The Los Angeles Blues came to Charleston as the highest-scoring road team in USL PRO, 48 hours after hanging three goals on defensive-minded Charlotte. And though they started the match with some of their most potent weapons wearing reserve vests, the Blues looked willing to challenge the Battery to a soccer match instead of a Medieval siege.
With the Blues playing an open game from the early minutes, Charleston controlled the match from start to finish. They spent much of the first half wearing the Blues down with high pressure and long-ball attacks, and when the flagging Blues tried pressing the Battery in the second, Charleston simply morphed into a traditional 4-4-2 formation and allowed attackers Jose Cuevas, Quinton Griffith and Dane Kelly to slice their opponents into bite-sized pieces.
It wasn’t a perfect game by the Battery — they left the off-target Blues occasional openings, and several Charleston players failed to finish on dangerous chances — but from offense to defense to possession and set-pieces, the Black and Gold turned in one of their most complete, comprehensive and dominant matches of 2013.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With Charlotte collapsing to a 0-4 loss to expansion Phoenix FC on Saturday, Charleston climbed into 4th place, within a point of Harrisburg and a chance at hosting a playoff match in August. The team closed out its three game July homestand with nine points on an aggregate 9-1 goal differential. And after averaging just a goal per game over the last seven matches before this week’s play, the Battery averaged four goals in the games on Wednesday and Saturday.
On defense, Charleston’s back line proved so dominant that goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper went to the showers with a shutout — without ever having to record a save.
To me, it looked like one of the best games we’ve seen from the Battery this season (for more photos, visit Kim Morgan Gregory’s gallery from the match).
“I think overall, I would agree,” Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser said. “Overall, defensively and offensively, everything seemed to fit really well together. Maybe the last 10 minutes of the first half we got a little sloppy, but overall we controlled the game, we really had more chances, and of our chances we created a shot on target or a good cross, didn’t we? It was a little more quality in there. And that comes from having that refreshing (feeling that’s the result of) getting the goals and having that confidence. And even the guys, you feel it in training and in finishing and in the locker room.”
For the first time since preseason, the Battery recorded back-to-back complete performances at home, giving fans a taste of the dynamic form they flashed this spring. And with their playoff push now clearly underway, the team looks as confident and fresh as they have all season.
“You lose two games in this league and you go down two spots,” Anhaeuser said. “You win three games and you go up three, four spots. We’ve got – what have we got? Five more games left. And we need to pick up as many points. If we can win them all, hey, we could be top of the table. And that’s what we talked about. But our first goal was three wins at home, do our job, now we’ve got to get organized for two tough games in a row.”
Blues in a minor key
Los Angeles has been one of the more exciting teams in the league, and they’ve been on a run of great form in July. But the Blues looked flat and half-a-beat off on their finishing against Charleston. Even forward Matt Fondy — who joined the team for its July 4th match and came into Saturday night with six goals in July — was doinky. Fondy choked on the team’s best opportunity of the night in the 34th, missing the frame entirely.
Only goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski had a stellar game. Woszczynski got credit for eight saves (the total number of Blues shots directed at Odisnel Cooper), and it was only his singlehanded heroism that kept the Battery from scoring five goals for the second time in four nights. Other than that, the Blues highlight came in the 65th minute when George Davis IV managed to win an individual duel for the ball with Quinton Griffith. Davis’ display of flash won the Blues a corner… which came to absolutely nothing.
So while the Blues — who came to town after playing a storm-delayed draw with Charlotte on Thursday — didn’t bring their best form, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a quality opponent. They attacked like they expected to score, and fought hard throughout.
“Well, and they’re big,” Anhaeuser said afterward. “Did you see how big they were? They’re almost as big as you. It was amazing how big they were.
“They live on free kicks, and they cause you problems with long throws and we caught them, I think, with our speed and our passing was really sharp at the beginning, wasn’t it? We really started to break them apart and wear them down, because big guys get tired a little more quickly, and you’ve got to deal with this humidity and heat, and our guys did a tremendous job and it’s been a big difference.”
