CHARLESTON, SC July 30, 2014 – When the Charleston Battery deplane in Upstate New York on Thursday afternoon ahead of Friday’s matchup at Sahlen’s Stadium in downtown Rochester (7:35 p.m., 910 AM ESPN Radio or streaming live on the Rochester Rhinos YouTube channel), they’ll be headed toward one of their most interesting matchups of the season.
On the one hand, Charleston — a youthfully inconsistent 6-8-6 squad — that has nonetheless produced seven points in its most recent three matches and hoisted itself back into the thick of the playoff race.
On the other, the 8-7-6, Rochester Rhinos, a traditional league power currently entrenched at the 5th spot in the USL PRO table — a seemingly comfortable perch constructed entirely of one resource: Defense. The Rhinos have accounted for just 19 goals in 21 matches — the league’s lowest total and average — yet have surrendered only 16 times. Only Orlando has been better.
And when top-ranked Orlando City SC rolled into Sahlen’s Stadium on Sunday, the Rhinos tromped the roar right out of the rampant Lions, sending them back to Florida nursing a 1-0 defeat — their first of the season.
It was the classic 2014 Rhinos scoreline. Eight of their matches have finished 1-0. They’ve allowed more than one goal just three times, en route to nine shutouts — including a 1-0 defeat of a makeshift Charleston lineup on April 27, 24 hours after the Battery earned a scoreless draw at Pittsburgh.
“That’s Bob Lilley,” said Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser, referencing Rochester’s head coach since 2010. “They defend first. They defend with five, attack with four or five, and you have to be patient when you attack a team like Bob’s.”
For much of the season, patience was an unattainable virtue for the Battery attack, which has sputtered when called upon to score from sustained and purposeful possession. The tip of the Battery’s spear has been sharper since the return of Battery playmaker Jose Cuevas earlier this month, boosting the team’s spirits if not dramatically improving the club’s goal output.
So while the on-paper matchup looks like Rochester’s immovable object vs. Charleston’s resistible force, there are nuances to the contest that could make for an interesting game.
With two defenders — Patrick Slogic, Babacar Diallo — who tower above 6-4, and a roster of quality veterans like former Battery man Kyle Hoffer, the Rhinos muscle-up well on opposing central strikers and often earn their living off set pieces.
But with the Battery finding recent success with a lineup that features pacey forward Dane Kelly and clever-but-undersized midfielders Cuevas, Maikel Chang and rookie Justin Portillo, Charleston will challenge Rochester’s defense to a shuttle race, not a heavyweight slugfest.
“They’re big, so we’re going to have to limit their ability to set up, and not give them a lot of set pieces and corner kicks” Anhaeuser said. “We have to be quick up front, because that’s how we can offset their size advantage… We can pass on their turf, and we’ll have to pressure them.”
Offensively, the Rhinos offense funnels the ball to smallish forward J.C. Banks, who has six goals on the season — three more than strike partner Hugh Dixon, the team’s second-leading goal scorer. To counter them, the Battery may well have to turn to the center back combination of Shawn Ferguson and Taylor Mueller. Team Captain Colin Falvey’s status is tentative ahead of the Rochester trip as he rehabs a nagging muscular injury.
One player is confirmed out for Rochester: Jarad van Schaik, who is serving a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation. He could be replaced in the lineup by defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang, who has been working his way back to match fitness after experiencing soreness in his hamstring after the July 19 match at Richmond.
Kelly leads the Battery in scoring with four goals, two of them coming last Saturday. Kelly was one of several Battery players who didn’t figure in the first Rochester match. With Charleston coming to town the night after playing at Pittsburgh, the Battery lined up in in a defensive-minded 4-5-1, with since-departed Vancouver Whitecaps PDL forward Marlon Ramirez making his sole appearance. Also making their starting debuts in that match: Portillo and goalkeeper Eric Shannon, who logged three saves.
Despite that fatigued and juggled lineup, the Battery nevertheless outshot the Rhinos 11-5 on April 27, with seven of those Charleston attempts coming in the second half as the Rhinos packed the box to defend their lone goal by Banks in the 19th minute.
Rochester will play a major role in the outcome of the Battery’s late-season push for a playoff spot. The teams are matched three times this year in the league’s unbalanced schedule, with the Battery hosting them on Friday, Aug. 15, one night before the Rhinos travel to Charlotte.
The Battery have eight regular season matches remaining, five of them at home, and are currently tied with Orange County and Charlotte for 8th place.
Molly Darcy’s Irish Pub at 235 E. Bay St. in Charleston near The Market will host the club’s official away-match viewing party.