Day 4 with the Battery

March, 20, 2008
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- So Thursday was the moment of truth, an informal game against the San Jose Earthquake reserves. My camera crew was back to film it and to see how I fared against an actual MLS squad, albeit the team's reserve lineup.

I got to the stadium at 10 a.m.-- players are asked to get in an hour before the game. By the time I got there, most of the players were already there and some were already in the trainers' room getting taped up.

The night before, coach Mike Anhaeuser had already filled me in on the position that I'd be playing -- up top as one of the two forwards in a standard 4-4-2. The Battery had been mostly playing a 4-5-1 so far in preseason, but Anhaeuser figured that playing me up top by myself wouldn't be a smart move (of course, one can question whether or not playing me anywhere in the actual lineup would be a smart move, but that's a whole 'nother topic).

He took me to the "blackboard" (it's not really a blackboard since it's white and they use a blue marker instead of chalk) and drew out the lineup, showing me how he wanted me to pinch in and close down on defenders when the Battery didn't have the ball, and the general area for me to move in. The plan was for me to get 10 minutes of playing time at the start of the second half.

I'm usually a right- or left-side midfielder, so I wasn't too optimistic about my prospects as a forward, where I'd be asked at times to hold the ball up with my back to the goal and challenge on high balls (I'm abysmal in the air). However, the bright side was that I might get an opportunity to shoot on goal.

By the morning I was feeling fairly relaxed about the prospect of facing San Jose. I knew my role and I knew how long I'd be playing for. I figured the standard of opposition wouldn't be that much different from the Battery players, most of whom had MLS experience, that I'd been scrimmaging against in training. To be honest, I'd been more nervous on my first day with the Battery.

Once in the locker room I discovered my kit was semi-incomplete, and by the time we located it, it was missing one sock and the top, but at least I had the shorts. Midfielders Louie Rolko and Dominic Cianciarulo took pity on me and helped me track down an extra sock and top.

"Good balance, good shape, let's make sure we keep the ball. It's going to be nice, it's going to be a good day, it's a little windy so make sure you get that."

With coach Anhauser's words in our ears, we set out onto the field for pregame warmups.

My camera crew spoke with me before the game and urged me to make sure I shot if a chance came my way for that "SportsCenter moment." I assured them that I would, while pointing out the chances of me touching the ball were already slim to none.

I watched the first half from the bench. The game was evenly balanced -- both sides were fielding their reserves and if you didn't know better, it'd be hard for an observer to tell which was the MLS team. The only Quakes player I recognized was Jamil Walker, formerly of D.C. United; most of the regulars had played in the previous night's 2-1 victory over the Battery in the Challenge Cup. The first half was quiet with David Kenga coming close to scoring for the Battery when he cut in from the left and ripped a shot that clanged off the San Jose crossbar. We headed into the locker room with a scoreless tie.

My big moment was almost upon me. At halftime, Anhaeuser told us he'd be making just two changes from the first half, one of which would be inserting me at forward for Lester Moré. As we headed out, the players gave me some words of encouragement and told me to enjoy the experience.

As the second half started we were going from right to left. I'm not sure if the San Jose players knew who I was, but they were treating me like a regular player. There was always a defender in my vicinity and virutally every time when I was trying to shake loose off the ball, they grabbed my shirt to reign me back. This is commonplace from defenders, the Battery guys told me on the sidelines later.

Anyway, I'd already learned enough from the keep-away drill in training to know that I should conserve my energy and only pinch in to close down the man nearest to me as opposed to running end to end to try to get the ball.

As it was, San Jose proved adroit at keeping the ball away from the Battery, passing, moving and maintaining possession. It was hard to see much of the ball. A couple of times the ball came in my general vicinity in the air around the halfway line on clearances by our defenders, but San Jose won those easily (did I mention I was useless in the air?).

I think I actually only managed to touch the ball once in terms of proper control, when I won a 50-50 ball but was then dispossessed by the second defender when I tried to dribble past him. Ordinarily I'd have passed the ball to the wide-open wing in that situation, but I'd promised Ivan Gazidis a couple of weeks ago that I'd try to beat a MLS defender one-on-one, so I had to give it a shot. The rest of the time, I spent trying to close down defenders but for the most part, we had a hard time creating an opening, although Jordan Hughes forced a save after stealing an errant pass from San Jose.

A few minutes later I was subbed off for forward Aaron King with the game still tied and spent the rest of the game watching from the bench. The Quakes would go on to score two second-half goals, the first of which was from an incredibly dubious penalty decision.

"Ref, why don't you just kick it in for them," shouted one fan, and that pretty much summed it up.

I'd say for the first 70 or so minutes the game was very evenly matched, but in the last 20 or so minutes, the superior fitness of San Jose started to show through. The Battery are still three to four weeks away from proper match fitness (their season starts on April 12) and you could start to spot the telltale signs of fatigue late in the second half.

After the game was over, I was surprised to find that I'd actually been given 20 minutes of playing time. "I thought you were doing well, so I kept you out there," said Anhaeuser. Obviously, he was being generous but still, at least it hadn't been a complete debacle and I'd avoided injury, so it wasn't all bad.

After the game, the players were given the rest of the day off (most were dashing home to watch NCAA basketball) and catch the U.S. U-23 game against Canada (Battery assistant coach Mark Watson is with the Canadian team) with mixed feelings.

As for me, I might (and it's still only a possibility depending on the Battery's schedule) be doing the Beep Test after all sometime Friday, just to appease Smoochie and the rest of my readers (including a nameless someone in MLS league offices) who have written to me urging me to take it -- darn you all!
Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to in 2005.



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