About ‘That goal’…
So I know I could be hyping this, but Dane Kelly’s 54th-minute goal felt like the most encouraging thing I’ve seen from the Battery this summer. Here’s why.
The Spring edition of the Battery was a freewheeling, high-octane flying circus, featuring multiple attacking players with distinct talents. A series of nagging injuries broke up that emerging rhythm before the regular season even began, but the team’s style of play regressed even as players returned to duty. The Battery still found points in June and July, but felt frustrated that they weren’t dictating the offensive tempo.
Don’t take my word for it. Go back and read Coach Anhaeuser’s comments after each underwhelming home match — even the wins. Anhaeuser frequently expresses regret for not scoring more goals at Blackbaud Stadium. That’s in part because he knows wins and goals drive attendance, but it’s also at least in part a tribute to the expectations he has for this squad.
The Battery have scored goals that showed greater individual talent this season. But the great thing about Kelly’s seventh goal of the season was that it didn’t require goalazo-technique to be utterly unstoppable.
About five minutes after the Blues began applying high pressure, the Battery counter-attack stung them when Cuevas laid the ball out for Griffith on the left side. Griffith ran down the ball and banged it across the face of the goal for Kelly, whose perfectly timed run intersected with the arc of Griffith’s pass. You could see the whole thing developing from the stands — the exchange of looks between Cuevas and Griffith, the spreading of the defense as Quinton raced down the flank, the lane opening for Kelly in front of goal. And with the passes and runs each perfectly executed, the Blues were helpless to stop what was coming.
The understated Kelly, who isn’t exactly a quote-machine on his most talkative days, downplayed the play as business-as-usual. “Me and Quinton always work on that,” Kelly said “So it’s not a big deal. Quinton always plays those balls to me, even in training, so that’s how we train.” Griffith described it as “all about energy, and making the right run at the right time, you know.”
Anhaeuser seemed a bit more in the spirit of my post-game excitement about the play.
“Beautiful,” he said. “And I talked about it with Q, trying to get him to go thorough that gap because he’s so fast. But you don’t need to be fast for that ball. It’s about timing. And … you couldn’t have really painted it better. It went in, through, cross, one-touch goal, and it was very nice and I agree 100 percent.”
Griffith agreed that the play was more than just a random happening. “Yeah, we’re finding it, very much,” he said. “We’ll be working on it in practice, like, just keep pushing, pushing until it comes. It’s just the bond getting better and better with each other. ”
Saturday was the Battery’s eighth USL PRO shutout. They’ve proven they can defend with the best of the league. But if they can average two goals a game down the stretch (instead of the 1 goal per match they averaged in the games leading into this homestand) their outcomes are going to produce full points, not low-scoring draws.
Attack, attack, attack…
The Battery have multiple players whose versatility means that the position titles we give them — forward, midfielder, winger, striker — are more for our reference than theirs. But if there has been a recurring fan critique of the Battery this summer it’s that Anhaeuser’s dynamic 4-5-1 — which often looks like a defensive alignment, but can morph rapidly into an attacking 4-3-3 or a possession-minded 4-2-3-1 — lacked the dedicated forwards necessary to score more goals.
On Wednesday, Cuevas looked to me to be playing more of Paterson’s role in the middle of the formation, pushing upfield in the attack, but staying connected to the midfield. Cuevas agreed — with Nicki on the sidelines, the coach had given him freedom to create in the middle of the formation.
But on Saturday I didn’t have the same clear picture of Cuevas’ role… until around the 5oth minute, when I spotted him deployed as a forward in what looked like a classic 4-4-2. After the match I asked Anhaeuser whether my eyes had been deceiving me, and whether the 4-4-2 look was something that developed in the flow of the match, or whether it was a deliberate tactic.
His answer was essentially a more polite version of “Well, duh.”
“I moved Jose up,” Anhaeuser said. “I changed that the last three games. So we’re kinda… trying to keep him up higher. Moved him up more with Dane to give him more of an extra guy. And also give us a guy in there, because it’s so warm.
