Battery fans owe a debt of gratitude to the Wilmington Hammerheads. Their 4-3 road upset at top-seeded Orlando City in the USL PRO Semifinals last August made it possible for the third-seeded Battery to host the 2012 league championship at Blackbaud Stadium.
But the Hammerheads haven’t been quite the same team since their 1-0 loss in the Sept. 8 championship game. So what’s going on with them, and what should we expect when the Battery host the Hammerheads Saturday night?
Heading into their home date against the similarly slumping Rochester Rhinos tonight, the Hammerheads have compiled a 1-3-0 regular season record, with their only points coming in a 2-0 season-opening victory against still-winless Antigua. Their ensuing West Coast road trip resulted in two losses and a 1-7 goal differential. Then they lost 0-2 to visiting Richmond on May 3. Richmond has been one of the better teams in the early going, but dropping a home match that way is never a good sign.
The Battery got its introduction to the 2013 version of the Hammerheads back on March 23, a night best remembered as Ben Fisk‘s introduction to the home sod. The Battery won 2-0, but the scoring came in the second half after the Hammerheads began swapping out regulars. Wilmington owner Bill Rudisill said before the match that the Hammerheads would use the friendly to evaluate players and that the Battery would probably win, and that’s exactly what happened.
So there were reasons to view that result cautiously. Charleston’s active preseason began in mid-February. Wilmington’s was barely underway. But even with the teams at different points in their development, the Hammerheads looked like they’d wind up resembling the tough-minded, hard-to-solve squad they were in 2012. Though Charleston’s starters looked faster and more skilled in the first half of their March friendly, the visitors frustrated them with tough, physical play.
The Hertzog factor
There’s no point in talking about this year’s Hammerheads without discussing the contributions of striker Corey Hertzog last season. Sent to Wilmington on loan from the New York Red Bulls in 2012, the former Generation Adidas/SuperDraft-first-rounder scored nine goals in 17 USL PRO appearances, and played a major role in the Orlando upset. USL PRO named him to its All-League First Team, but none of that impressed the Red Bulls, who released him before the 2013 season.
The Battery saw Hertzog again in February when he visited while trying to win a spot with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Despite the team’s glut of talented forwards and attacking players, Hertzog said he’d been promised a fair shot, and so far he’s been making the most of it. He’s scored twice in all competitions, with four MLS appearances, a number reduced by an injury.
Without Hertzog up front, the Hammerheads have managed just three goals in four matches. His replacement, forward Kyle Greig, is a first-year player brought in from a PDL club in Kansas City. He scored the team’s first goal of 2013, and nothing since.
Injuries, turnover, etc.
The Hammerheads returned 11 players from their runner-up 2012, but only three of those players (midfielders William Heaney and Paul Nicholson and veteran defender Gareth Evans) currently figure in their top 11 when it comes to minutes played.
Newcomers Daniel Steres, who knocked around MLS last season without apparently figuring in any matches, has started all four of the Hammerheads’ games. So has goalkeeper Phil Tuttle, who played five times last season for Harriburg. Beyond those two and Greig, defenders Uriah Bentick (Liberty University), Shaun Utterson (UNC-W) and Jamel Wallace (San Diego Bocas FC) and midfielders Arron Patrick (Cascadia Surge) and Shawn Nicklaw (HB KOGE) have logged significant minutes.
Midfielder Bryce Taylor, an All-League Second-Teamer in 2012, has appeared in three matches, logging just 112 minutes so far.
The Hammerheads will get back midfielder Paul Nicholson from suspension, but lose defender Nicklaw to one.
“They’re the same in the back, but they’re giving up goals, but I think that’s because they’ve had a couple of red cards, and that kills you,” Anhaeuser said. “They’ve lost their goalkeeper (Alex Horvath, now starting for expansion side VSI Tampa Bay FC). That sometimes takes time to get used to your defense. But the biggest part is they lost their goalscorer up front (Hertzog) and a couple of guys around the outside. Bryce Taylor, the guy who did well on the wing last year, is coming off injury.”
The Battery side
Rather than play the “Who is Coach Going to Start?” game, here are some important things to keep in mind for this matchup from a Battery perspective
THEY’RE ON THE MEND: Only two of the team’s 22 players are expected to be unavailable for health reasons. Midfielder Bryce Alderson is recovering from a thigh injury, and winger Ben Fisk is expected to be out two to four weeks as he recovers from surgery to treat a slight MCL tear that he picked up before arriving on loan from Vancouver.
