It was a busy and exciting weekend for the Charleston Battery, as they hosted the English Premier League’s West Bromwich Albion on Friday and then picked up three points against regional rival Wilmington the next day.
West Brom came away with the 2-1 win on Friday, but the Battery turned in a great performance against the Baggies. They only had 24 hours to recover for a crucial game against the Hammerheads, and Dane Kelly was able to score a beautiful goal to give the Battery the 1-0 win. The West Brom game drew a bigger crowd, but the Wilmington game ultimately had the most riding on it, so let’s start by looking at that one.
This was the fourth meeting between the two teams this season. Charleston won the first game in April 2-1 and the second on May 30 1-0. On June 6, the teams played to a 1-1 draw after Wilmington scored on itself in the 85th minute.
So the teams are very familiar with each other. The Hammerheads, who are having an abysmal season with just two wins, decided to change things up for the fourth go-around, adding an extra attacker and playing the long ball more than they have in the past. Coach Mike Anhaeuser said his defense did a good job of adjusting to the change in strategy.
“The first three games they really tried to pass it around and today they put the extra guy up front and they played it long into the channels. They tried to get us 1-v-1 on the outside, but our guys did a great job, so you’ve got to commend the defense,” Anhaeuser said.
The lineup on Saturday was mostly the same as the starters from the day before, but there were a few changes. Quinton Griffith got his first start since returning from surgery, and played the entire 90 minutes at left back. His return to form adds another layer of depth to the team. Joining him on defense were: Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson in the center and O’Brian Woodbine on the right side.
Despite some tired players, the defense was able to contain Wilmington and limit its chances for most of the night, although Cooper had to come up with several big saves and Ferguson had a goal-line clearance in the first half.
“They had to win and obviously they threw some numbers forward in the second half and our guys just gutted it out. You could see some heavy legs on our clears but overall we did a great job and everyone contributed this whole weekend,”Anhaeuser said. “Yesterday was fantastic and getting the points today is kind of icing on the whole weekend. It puts us in position to really put pressure on the other guys in the league.”
Captain Jarad van Schaik and Justin Portillo teamed up once again in the center of the midfield, but the rest of the midfielders were rotated differently. Navion Boyd got the start on the right and Dante Marini played in the center underneath striker Dane Kelly. Both Boyd and Marini have been used mostly as substitutes this season, but both have made starts as well. Maikel Chang played on the left side of midfield. That’s what is so great about this year’s team. Anhaeuser can pull any player off the bench and feel comfortable that he can fill the role.
Odisnel Cooper started in goal, just as he did on Friday. His start Friday was the first since the Open Cup loss to Orlando City on June 17. Backup keeper Kevin Corby started the four games in-between while Cooper recovered from an injury. He played well, only giving up three goals and recording his first USL shutout against Rochester.
But Cooper remains the first-choice keeper, and he had a strong game against Wilmington, making several big saves to keep the visitors out of the net.
18th minute, GOAL Charleston (Kelly, assisted by Portillo.)
The lone goal on Saturday was appropriate for the way the team has played this season: fantastic teamwork and shocking individual skill leading to a score. The buildup began when Griffith took a throw-in on the right sideline. His long pass found Kelly on the right corner of the box. With his back to goal, Kelly touched the ball down where it trickled over to Chang in the center of the box. Chang played the ball a few feet back to Portillo, who was able to turn and beat his defender and pass it to Kelly, who was now making a run back towards the ball on the left side of the box.
Kelly was covered pretty closely, but somehow had the confidence to attempt a shot from that angle. And boy did it pay off. His curled effort went right into the upper right corner of the goalpost, leaving no chance for keeper Andre Rawls to make the save. Have a look for yourself. This gets more amazing every time I watch it.
— USL (@USL) July 19, 2015
The early goal was important for Charleston, Anhaeuser said, as the team was at risk of a “soccer hangover” after Friday’s big match.
“To be honest, with the two games on the weekend you’re going to take the points, walk away and go into next week where we’ve got two games in three days,” he said.
The Battery plays two road games this week. First up is Toronto FC II on Friday and then Rochester on Sunday afternoon. Both games are important, but the Rochester game could be huge depending on how the game goes against Toronto.