“But we talked about it. Even if we go with (Heviel) Cordoves, we’re going to have two forwards, so we’ve kinda moved to two in the midfield and moved Nicki to the right side. So, made a couple of adjustments, it’s worked out, and now we’ve got to go the drawing board, because when you go on the road, sometimes you have to do things differently. But guys are playing well, so we’re going to keep it going, because we definitely want to score goals. And as long as we get shut outs, you can’t lose.”
So on Saturday night, the Battery punished the Blues — at least in the second half, and maybe earlier, for all I know — with an alignment that put Cuevas up top as Kelly’s strike partner, pinned Griffith and Paterson out wide, and gave the central midfield to versatile Michael Azira and defensive-minded Amadou Sanyang.
It’s also worth noting that in the past two matches, Anhaeuser hasn’t been shy to substitute offensive-minded players even while holding leads late in the game. The Battery was up two when the coach sent in Ben Fisk and Heviel Cordoves.
Speaking of Sanyang…
Sanyang followed up his first 90-minute performance of 2013 on Wednesday with another one on Saturday. And though he didn’t score this time, he looked relaxed and well in command of his area.
What’s particularly interesting about Sanyang’s Saturday start is that it came with a rested Jarad van Schaik on the substitute bench.
Sanyang began 2013 as the Battery’s default defensive midfielder, until head injuries pushed him to the sidelines. Van Schaik, who earned himself a starting role as an outside midfielder, shifted into Sanyang’s deep spot and excelled, earning plenty of fan love for his steady, smart, hustling play.
Van Schaik replaced Cuevas late in Saturday’s match with the Battery up two goals, but Amadou continued patrolling the deep midfield, frustrating the hell out of Los Angeles. He won a free kick and fiercely waived off Rodrigo Lopez’s offer of a hand-up, giving the Blues’ star a few words instead. He picked up an absurd yellow card in the 78th minute, and walked away coolly.
Another Sanyang note. In the 44th minute, Sanyang came up in support of a Battery attack and knocked heads with Scottish defender Ryan O’Leary. Both crumpled to the ground, and an alarmed-looking Cuevas signalled immediately to the sidelines for trainer Bobby Weisenberger. The buzz in the stands around me instantly turned to Sanyang’s injury history.
But Sanyang walked of the field looking steady, smiling and chatting with Weisenberger. He returned to the match at the next dead ball. O’Leary, on the other hand, came off the field supported by two trainers, with an ice pack on his head. His first start as an LA Blue ended after less than a half.
Sanyang told me on Wednesday that his concussion problems are no longer an issue. On Saturday, he stated that case without saying a word.
The near-miss list
Quinton Griffith, whose best-kept secret is a dangerous shot from distance, missed on a shot in the third minute… the referee waived off Colin Falvey‘s goal in the 9th minute with an off-sides call… Cody Ellison blasted a header on frame from point-blank range, denied only by Woszcynski’s best save of the night… but a miscue by Woszcynski in the 22nd minute left the Blues keeper stranded above the six in contact with Dane Kelly. Kelly controlled the ball, but his hurried shot on an empty goal missed wide left…. Jose Cuevas threaded a perfect square pass through defensive clutter near the top of the attacking third to create an opportunity for Nicki Paterson, but Paterson’s relatively weak header homed in on the keeper…
Colin Falvey, attacking superstar
OK, as Falvey would say, I’m “giving him a bit of stick” with that headline, but after scoring the first goal against Phoenix on Wednesday, the Battery skipper came within a whisker of scoring the Battery’s first goal on Saturday, too.
The play began as a corner, which Cuevas played short, but the possession created an opportunity when the ball reached a well-marked Amadou Sanyang in front of goal. Sanyang headed it to the left, where Falvey’s run to daylight ended with a quick shot to the near post.
From the stands, my first impression was that Falvey stayed upfield of veteran Blues midfielder Allan Russell, but in looking back over my photos it look pretty clear that Russell caught Falvey out on the Sanyang header, riding his back at first before jumping back around into a defending position as Falvey settled and fired.
