With the demise of the Antigua Barracuda there just aren’t a lot of gimme-games in the USL PRO season, and with the exception of the 4-0 win at Harrisburg, the 2014 Charleston Battery have generally had to grind for their results.
Which made Wednesday night’s 4-0 U.S. Open Cup Second Round win over the Panama City Beach Pirates something of a pattern breaker.
Thing is, the squad and coaches are professionals who know they just defeated a depleted group of amateur players who’ve been training together for less than a week. They faced stronger tests against local college teams in preseason, and shrugged off those performances as tune-ups for the games that count.
But this game counted — Charleston hosts the Orlando City U-23s next Wednesday in Round Three because of it — but given the level of competition it’s tough to draw too many conclusions.
Still, there’s plenty to talk about with the Wilmington return-bout looming just ahead.
Hey, how about those guys?
Battery fans have a pretty good idea who Heviel Cordoves is as a player. He scored seven goals for the Battery last season, including some game-winning, game-tying and Did-You-SEE-That? moments. He’s had a good season so far, rotating through nine of the team’s 10 matches (five starts) without ever playing a full 90. He entered Wednesday night’s match with a goal and an assist to his credit.
And after his Cuban teammate Maikel Chang cracked the game open on a nice assist from Justin Portillo in the 5th minute, the fans in attendance got to watch something kind of remarkable: Cordoves unchained.
USL PRO defenders tend to make up with what they lack in nuance and speed with physicality. But Panama City Beach simply had no answer for Cordoves, and with Battery midfielders finding room to operate, the big Cuban striker kept breaking them down.
His three goals came in three different flavors.
Goal One, in the 16th minute, was a scalpel-precise counter-attack that begin with Andre Lewis pushing ahead toward the midstripe and finding Dante Marini — whose deflection to Justin Portillo had initiated the counter — running wide left. Marini’s left-footed pass drew Pirates keeper Sean Lewis off his line and found Cordoves in stride just above the six. Rather than smash it on his first touch — as the 2013 Cordoves might have been tempted to do — he took a touch to the left, dodged the goalkeeper, and finished with Miles Davis cool.
Goal Two came 10 minutes later. His one-touch redirect pass sprung Marini wide, but the possession bogged down until an entry pass to Cordoves earned a corner kick. With the Battery leaving its defenders back for the set piece, the Pirates put a man on the near post and gave Cordoves a personal defender. But as Portillo lined up over the ball at the left corner, Cordoves walked his man into goal, stepped back into play, and then sprung up to redirect Portillo’s cross off his head and between his befuddled marker and the keeper. Despite his size, the 6-2 Cordoves isn’t known for his aerial prowess, but even with a man on him he made this one look deceptively easy.
Goal Three almost came in first-half stoppage. It began when Cordoves took a long outlet and passed inside to a streaking Marini, whose cross from the goal line struck a Pirate in the hand. Cordoves stepped up to take the resulting PK — the Battery’s first this season — and fired left toward the Upper 90. Goalkeeper Lewis guessed the correct direction but went low — as Cordo’s shot appeared to kiss off the top of the crossbar and sail into the night.
He finished the trick roughly five minutes into the second half, capping a patient possession that ended with a long pass, a deflection, and a tremendous bit of skill. See “The Moment” below for details.
“Cordoves was fantastic,” Anhaeuser said. “Great goal. And even to come out after he missed the penalty and get the fourth one right at the beginning of the half was fantastic for him, and that was a nice finish.”
A hat trick in a non-scrimmage is rare. And Cordoves’ big night over-shadowed some excellent attacking play and a solid performance in goal by Eric Shannon, who made his second start for the Battery in goal and earned his first clean sheet. Marini, Portillo, Chang and Lewis — who officially got the start as a forward — were creative and effective.
For Lewis it was a particularly active night. Despite being listed as a forward he was all over the place, commanding the ball, even running 40 yards back to the defenders to get it and move things forward. It’s not often that you find a forward from a nominal 4-4-2 initiating play from behind the holding midfielder, but it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that much of the Battery attack ran through Lewis before he left the game in the second half after picking up a knock.
