Battery's quest gets tougher as stakes get higher
Once is an upset. Twice might be considered a coincidence. But eight times? That's starting to be a trend.
With eight wins over teams from Major League Soccer already to their credit, can last week's penalty-kick victory over the Chicago Fire in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup really be called an upset anymore for the Charleston Battery?
Charleston will face its second straight MLS opponent when the Battery takes on the Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup tonight at Columbus Crew Stadium.
"The club has always put an emphasis on the U.S. Open Cup tournament," said Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser. "It's something that we take a lot of pride in, and I think that comes out in some of the results we've had over the last couple of years against teams from the MLS."
Including this year, the Battery has beaten at least one MLS team in each of the last four tournaments. Since 2007, the Battery has notched wins over Houston (2007, 2008), Dallas (2008) and CD Chivas USA (2009). The Battery advanced all the way to the U.S. Open Cup final in 2008, losing 2-1 in the title game to D.C. United. Throw in last week's victory over the Fire and the Battery is 5-3 in their last eight matches against MLS opponents in the U.S. Open Cup.
"I think you always want to play against the best competition, and that's what I love about the U.S. Open Cup," said Battery midfielder Stephen Armstrong, 33, who played for the Crew during his four-year career in MLS. "I think when you're my age, you want to prove you can still play against elite competition. Some of the younger guys on the team are trying to get noticed, and a good showing against an MLS team is a good way to earn a contract."
But beating teams from the MLS in the U.S. Open Cup is getting more difficult. With the winner of the tournament automatically qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, MLS clubs have started to place more of an emphasis on the event.
"There just wasn't a lot of incentive for the MLS teams to win the tournament," Anhaeuser said. "Most MLS teams didn't put much importance on the Open Cup, especially in the opening couple of rounds. A lot of times they would put out a reserve team against a team from the USL.
"You might get a couple of starters, but you certainly were not going to get their top-11 guys on the field for 90 minutes."
That started to change in 2008 when the winner of the U.S. Open Cup was given a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
"Qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League means a lot more money for the clubs," Anhaeuser said. "In the past, teams would get $100,000 for winning the tournament, which was a nice prize, but getting into the Champions League can mean really big bucks."
Chicago began last week's match with as many as six full-time starters on the field and then added three additional starters in the second half, including midfielder Patrick Nyarko and striker Brian McBride, who has played for the U.S. national team in two World Cups.
"You could tell in the second half that Chicago really wanted to get a good result," Anhaeuser said. "Nyarko and McBride are certainly two of the better attacking players, and they were pushing forward."
With a spot in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals at stake, Anhaeuser expects the Crew to use most of their top players.
"They're in the middle of their regular season, but you're three wins away from winning the tournament," Anhaeuser said. "I would be surprised if we saw a lot of reserve players on the field. It might not be their top 11 players, but the guys we'll see will have played on a pretty consistent basis for them."
Midfielder/striker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who leads the Crew with five goals and four assists, did not play against Rochester in the Crew's 2-1 victory last week in the third round of the tournament.
"He might not start, but I think we'll see him in the second half, especially if the game is close," Anhaeuser said. "At this point in the tournament, you're not going to leave your best players on the bench. There's just too much at stake."