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Looking at Charleston Battery: Who are Rising's playoff final opponents?

Owain Evans Avatar
November 6, 2023
Charleston Battery lift the Eastern Conference trophy after defeating Louisville City.

As the clock ticked towards Phoenix Rising’s clash with Sacramento Republic, one team already had its hands on a trophy and its spot in the playoff final secured.

Charleston Battery didn’t have quite as long odds as Rising to reach this stage once the postseason kicked off, but that doesn’t mean they were expected to do so either. Their success sets up a rematch of both sides’ first match of the season, which also took place in South Carolina.

So what exactly do we know about the Eastern Conference champions?

Rebuilding Charleston Battery

Much like Phoenix Rising, Charleston Battery were not a playoff team last season.

In fact, they finished 12th in the Eastern Conference standings. That meant they sat above only Atlanta 2 and Red Bulls II — two sides that dropped out of the league at year’s end to join MLS NEXT Pro.

It was a performance poor enough for head coach Conor Casey, in just his first year at the helm of the historic club, to be given the boot one game shy of completing the year.

“I think the main marker of Conor Casey’s Charleston Battery team was that they didn’t have an identity,” Backheeled’s John Morrissey, best known as USL Tactics on social media, said. “He couldn’t decide between a back three and a back four. Half the time, they tried to play very direct out from the back. Half the time, they’d be possessive.

“There were moments where they got pretty fearsome in what they were trying to do press-wise, very good about clamping down in the midfield, and then they just kind of dropped that […] They just never ran with the tactics that worked.”

Charleston would instead turn to Ben Pirmann, just days after his announcement as USL Championship Coach of the Year thanks to his work with Memphis 901.

“Pirmann, by contrast, came in from the very first match against Phoenix with that 4-2-3-1, with that aggressive counter-pressure, with the inversion of [Nick] Markanich out wide,” Morrissey said. “All of the tenets were there from the moment he hit the sideline, and I think that’s really the big differentiation, is they feel like they have a philosophy this time around.”

That philosophy turned Charleston Battery into one of the more feared teams in the Eastern Conference, finishing comfortably in third spot. The team ended seven points ahead of Pirmann’s old side in Memphis, while more than doubling their points haul from 2022.

That doesn’t mean they were hugely favored going into the postseason, though.

“I think if you looked at the East this year, it looked like a solid top three with them, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh,” Morrissey said. “I would have been surprised [to see them go this far at the start of playoffs] just because of the youth that they’ve got, especially in attack. I think it’s slept on. They’re the second youngest team in USL right now. So many of those attacking players, especially, are just guys that don’t have the playoff experience, and you can debate whether or not that’s important in this league.”

How does Charleston play?

From the off, Pirmann worked to instill his playing style in the squad.

“They’re a team that really tries to control the game, control territory, keep the ball in front of the opposing net so that they’re minimizing the danger they’re facing, and they do so with a really aggressive counter-press,” Morrissey said. “They tend to build out pretty directly, get the ball to Augi Williams who’s making a run into the channel.

“They’re fierce when they try to contest the second balls, when he gets a knock-down. You often see one of the midfielders from deeper in the pivot, whether that be [Emilio] Ycaza or [Chris] Allan jump up and try to aid in that effort. They’re pretty clever with what they do with the wingers.”

That willingness to play a more direct style out of the back is evident in the numbers. Of passes attempted by Battery goalkeeper Trey Muse, 49 percent were long passes. That contrasts with just 22 percent for Phoenix’s Rocco Rios Novo.

Through the playoffs, Charleston have stayed strong, and are yet to trail in any of their matches. Helped out by first round upsets over the two sides ranked higher than them, Battery thumped a weakened Indy Eleven side by five to get the ball rolling, before taking down Legion and Louisville to round out their successful conference campaign.

“In this run, it’s the ability to dictate games and have it play out on their terms,” Morrissey said. “They never feel like they’re responding to what the other team is doing. They’re always taking the fight to Indy and just absolutely demolishing them from minute one, essentially.

“But you think about that Louisville game, where Lou City for nine years has been a team that kind of was the prototype for what Pirmann is doing with that 4-1-4-1 system, counter-pressure, controlling the game in terms of the territory. Charleston did that right back to them in a way that no-one has done in the Eastern Conference for the better part of a decade. I think it’s just the way that they’re able to be true to themselves and what they want to do on the field week in, week out, that just sets them apart. This run just feels like a continuation of what they were doing in the regular season, rather than panicking one week to another trying to kind of tailor their approach.”

Who does Charleston have at their disposal?

When you’re talking about Charleston Battery’s players, you have to start with Fidel Barajas.

The youngster was recently named to The Guardian’s Next Generation 2023: a list of top young players in the game from around the world. He did so off the back of a calendar year with five goals and 11 assists, despite being just 17 years old.

Yet Barajas won’t feature as the star in this season finale. In fact, he won’t feature at all, having been called up to represent Mexico at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Instead of Patriots Point, he’ll be taking the field in Bandung, Indonesia, earlier on Sunday.

“Obviously he’s somebody who put up the huge numbers,” Morrissey said. “He’s got a bit of magic in him where he can just get an inch on a defender and curl one in from range, that you really don’t get from anyone else in that squad. But the fact that Pirmann is such a system guy, there’s a bit of a plug and play aspect to what they do, where [Tristan] Trager is not going to give you the dynamism of Barajas, but he does a job. He fits in as a component into the larger idea of what Battery soccer is going to look like.

“If push comes to shove and this is tight at the end, you’d be deathly afraid of Barajas just finding that inch of space to put in the killer cross for Williams, or to do something crazy with one of those curling, as he cuts in inverted on his left foot, shots. You don’t have that, and that hurts, but I don’t think it’s that massive a loss, if I’m honest.”

Instead, Charleston will need to look to its other wide players — both on the wings and coming up from the back — to contribute in his absence.

“Markanich is a little bit more of a threat,” Morrissey said. “Obviously, he puts up the numbers. He gets the goals. Trager, he’s got good pace. He’s a decent crosser of the ball.

“Often, they’ll come pretty narrow and then you’ll get Mark Segbers or Derek Dodson on the overlap. Segbers is a bit of an interesting one at left back, just because he’s inverted on that side so he has a little bit more flexibility to kind of give you a different option there.”

In the playoffs, one of the biggest performers for Charleston Battery has actually been a player that Rising fans will prove very familiar with: Mexican attacking midfielder Arturo Rodriguez.

Rodriguez played for Phoenix throughout the 2021 and 2022 seasons, but while he showed strong promise, failed to live up entirely to the potential that his best showings hinted at.

In recent weeks, he’s proven critical for Charleston. Rodriguez contributed one goal and two assists in the playoff opener against Indy, before opening the scoring with a free kick goal against Louisville City in the Eastern Conference Final.

“The thing with Rodriguez was he had all of the technical ability in the world, and there were times where it felt like he wasn’t imposing himself on a match, where he didn’t quite have the effort,” Morrissey said. “Pirman just got so much work rate out of him. In that Birmingham game, and that Louisville game, he did so much to contribute defensively, kind of dropping to a shape with three central midfielders to clog that area of the field.

“It’s something that was hit or miss with him in Phoenix, I would say at least, so to be able to do that but then continue to do the Arturo Rodriguez things with the ball at his feet: making those smart movements, interchanging with Markanich when he cuts inside. It was kind of the actualization of what he could be as a player in a way that, frankly, he didn’t pull off in the regular season all that much. He was good, but he wasn’t so critical to what the Battery were doing, and he absolutely was the man of the match in the last round and somebody that’s going to play a big part in this final.”

Top photo courtesy: USL Championship

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