The Battery staff described attacking midfielder/forward Jose Cuevas as available to play, but not ready to play 90 minutes. He’s been out since April 13, and the Battery clearly want him back in the lineup, but what’s not clear is whether they’ll let him risk re-injury against Wilmington. Another player who might be called upon in a Cuevas-like role is midfielder Maikel Chang, who suffered repeat hamstring injuries while trying to make it to full-strength this preseason. Chang played the first 45 minutes at Dayton, his longest game stretch so far.
THEY’RE DEEP: With everyone else looking pretty close to 100 percent, Coach Mike Anhaeuser will have plenty of options.
Midfielder Michael Azira has started in place of Cuevas and defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang this season, and continues to play well. With Sanyang getting his first start of the season last Friday, Anhaeuser has Azira, Sanyang, Nicki Paterson, Zach Prince and Jarad van Schaik available for central midfield duty, with Cuevas in line for a possible cameo. Van Schaik also plays on the left side, where LB/LM Emmanuel Adjetey flashed some ability during the last three matches. Quinton Griffith is a star on the right side.
Colin Falvey, Cody Ellison and John Wilson own three positions on the back line, while Mark Wiltse has been Anhaeuser’s first choice at right back this season. Taylor Mueller is a versatile sometimes-starter.
Up front, Dane Kelly is off to a very nice start, and big Heviel Cordoves serves as his backup and occasional tactical replacement. In the back, goalkeepers Odisnel Cooper and Kevin Klasila have played well, and either could start. Cooper has allowed just five goals in four starts, with two clean sheets.
Wilmington will be visiting on short rest, which could affect their lineup decisions, but which Anhaeuser says won’t affect the way the Battery prepare.
“There’s no thought about anything else,” he said. “We have to attack. We have to keep the ball. We have to move that ball and put them under pressure. Because at home that’s the way we want to make sure we do it. And we want to make sure our fans are excited.”
Anhaeuser anticipates that his counterpart, Hammers coach David Irving, will deploy a four- or five-man back line, with three in the midfield and one or two forwards looking to exploit opportunities in the counterattack.
“They might come in here and defend and sit with nine, eight guys back, and maybe keep one up top,” Anhaeuser said. “Coach Irvin will do a fantastic job. They’ll be organized, and they could be setting up to do that. That’s why (Wednesday) we worked against 10 guys and tried to work it around. Getting it wide and using our width. We’ve got guys that can cross the ball. We’re going to need that.
“He might come in here to try to make it a 0-0 game, or a 1-0 game. Nothing against it. I probably would do the same. But we’re not looking at it that way. We want to pressure them. We want to take it from them in their end and create a shorter field so we can create more chances.”
The match kicks off at 7:30 at Blackbaud Stadium, where it’s Kick for a Cure night. The Battery will wear pink jerseys that will be auctioned during the game for a cancer charity. Tickets are available for $10 – $18, either online at www.charlestonbattery.com or over the phone at (843) 971-4625.
The Regiment will host Wilmington’s supporters group The Port City Firm at a tailgate before the match and you don’t have to be a member of the Regiment to come by, have a beer, and sample the marinated grilled pork tenderloin. If you’re new to Battery tailgating and wondering how to get in good with the group, bring a typical picnic side, or contribute beer to the community cooler.
The Southern Derby
This match represents the first leg of the 2013 Southern Derby, a supporters cup that is currently contested between the Charleston Battery, the Wilmington Hammerheads and the Charlotte Eagles. Participation in the cup has varied over the years since its inception in 2000, but at the end of the season the hardware goes to the team that earns the most points in head-to-head league play between the three clubs.
Charleston won the Southern Derby Cup in 2003, 2005 (tie with the Atlanta Silverbacks), 2009 (with the Carolina Railhawks), 2010 and 2011. The Charlotte Eagles won it last year with 10 points, while Charleston finished last with seven points.
The Battery will play their second leg of the 2013 cup competition when they travel to Charlotte on Tuesday.
TOP IMAGE: Participants at a recent national conference for attorneys mill about the lobby of their hotel during a meet-and-greet social session sponsored by a well-funded industry lobbying group.