In the first installment of our interview with Battery midfielder Zach Prince, the 25-year-old (he turns 26 in March) talked about growing up and his career so far. In the second half of our conversation, the topics sprawled a bit — and some of his answers show the kind of insight you’d expect from a young man who hopes to work in the front office of a professional club someday.
This conversation took place at Kudu Coffee on Jan. 31.
CHS: So here you are coming back into a Battery team where the only thing that held you back last year was just working two jobs. You’re also heading into a season that’s seen expansion and big changes, both at the league level and possibly here on the Battery roster. Where do you think you fit into this team? You said you understand your role, but is it possible that your role could be changing?
ZP: It could be. I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting to find out who we get from Vancouver (the Battery’s newly contracted MLS affiliate).
I think my role in (Battery General Manager and Coach Mike Anhaeuser‘s) eyes is to lead a little bit, but at the same time, (to be that guy) that he can count on to go out and get a job done. He can depend on me to go out and do what he tells me to in that scenario, and he has confidence in me to do it. So whether I know exactly what he wants me to do right now? No. But in the moment, and when he tells me, and he goes and gives me a job, he has the confidence in me to go and do it.
CHS: One of the mysteries to me is how talent gets developed in North America. I was shocked by how dominant USL PRO teams were against the MLS reserves last season. Did that surprise you?
ZP: Look at (Houston’s reserves). We played them here and there, beside (playing Houston’s first team in) the Carolina Challenge Cup – which they probably deserved to win that game, and we snuck away with it 3-2. We’ll take it. And that’s great. But the other two games, there was no doubt about it. We killed them.
They’re playing these kids right out of college. And we might have three or four of those guys on our team, but then we have Johnny (Wilson), Nicki (Paterson), Colin (Falvey). We have a ton of guy who are very experienced, who know what it takes to get a job done.
CHS: But some of those guys you’re describing are in their mid-to-late 20s. Why wouldn’t MLS coaches want those guys — who are ready to contribute right now, not three years from now — on their rosters? Why wouldn’t they want their prospects proving themselves in the lower levels of the pyramid?
ZP: Well, there’s been a bunch of discussion about this. All these clubs have younger guys, and they’re not as good as we are.
But I try to look at it from a GM’s point of view, and they look at say, Zach Prince. And they say “OK, Zach, you scored four goals and had X assists last year.” And they have this kid coming out of college, and they say “OK, he scored 10 goals in college.” I can see where they might say “(Prince) might have reached his potential at 25 or 26, and this kid has some potential that could grow.” So I could see why they want to go to a young player.
CHS: I could make that argument. But then there’s the evidence, and there’s going to be more evidence this year.
ZP: I think they’re getting on the right track with this whole thing with partnerships. They’re definitely on the right track, because they’re going to start sending these kids down here, and if the kids can’t get on the field, then it’s very apparent that they don’t deserve to be on the roster.
I think you see with (our guys). Jarad (van Schaik) has trained with San Jose. Mikey (Azira) is with Seattle right now. Colin’s apparently going somewhere, to Vancouver, somewhere. And it’s apparent that we’re getting moves in the right direction. So if we come out and we beat Houston – or whoever we play this year. Who is it? New York and Montreal? If we beat them (4-1), like we did to Houston, again, then we’re gonna start seeing more and more people go (up to MLS).
CHS: Some of the Battery’s best players are under contract but also in the mix with some MLS clubs. How does the team prepare mentally when you have no clue who is actually going to show up in February?
ZP: I think Charleston is a pretty big destination for people who aren’t going to play in the MLS. Just looking around at the other cities and the places we go, it seems like everyone in our league would probably want to play here. If you go to Dayton, it’s not the most desirable place in the world.
I think that, as far as how (Anhaeuser) deals with everything, it blows my mind every year. Being a general manager and a coach has to be one of the hardest things in the world.
CHS: Particularly at this level. If you think about the people who get cut by MLS teams at the end of camp, those are generally some good players. But if you haven’t kept some of your budget aside, you can’t compete for them. And keeping some of your budget available means passing on some players that you know could be contributors.