Rochester drew with Charlotte last week, leaving them six points ahead of Charleston in the race for first place in the East. The Battery also played them to a scoreless draw when they came to Charleston on July 3, but Sunday will be the last time the teams meet in the regular season. Charleston will really need to find a way to win if they want to have a shot at the top-seed in the playoffs.
However, Rochester has been absolutely ridiculous defensively, allowing just six goals through 18 matches. The Battery has allowed 17, but also scored nine more goals than the Rhinos.
Toronto is struggling with a 3-8-3 record this season, but whenever the Battery goes to Canada they have an added set of challenges to deal with. Several players on the team are not allowed to travel out of the country due to visa restrictions. That includes Cooper, Cordoves, Adjetey and Chang. The only other time the team has gone north of the border this season was a trip to FC Montreal in May, which the home team won 1-0. That result has always stuck out as a painful chance to pick up points, as Montreal has only won three games this season.
Back in May, the Battery also went to play another road game after leaving Canada, that time to the New York Red Bulls II. The Houston Dynamo of MLS loaned a defender and a goalkeeper to Charleston for the Toronto game, and reinforcements flew up from South Carolina to rejoin the team. No word on whether there will be loans again this time, but I would expect the same as far as the players meeting back up in Rochester.
So about that West Brom game…
The performance Saturday was even more impressive when you factor in the fact that seven of the starters started the game on Friday against a very, very physical team.
Victor Anichebe started up top for West Brom and was the most phsyical forward that I have ever seen in person. He was constantly using his shoulders, hands and arms to push around the defenders. Most times that was Ferguson.
“I heard rumors that he was a big guy, but it’s kind of one of those things you have to see in person, but yeah he was definitely very strong and good with his hands,” Ferguson said. “It was a next-step of physicality that I wasn’t used to. It definitely gets you into the game. Coming out here you’re already excited and then you get some physical play so it definitely gets you more involved.”
West Brom was big all over the field, as almost every player had a huge height and speed advantage over their opponents. But the Battery held their own. Woodbine in particular had a strong game containing James McLean on the left side. McLean continually tried to cross the ball in from the wings, but Woodbine forced him into making mistakes for most of the evening, and was able to recover when he was beat and get back onto the ball.
Ultimately, West Brom wore down the Battery and scored the winning goal in the 82nd minute after a free kick from outside the box bounced and found forward Brown Ideye in front of the net. Ideye was able to head the ball in past goalkeeper Kevin Corby.
“They were able to control the tempo. They had two forwards and got the ball in the box there and unfortunately we just gave them a little room and they scored a goal, but we didn’t do horrible in the first half,” Anhaeuser said.
West Brom had taken the lead just before halftime when Saido Berahino scored in the 42nd minute. But Navion Boyd tied it early on in the second half for Charleston after a deflected cross from Marini. After that, the teams played a pretty even game.
Anhaeuser knew he had another game coming up the next day, so he substituted as many players as possible to keep legs fresh. The subs included three young academy players.
“It’s a good way for our guys to see the level. It’s a good opportunity for these guys to just be involved in something like that. We were able to get three of our young guys in which is fantastic,” he said.
Ferguson said playing a team on the level of West Brom helps the team in its pursuit of a title this season.
“Continuing on in our season we just want to play the best so we can beat the best. That’s our goal this season, to win a championship, so I definitely think it puts us in the spot to do that,” he said.
Darren Fletcher, who played for Manchester United for 12 years before joining West Brom last season, had good things to say about soccer in the U.S. and Blackbaud Stadium. Check out his quotes.
On the growth of soccer in the U.S. — “I can see the improvement over time. I’ve been fortunate to come here a number of times over my career and can definitely see the improvement, the technical ability, the tactical awareness. I think the fitness level has always been there but the improvement in the tactical movement off the ball and the way teams play is getting better all the time. Progression is what you want, and I think there’s constantly progression which is great.”
On Blackbaud Stadium — “The smallness is not a problem because you feel the passion. You feel the area getting behind their team. Just being here in this ground and in the memorabilia room this morning blew me away. The crowd tonight was lively, the opponents were lively at times and it was a real good challenge for us tonight.”
Top photo: Maikel Chang carries the ball down the field while leaping over a sliding tackle by the Wilmington defender. Credit: Charleston Battery.