day that I see Michael Kafari in a game.