ZP: I think that’s where some teams might make some mistakes, and where Coach is really good at what he does. You look at some of these teams, theyre signing all these players, and it comes around to the Carolina Cup and you have some pretty big-time players coming in and you didn’t hear anything about them.
Look at Amadou (Sanyang). He came in a couple of years ago, straight after Carolina Cup after playing for Chicago. Jarad last year came in from Puerto Rico. Had no idea he was coming in. Those are two really influential players that made a huge difference for us.
CHS: There are different relationships between players and coaches based on the trust they develop for each other. Where are you in that continuum?
ZP: I would say Auggie has a lot of faith in me. It’s one of those things that you kinda know it when you see it, and when he looks over at the bench, he gets an initial feeling that “Oh, this would work.” You have an initial feeling whether you trust them or not.
CHS: When did it click for you?
ZP: I don’t know. I know that in my rookie year, we’d be up 1-0 and he’d put me in at the end to grind out a game. Maybe he was building trust then. You kinda look at every game that we’re up, I usually go in and kinda shut down the game.
CHS: My impression last season was that there were a lot of close relationships on the team, and also some cliques. But other people have told me that in previous years the cliques were more noticable.
ZP: Yeah. I mean, last year, you could say that maybe there were some people that were closer than others, or whatever. But we would all go and have fun at the apartments, and it wasn’t necessarily one group of people. We’d …all end up in one apartment. We’d go out to the pool, (we would) all go out to the beach. I had a birthday party that everyone came to.
It’s one of those things that, on trips, you’re going to migrate toward your friends. But if I end up in a restaurant with the people I don’t normally hang out with, I wouldn’t feel like an outcast. You know what I mean? Everyone was great people last year.
CHS: As somebody who has been with the club for four years now, and someone who gets looked to for some leadership, does that change your role off the field? Do you feel that responsibility?
ZP: A little bit. Hopefully everybody comes in and feels comfortable. But I like to – especially right in preseason – I like to really get after people on the field. Really just try to set a tone for what the whole season needs to be like. Obviously it backs down a lot once we get into the season. Practices won’t be as intense. But it’s kind of what it needs to be like throughout the whole year. So you kinda try to set a precedent at the beginning, and hopefully everyone will kinda catch on to it.
CHS: Does team chemistry really matter at the professional level?
ZP: To an extent. We are professionals at the end of the day, so when you go out, you do have a job, and you need to get your job done. Your mood in the locker room might carry over into practice. I don’t know that it would carry over into a game. That’s a bit too much. But I don’t think we had a lot of that last year, and I think that’s why we were so tight.
And if you look at how bad it was in Orlando, in (the first half of) that playoff game? It could have been bad. And you could see all the guys out there on the field, you know, regroup. Mike had a pretty weird goal, and then everyone kinda rallied around each other, and at the end you were thinking, “When is this third goal going to come? It’s gonna come.” (Editor’s note: Orlando scored three goals in the first 20 minutes at the Citrus Bowl on Aug. 30, 2013, but Mike Azira‘s header from 40 yards out off a clearance by Lions keeper Miguel Gallardo trapped Gallardo in limbo and found its way into the net. The Battery drew within one at the hour mark when Amadou Sanyang headed home a cross by Jose Cuevas, and spent the rest of the night banging on the door, narrowly missing out on what would have been one of the most dramatic playoff comebacks in league history. — dc)
CHS: What did you think when you saw the unbalanced USL PRO schedule for 2014?
ZP: I think parts of it are kinda unfortunate. I think other parts of it are good. They did a little bit better this year about maybe not doing Saturday-Sunday. We do have a couple of them. But they did a couple Friday-Sundays, which are a little bit better.
But playing Orlando three times will be tough. And playing Richmond three times. Those will both be tough.
At the end of the day, you want to play the best. We haven’t beaten Orlando a ton, but when we do, it’s great. When we beat Richmond, when we knocked them off of their streak last year, maybe one of the best points of the season.