Chang emerged this season as an important part of the midfield, but circumstances allowed him to play farther up in the attack Wednesday. And when he took in Portillo’s high pass in the fifth minute, controlling it into a bounce that he volleyed smoothly through the defense, it was not only his first goal of the season, but his first goal as a professional.
But Lewis and Chang are regulars. Portillo and Marini are rookies without MLS contracts trying to make names for themselves, and Wednesday was big step for both. Marini looked dangerous and aggressive on the wing all night. Portillo spent the evening in a deeper-lying position, but interchanged freely and moved up into attack with the confidence and precision he exhibited during his senior year of college. While he’s got a ways to go before he’ll be challenging Zach Prince, Jarad van Schaik and Quinton Griffith for set-piece duties, his quality on corners was evident.
“I just felt that we from early we established a possession kind of game.,” Portillo said afterward. “I felt like that helped us a lot throughout, and I love playing that kind of game — just playing, playing, finding the open man.
“I’ve played on teams where I was the young guy, so I know how to kinda find my role and play my role. I know there are guys here who are older, guys who’ve been here five, six years. You’ve just got to listen to them, and whatever they want you to do, you gotta do it.”
It’s emergency mode on defense
Now nobody panic, but here’s the situation: Charleston started the season with six healthy defenders, and as of Wednesday night it was down to four. First it lost teenager Jackson Farmer to Vancouver recall on May 1, and it’s not clear when — if ever — he’s likely to return. Then on Monday, do-it-all defender Taylor Mueller came up with knee pain while striking the ball in practice. He was ruled out on Tuesday and spent Wednesday in the stands.
With Mueller out and a league match at Wilmington on Saturday, Anhaeuser pulled in midfielder Jarad van Schaik to cover left back, leaving regular starter John Wilson as an emergency sub and putting him in line to start on Saturday. Van Schaik has played the position before, and San Jose looked at him as a potential fullback during his offseason trial with the Earthquakes.
But I spoke with Mueller last night and it sounds like this could be a re-aggravation of the injury that broke his heart last September when it kept him out of the semi-final at Orlando. If true, he could miss several matches right in the middle of Open Cup season, which traditionally stresses the small rosters of teams from the lower end of the pyramid.
So the injury to Mueller — who appeared in eight of the team’s first nine matches, missing only the Richmond game with a head injury — is going to have a ripple effect. That doesn’t mean the Battery isn’t used to adapting to this kind of situation. The injury and depth story in 2013 was far more dramatic, and the team came through the worst of it and finished the season strong. Which is one reason why coaches and athletes traditionally deflect those topics when you ask about them.
Only after the season do you really get to hear candid talk about the pressure this kind of situation creates.
Fortunately for the Battery, their current starting defense is one of the best in minor league soccer, surrendering just seven goals in 10 matches. The only recurring issue is protecting the 36-year-old Wilson, whose minutes must be managed in order to keep him healthy for the long season.
Maybe Farmer will return. Maybe there will be good news on Mueller’s knee. But whatever happens, Charleston will play four matches between now and the end of the month, two of them on the road. Barring any unexpected changes, expect to see midfielders van Schaik and Zach Prince cycling through the fullback positions. And keep your fingers crossed.
51st minute: Battery 3, Pirates 0
The Battery’s blitz in the first half-hour certainly settled matters, and Chang’s spectacular control and finish to open the scoring is certainly worth watching again.
But the possession that ended with the night’s final goal is remarkable not so much for its drama or its build-up, but simply for what happened at the end.
After essentially collapsing during the first 26 minutes, the depleted Pirates — already playing with their backup goalkeeeper as a quickly winded outfielder — pulled themselves together and stopped the bleeding. Charleston would dominate possession, but the visitors were playing with poise.
So it went in the 50th minute, when alert defense repulsed a promising Battery attack. The home side eventually recycled it through the back line — twice — but those big alleys of space from the early going were getting narrower.
That’s when the ball wound up at the feet of central midfielder Aminu Abdallah, operating five yards behind the mid-stripe. After looking around for a short pass, the Ghanian spotted Cordoves with his back to goal above the box, and figured “What the hell?”
