I found myself dreading the Battery’s final regular season road trip. Not because I thought they’d come home empty-handed. But because I understood how easy it would be for things to fall apart.
With the exception of Antigua, the line between winning and losing in USL PRO is paper thin and highly location-dependent. What’s more, the Battery have, of late, taken up the quasi-alarming pattern of playing jet-fighter football at home and goat-cart football away. Who knows why? It’s certainly not like they don’t want to win on the road. It’s not like the goals are smaller.
But here’s the record: Before Saturday night, the Battery had lost their four previous away matches. Phoenix was their first road win in a league game since May 19th at Houston.
So looking at this swing out to the West Coast made me nervous. Because I’m starting to get it. Winning on the road in this league is just plain hard.
Battery fans didn’t get a good look at either game. Los Angeles never got their live stream to work, and though Phoenix had a workable webcast, it was still difficult to tell what was going on (more on that later). But looking back over the stat sheets, it’s pretty clear in retrospect that all the luck that deserted the Battery at UC Irvine showed up and escorted them to the playoffs at the Reach 11 Sporting Complex in Phoenix.
Here’s the bottom line. The Phoenix win clinched a playoff spot, but the Battery have yet to secure a home date for the first round.
So long as Charleston takes care of its business on Aug. 15 against woeful Antigua, the Battery will end the regular season with 45 points. And if that’s the case, only two teams are relevant to our seeding.
Harrisburg has 44 points with one game remaining at Dayton on Saturday. If the City Islanders win or draw, they’ll hold on to the third seed. Dayton needs a win to stay in the playoff picture, so there will be no laying back when the Dutch Lions host the City Islanders.
Charlotte trails Charleston 42-40, but has a game in hand. Barring a Charleston meltdown against Antigua, the Eagles can win home field advantage only by sweeping their two remaining matches. And that won’t be easy, considering that the team pulls the dreaded two-away-matches-in-24-hours assignment this week, traveling to Plant City to play the Not-Dead-Yet VSI Tampa Bay on Friday, before driving across the state to play at Orlando on Saturday. I don’t have the stat at hand for how visiting teams have done in the second of those two games this season, but trust me when I tell you: It isn’t pretty.
Mathematically, Charlotte has a shot at finishing as high at 3rd. But the most likely scenario remains one in which Charleston finishes third or fourth, and then hosts either the Charlotte Eagles or the LA Blues in two weeks.
I don’t know about you, but I have a preference when it comes to those opponents.
How many times do you hear the soccer cliche “against the run of play” applied to a goal? A result? We say it because we follow a sport in which 90 minutes of controlling every aspect of the game except goal-scoring can be negated and reversed by a single mistake, one shocking goalazo, one in-explainable moment. What we’re really saying is, soccer is a game where the better team doesn’t always win.
The reason ought to be obvious: The only stat that counts is goals, and a goal is so difficult to get in professional soccer that the outcome of every match is always based on a tiny data set.
If you think of it that way, then you can make a good case that Charleston lost at LA “against the run of play.” After all, the Battery out-shot the home team 16-7. Coach Mike Anhaeuser went into the match emphasizing the importance of denying the Blues corner kicks, and the team executed that instruction to the letter,yielding not a single corner to the home team. Think about that.
So how do you lose a game like that?
Well, there are at least three ways:
YOU GIVE UP GOALS EARLY: Our guys surrendered two goals to Blues forward Matt Fondy in the first 37 minutes. So one way of thinking about the rest of the stat line (fouls, LAB 13, CHS 7; Offsides, LAB 0, CHS 9; corners, LAB 0, CHS 5) is that having taken the lead against an explosive Charleston attack that Los Angeles Blues Coach Dariush Yazdani knows from recent experience, the Blues sat back and let the game come to them.
So is the “zero corners” stat simply a case of smart game-planning by the Battery? Or did the Blues de-emphasize attacks down the wing in the second half? Does the foul differential tell a similar story? The eye-popping 9-0 offsides difference? Is that the result of an offsides trap plus a conservative Blues side? Or is it something to do with the officiating?
YOU DON’T FINISH YOUR CHANCES: From listening to Andrew Bell’s call, it’s pretty obvious that several Battery players went to sleep with visions of their missed chances running through their minds on endless loops.
YOU PLAY AGAINST A KEEPER WHO SLEPT AT A HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS: OK, I’m sorry for the tacky commercial reference, but you get my point. I’ll look over this more in detail at the end of the season, but if there’s a single trait that defines Charleston’s position in the league table in 2013, it might just be the quality of keeper play we faced week in and week out.