So those opportunities, the more you have them, the better you’re going to be. So if it was my choice – yeah, it sucks that we have to play them three times as far as points, if we don’t get all the points that we need. But at the end of the day, eight teams make the playoffs, and it’s only going to make you better.
We’re going to make the playoffs. I don’t want to guarantee anything, but most likely, we’ll make the playoffs.
CHS: It seems to me that some teams in USL PRO have some structural advantages. And I think Charleston has some structural advantages, too, but they’re weird – it’s not like we’ve got some big market that’s going to ensure that the Battery is always going to make money to buy a big payroll and be competitive. And when you look at the league over time, even the good teams naturally fluctuate up and down. But if Charleston finishes like fifth or below, people around here freak out.
ZP: Yeah, that’s a bad year.
CHS: How does that affect a player?
ZP: It’s definitely good. When somebody holds a standard up to you, you’ve got to try to hit that standard. And if you’re not trying to hit that standard, you probably don’t need to be playing anymore.
CHS: Why do players want to come to Charleston?
ZP: Because you know you’re going to win. We put together good rosters. We usually have a good run in the Open Cup. And most of the player who come in have played with someone who played here and had a good experience. And it’s such a good city. I mean, this is the best city in the USL, hands-down.
CHS: Was last year a disappointment to you?
ZP: I thought it was disappointing, because I thought we could have gone down and done better against Orlando (in the semi-finals).
CHS: But if you set aside the last game…
ZP: Over the course of the season, I would say, it was not disappointing. We had a good (U.S. Open) Cup run. I wish we would have held on a little bit longer in Salt Lake. That would have been great, because then we would have played the Railhawks (in Charleston), which was definitely a winnable game. Beating Houston three times in one year. Always good.
And then, in the league, what did we finish, third? That’s good. I think we should have been top two. Richmond .. was good. But I just think when you look at the USL and you talk about the best teams, I just think that Charleston and Orlando are the two first teams. Maybe it’s just because I’m here. But I think those are the first two teams you talk about, and I think Orlando won the championship when they beat us.
CHS: I thought the stretch that defined 2013 was that period from late May to mid-July when the Battery were playing well enough to win games, but getting draws. And it seemed that the problem was that the team had little injuries, and people coming in and out of the lineup, and it affected the rhythm of things. Eventually the team snapped out of that and finished strong. But you couldn’t get those points back.
ZP: In 2012, the thing was, our lineup was maybe one guy interchanging. Maybe two guys interchanging. Everyone knew their role, knew what we wanted to do. We had a ton of veterans on that team. And I don’t think that people realize how much that matters, to have a veteran like that. People who know how to win. And I think knowing how to win is worth a lot more than people think. Talent is a lot, but knowing how to win is a ton.
I think that’s what we might have been missing last year, but I think we grew so much that this year is really going to be a good thing. A lot of people grew last year. Yeah, we did lose some people, but say we get Mike (Azira) back. Mike grew so much. He was amazing last year. I believe Jarad is coming back. He grew last year. Amadou, he grew.
You look at Q (winger Quinton Griffith). He had an inconsistent year, and you look at him statistically, and yeah, he didn’t have a great year at all. (But) then you look at how much pressure he might have put on a right or left back… and if he can turn some of those shots that were maybe wide or crosses that were maybe out of bounds, he could have maybe had a decent year. But I think he grew over the course of last season, and this season he has the chance to have a good year.
CHS: Do you expect a lot of change to the roster this preseason?
ZP: If you can look back at the last two Carolina Cups, at how different our roster was from the Cup to the first game of the season, I would expect it to be closer to a real roster this year in the Carolina Cup. I don’t know that, but I would expect that Vancouver probably already knows who they’re going to send down, and hopefully they send some guys down. And it will be a little bit closer.
TOP IMAGE: Zach Prince pushes the ball into the attacking third at Orlando after replacing Nicki Paterson in the Battery’s 2-3 USL PRO semifinal loss on Aug. 30, 2013. Dan Conover photos.