As we try to figure out if the Riverhounds really are one of the top teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference, the next four days are going to be a great barometer.
The Hounds’ two-game road trip begins Saturday with a battle against the Charleston Battery, a team that long has been one of the best in the USL and its predecessor leagues. Founded in 1993, the Battery (5-3-6) are the oldest continuously running pro soccer team in the U.S., and historically they have been hard to knock off at their MUSC Health Stadium home.
The Hounds (6-1-6) have only defeated the Battery twice since 2011, but one of those was a 2-1 win in South Carolina last season, just the third time since the Hounds were founded in 1999 they won in Charleston. Both the Hounds’ goal scorers in that game — Marshall Hollingsworth and Corey Hertzog — are gone, but Charleston goal scorer Ataulla Guerra remains one of the Battery’s focal points this season.
1. Keep the clamps on Guerra.
Guerra, the Battery’s 6-foot-2 Trinidadian striker, has spearheaded the Charleston attack all season and produced seven goals, one shy of the league lead shared by the Hounds’ Neco Brett. And much like last week against the New York Red Bulls II’s Brian White, the Hounds defense will have to keep the clamps on the man atop the Battery’s formation.
White, however, is a smaller, craftier forward, while Guerra is a big, rangy striker built in a mold similar to the Hounds’ Romeo Parkes. The Hounds’ center backs have been solid in the air, led by the height of Hugh Roberts, but Guerra has a knack for slipping between defenders, something the Red Bulls were able to do too much last Saturday.
“At times, we allowed them to play through us, and they had some moments in and around the box where they definitely breached our backs,” Bob Lilley said after facing the Red Bulls. “I think a more experienced team would have punished us, as open in the back as we were at times, and that’s a concern.”
The Battery qualifies as that more experienced team with Guerra, 30, as well as forward Kotaro Higashi, 28, and midfielder Jarad van Schaik, 29, among the regulars. The Hounds will need a tighter defensive performance, or else the Battery’s more savvy lineup is likely to finish the chances the Red Bulls could not.
2. Beat the heat.
The Hounds put in a full-length training session Monday, wrapping up around noon when temperatures in the Steel City breached 90 degrees for the first time this calendar year.
Perhaps there was a reason Lilley wanted to get his team lots of work under the sun; the forecast in Charleston is for a high of 92 with more than 70 percent humidity, and temperature at kickoff is expected to be around 85. That will make it by far the Hounds’ hottest game of the season and a test of the team’s stamina against a team used to those conditions. While players’ individual fitness levels are going to be put to the test, Lilley also will have to be mindful of how his charges are handling the conditions.
The heat also could affect lineup selection. With a chance one or more subs might need to be used to combat fatigue, rather than change shape or tactics, expect Lilley to pick a lineup with most of his position-flexible players — think Kenardo Forbes, Jordan Dover and Thomas Vancaeyezeele — in the starting 11. Even with another road game 96 hours later, Lilley will go in seeking a result in Charleston, and he’ll worry later about who might need rest against Louisville on Wednesday.
3. Look for the Jamaican connection to continue.
Lilley surprised some by starting Parkes and Brett together for the first time against New York, but with the two Jamaicans being the only two Hounds finding the net with any regularity, finding a spot for the two strikers — even if one is somewhat out of position — made sense.
“I think they can cause problems … but it’s important that we get it right at both ends,” Lilley said. “The better we defend with all our attackers on the field, the more times we can probably do it.”
Because of the defensive concerns, Lilley could go back to only one of the two spearheading the attack to begin the match. If the Hounds find themselves needing a goal to tie or pull ahead late, however, pairing the two strikers — especially with fellow Jamaican Forbes in a playmaking role — could again be the answer, as it was in Richmond and against New York.