What Are They All About? Charleston Battery
Progressing. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire drew FC Cincinnati 1-1 in the Carolina Challenge Cup on the back of a beautifully chipped goal from Aleksandar Katai. It was their second draw of the preseason tournament and it sets them up to potentially win the tournament in their final match against Charleston on Saturday (6:00 CT on charlestonbattery.com). Should the Fire defeat the hosts and the Cincinnati vs. Columbus match end in any manner other than a Cincy win, the tournament will be decided among the MLS sides based on goal difference. That motivation should make for an interesting forward driven encounter for a Chicago side that has already shown promise in these fixtures.
The first half of Wednesday’s match was the product of Veljko Paunovic and Alan Koch deciding to give 45 minutes to largely reserve sides and it became clear early on that while neither side has much depth, Chicago’s B team had more to offer. Brandt Bronico was especially impressive on and off the ball as he donned the captain’s armband. The second half saw starters take the field for both sides and the Fire’s front four of Nikolic, Katai, Mihailovic, and newly acquired Frankowski were a force to be reckoned with. The two Eastern European wingers interchanged positions throughout the half, Nikolic continued dangerous runs, and the young USMNT player looks to be the real deal. They linked up for numerous chances as the score line was not ultimately reflective of the work put in by Chicago.
The Charleston Battery, on the other hand, were beneficiaries of a similar scenario as they drew Columbus 1-1 on Tuesday after being outplayed by the Crew. Given the fact that the Battery have never won the tournament they host and play in the USL, expectations for them are rarely high, but they have finished ahead of Chicago in the friendly competition (2011). Perhaps more importantly, the Carolinian outfit knocked their major league counterpart out of the 2010 US Open Cup after a 0-0 draw in which the Fire failed to convert any of their penalty kicks. This encounter will be the last chance for both sides to fine tune prior to their respective season openers, but will it be the hosts or the visitors that have a spring in their step heading into Opening Kick? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Charleston Preseason Form Guide: D-L
Previous Result: A 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew SC.
Formation: 4-4-2; Kuzminsky; Woodbine, Bolt, Archer, van Schaik; Anunga, Kelly, Candela, Rittmeyer, Piggott, Svantesson
Strengths: For those of you who are frequent readers here, you know that we like to discuss the freedom and lack of fear that being a lower division side affords you. The Fire have found themselves victim to NASL, USL, and even PDL sides in recent memory and Charleston will relish this opportunity. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Well, I Guess We’ll Have to Jump Higher: We’ve recently discussed Chicago’s necessity to build chemistry and consistency across an entirely new back four and that task is about to get a little harder on Saturday. Charleston features a quintessential number nine in Ian Svantesson and the six-foot six center-forward will be quite a handful for a centerback paring still learning about one another. He won’t be a complete unknown to this technical staff given his breakout season for Tulsa Roughnecks in 2017, the Fire’s USL affiliate at the time, where he scored eleven goals in thirty appearances. Svantesson has scored two goals in the tournament already and although one of them was a penalty, he has shown danger both in the air and from distance. A shot from outside the box against Cincy stung the palms of an outstretched Tyton, an expert display of hold up play before dishing off a pass to Piggott for a shot on target against Columbus, and a headed goal off of a corner in that same match highlight his list of skills. Chicago will need to avoid giving up dead ball situations in this one.
Standing on His Head: Although he could not keep a clean sheet, Charleston keeper Joe Kuzminsky had an impressive display against Columbus on Wednesday. A product of the Colorado Rapids youth academy and a four-year starter at Alabama, Kuzminsky prides himself on his shot stopping ability, a trait that helped Charleston survive a late Columbus surge and a barrage of shots in the final ten minutes of the encounter. While Chicago’s attacking players are a class above, that could be all the more reason for Kuzminsky to be on his toes and shine on a bigger stage.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day this is a USL side that was outplayed in the opening match and struggled against a reserve Crew side. The gulf in class should continue on Saturday as Chicago looks to build confidence heading into opening week.
Caught Flat Footed: In both matches so far Charleston has played with a flat back four. Neither one of their fullbacks is expected to provide much going forward or to provide overlapping runs on the counter. That is not the norm in MLS but could be an effective route in stifling the opposition for lower league sides, if executed properly… The fact of the matter is that Charleston’s back line was overrun on the wings and by balls in over the top against Cincy and didn’t close down quickly enough to avoid shots from distance from Columbus. When you add in the fact that the centerback pairings utilized in the tournament have been a bit too slow to deal with major league opposition, you have a recipe for disaster. Katai, Frankowski, and Mihailovic should tear this back line apart and Nikolic’s tendency to play on the shoulder of the last defender might pay dividends in this one.
But I’m Tired: If Chicago thought they have depth problems, Charleston has seemingly decided to one up them. The Battery have just fourteen rostered players at the moment and although they have brought in a number of trialists to round out the tournament squad, those players have varying abilities and fitness levels. By the end of the third match in seven days, this could be a problem. We saw some of the effects of this late in the match against Columbus where Charleston had all eleven players in their own defensive third for the final ten minutes of the encounter, a strategy that will prove disastrous against a rampant Fire front four.
It’s My Time to Shine: At the end of the day, this is the last ninety minutes that some of the Fire squad will have to show Veljko Paunovic that they deserve a spot in the squad. With decisions about affiliate loanees on the horizon and only eighteen spots available for the opening day squad, the fringe players will have extra motivation to leave it all on the field in this one. The likes of Hebers, Hasler, Martinez, and Moreno will be running like madmen from the first whistle and the onslaught may prove to be too much for the battery.
Prediction: Once again, no score line prediction until the regular season starts, but this won’t be as easy as some think. Charleston will be stubborn in the final showing of their tournament and the Fire still have a lot to work out.