This is goalkeeper Mohammad Mohammadi. He’s a 35-year-old from Tehran, Iran. He signed with the Blues in May and has made eight starts in 2013 for them, second most among Blues keepers. He has a 2-2-4 record, and a pedestrian 1.375 goals-against average. And before taking on the Battery, he had recorded 22 saves. That’s just about three saves per match.
Against Charleston, Mohammadi got credit for six of them. Twice his season average.
So take everything else away. if Mohammadi plays his average game, Charleston leaves Los Angeles with at least a point, if not a win. This has been a recurring story for the Battery, and one that needs to end as soon as the playoffs begin. Because no matter how many things a team does right, the one thing you can’t account for is a highlight-reel game by a keeper.
Another thing we could add to the list: Get up at 3 a.m. the morning after your original flight was cancelled, fly out to the West Coast, and then play a game that night. In the end, I think Charleston played well enough to win, so it’s hard to say that the travel affected them so much. They played much worse at Wilmington after a short bus ride. But it certainly didn’t help.
Phoenix: A hot mess
Los Angeles and Phoenix are two markets that have to be important to the future of USL PRO. And while Los Angeles continues to search for the right answers in its third year, expansion Phoenix started 2013 looking great. I wrote a bit about the club’s bumpy first year in my preview on Saturday, but suffice it to say that things haven’t gone as planned, and mistakes were made.
So best of luck to the Wolves. But here’s the thing: Yesterday’s conditions were hardly conducive to great soccer by either team. Your’e playing on a turf field in what amounts to an expanded version of the Patriots Point soccer complex, except without the College of Charleston stadium, and you’re playing at the miserable height of the desert afternoon heat because some youth team has the field booked at 7:30.
It’s not exactly an advertisement for the real progress North American soccer is making. But it is what it is.
So what do those conditions mean? Well, I don’t care how match-fit you are if you’re playing in 104-degree heat — you’re just not going to be running at anything approaching top speed for very long. Which means that the Phoenix match looked more like a low-intensity scrimmage than an absolutely crucial game for the Battery.
If you want to ruin a good night’s sleep, try this thought out. The Phoenix own-goal in the 9th minute could have just as easily come at our end of the field.
And even though the Battery never really got on a roll at Phoenix, even though Charleston was never more than a freak moment away from a disastrous draw, I can’t remember ever feeling nervous or threatened by the Wolves. It’s been a long season for them, and it’s ending on a low note.
Fan notes, etc. …
WTF? If you watched the live stream from Phoenix, you probably had one burning question: What the hell was that pink pole?
All jokes aside, every time the Wolves’ one camera panned right, it gave us an excellent view of a pink metal pole with some kind of black cabbage-thingy on the top. And with not so very much happening on the field that we could see, after a while I was paying more attention to the pole than the details of the match.
We have a theory that the pink pole is actually an industrial sprinkler system, like the one on the other side of the field that was used to spray down the turf at half time. But beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN: Another quirk from last night’s live stream at Molly Darcy’s. About two minutes into the second half, Scott Johnstone says “Why didn’t they switch ends of the field?” And bigger than Stuttgart, Scott was right. The Battery were going in the same direction they’d been headed to start the match.
Of course, with the live stream stuttering and halting and popping back in a minute or more later, it was hard to know why. I mean, why was there a big pink pole? Why did every pan to the left make it look like the game was being played on the side of a mountain? Who were those three Battery fans in the shade? There were all sorts of mysteries to sort out.
Roughly 20 minutes later, we figured out that the reason the teams hadn’t switched ends was because we were watching a replay of the first half. So I took the controls, refreshed the entire USLnation page, and there it was — the second half!
I know a little bit about web tech. But I can’t even begin to explain that one.
CLUE…LESS: The Phoenix stream stuttered out just as the Battery’s corner kick began in the 9th minute, sending us new images roughly every five or six seconds, with no audio. Which left the fans at the bar shouting, “Hey! Hey! I think something’s happening!” And when the teams jogged back for the restart, we figured it was a goal.
Trying to figure out who, exactly, had scored, was beyond us. It’s like a who-dun-it game, someone suggested.
“It was Colonel Mustard in the desert with a header,” Johnstone concluded.
Or the Battery, in a big moment, with a little bit of luck.
And that’s a good sign.
TOP IMAGE: In one of the most dramatic moments of the Battery’s 1-0 win at Phoenix, a Wolves player jumps.