Regardless of the call, a more attack-minded Falvey has been something of a late-season trend for the Battery. The Captain made multiple deep forays in both Orlando matches, and has been a big contributor on set pieces. Falvey is also spending more time upfield during the run of play, taking more chances than the player we watched in May and June.
In addition to moonlighting as a striker, Falvey continued his routine run of nearly flawless defending. He’s the best defender I’ve watched this season — but I’m open to suggestions in case someone else wants to make a case for a better defender in USL PRO.
Defense, defense, defense…
As I mentioned above, Falvey’s back line was so solid Saturday that Cooper earned his seventh league clean sheet without being forced into a save (he faced eight shots). Cooper punched a few set pieces to safety and came up to snuff out a few developing threats, but for the most part the big Cuban was able to relax on his line and let his defenders keep the action away from him.
Of course, Los Angeles’ poor shooting helped, too.
Cody Ellison had another one of his now-routine quality outings at center back. Taylor Mueller, whose parents were in town from Washington State for all three games of the homestand, put in a solid night’s work as a fill-in at right back.
And let me get back on the Emmanuel Adjetey bandwagon. After flashing incredible talent in his early play for the Battery, the Ghana-born Vancouver Whitecap went through a period of looking simply solid, with the occasional mental lapse — often associated with over-running a challenge. But over the past two matches he has looked like the man we saw in May, only more confident. He’s still ungodly quick, with great vertical leap and nimble feet, but he looks more assured on the pitch.
Just like Kelly’s goal was made possible by Cuevas’ pass to Griffith, Paterson’s goal began with Adjetey picking up a Blues clearance, starting a counter-attack, and ultimately earning the assist when he passed ahead to Paterson
back to Paterson from the left corner. He’d be an easy Man of the Match candidate on most nights, but Saturday was an night when multiple men were worthy of the honor: Kelly, Cuevas, Paterson, Falvey… so, pick one.
Microwave and Thunderfoot
Ben Fisk and Heviel Cordoves have the talent to start for the Battery, but for various reasons both look most likely to contribute down the stretch as substitutes — unless called upon to replace someone else’s tired legs in the first XI.
The two created the final goal of the night together, but Fisk had already put on a show for the fans at halftime — just by “warming up” with teammate Bryce Alderson at midfield. Fisk is a ball-trick freak, and by the start of the second half, more than 4,000 people knew it. The kid the fans in Vancouver call “Ben Ten” is a natural showman.
I’ve taken to calling him “microwave” in my notes because he just heats things up so fast. And even when you think he’s finally cornered and out of options, Fisk has a way of escaping from traps and making a play — something he did in the 80th minute Saturday. Though he played just 20 minutes, he still got credit for an assist and a shot, and picked up a yellow card. He’s instant action and a remarkable player, and Battery fans should enjoy him while we have him.
Cordoves seldom starts in the Charleston system because the Battery’s default offense is based on Dane Kelly’s ability to make repeated runs and win log passes. Cordoves can’t match that level of fitness and speed. But here’s a stat to consider: In 572 league minutes this season, the Cuban with howitzer for a foot has five goals.
Nice guy to have around.
Ole, ole, ole, ole…
With 4,300 fans in the stands and a full-contingent in the E-10 Supporters Section, Battery fans were louder and more engaged Saturday than we’ve seen since… well, I can’t remember. Suffice it to say that a group of fan drummers in E-10 raised the energy across the stadium.
Another fan group that showed up Saturday was the South Carolina Spurs, the state’s Official Supporters Club of Tottenham Hotspur.
Twenty-three of the group’s members are from the Charleston area, but the group currently has about 90 members spread across the state, said Stewart Jones of Columbia. The club sponsors Hotspur viewing parties and events across South Carolina, and got a tour of the stadium and Three Lions Pub from Battery President Andrew Bell,
owner Tony Bakker, himself a Spurs fan, on Saturday.
For more info on the group, try their website.
TOP IMAGE: Dane Kelly settles a long pass through the heart of the Blues defense and turns to feed a perfect pass back to Nicki Paterson in the first half. Dan Conover photos.