Though the stadium announcer eventually gave an assist on the play to Marini several minutes after the fact, on replay it looks pretty clear that the actual pass came from Abdallah. When the official box score finally arrived, the goal was credited as unassisted.
And to be fair to the scorer, I didn’t notice who lofted that one into the attacking third, either. It didn’t appear to be that clever of a pass at the time, and on a night that will be remembered for surgical precision, this ball was a round-house punch in a road-house brawl.
But what happened at the other end is worth considering. Abdallah’s arcing ball deflected off Cordo’s marker, setting up this sequence: The striker reacted quickly, held off his marker, took a good first touch to keep it moving forward, changed direction to his left as a second center back closed him down, and with a man on him, another trailing him, and the goalkeeper cutting down his angles, Cordoves put it to the far post with an off-speed shot from his left foot.
True, ney-sayers will point out that Cordoves’ goals came against a PDL opponent. But contained in that one sequence is an awful lot of history and development. As Prince says, Cordoves has always been an athletic player with the knack for the big moment. But the first-year pro was more blast than finesse.
Watching his final goal unfold last night, I was reminded of highlights I’d watched from the Wichita B-52s, the indoor team where Chang and Cordoves bloomed over the offseason. Tight spaces. Narrow angles. Yet Cordoves finished second on that team in scoring, with Chang — the B-52s assist leader — right with him.
“I try very well every day, every time,” Cordoves said after removing the ice pack from his knee Wednesday night. “Not for me only, but for my teammates, for my team, for Charleston, you know? For my flag, Charleston. I try real hard every day.”
We are still unpacking all the things Cordoves can do. And right now the Battery need every one of them.
Cordoves gets Man of the Match. No suspense there.
But let’s give Shannon, Chang, Lewis, Portillo and Quinton Griffith honorable mention. It was another in a string of impressive performances by the Antiguan, whose burst of speed down the sideline in the 29th minute had everyone in the press box buzzing. Yes, he’s that fast. And yes, he’s got a tremendous shot from range. One of these days they’re going to start bending in instead of out, and people are going to really take notice.
And while Shannon got credit for just two saves and didn’t actually touch the ball until the 23rd minute, I was impressed by his toughness and decisive approach. He charged out of the box to clear a ball that would have otherwise fallen to striker Eric Pajunk, and while saving a shot by Brooke Assefa in the 43rd, Shannon appeared to take a blow to the nose. He shook it off. Plus he did a good job of starting the offense — including one outlet throw to the wing that was an absolute thing of beauty.
The subs Wednesday night were Adam Mena, Mamadou Diouf and Zach Prince, replacing Lewis, Cordoves and Griffith. Both Lewis and Cordoves picked up knocks in the game… Mena appeared the have scored on the first possession of the second half, but was ruled offsides… The former Notre Dame star also made a stir with a sharp new haircut. And here’s the skinny: He donated his long hair to Locks of Love. He’s done it before, too, and will probably do it again.
The most dramatic part of the night was probably the pregame, which Pirates Coach Greg DeVito spent indoors trying to convince U.S. Soccer Federation officials in Chicago to allow three of his men to play. Exactly what prevented the players — all starters — from participating is not clear (“The federation will have to talk to you more about that,” DeVito said), but the controversy delayed the start of the match by 15 minutes… It also affected the match in a very direct and unusual way. When one of the three reserves who had been forced into the lineup by the ineligibility decision went down with an early injury, DeVito had to put on outfield jersey on his backup keeper and send him into the game…
The Battery played a nominal four-man back line, but with the team working so high up the field, usual midfielders van Schaik and Prince spent a good chunk of their minutes operating in their usual territory… Though the Battery didn’t stop trying to score, the team stopped pressing the Pirates late in the match. By this I mean stuff like hoofing a corner kick back toward midfield… Quote of the night: “Did you hurt it on that penalty kick?” That’s Battery Assistant Coach Dusty Hudock teasing Cordoves after the match as the medical staff removed the ice pack from his right knee.
TOP IMAGE: Rookie Dante Marini had his best game as a pro on Wednesday. Janet Edens Conover photos.