Charleston Battery leading scorer Ataulla Guerra will be a player to watch as his side visits Louisville City FC. | Photo courtesy Zach Bland / Charleston Battery
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville City FC and the Charleston Battery square off in the first of two top-four matchups in the USL Eastern Conference on Friday night at Slugger Field (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), with current conference-leader FC Cincinnati set to play host to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday night at Nippert Stadium in what could be a pivotal weekend in the race for seeing in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs.
Here are five key storylines going into Friday night’s matchup.
1. ON THE REBOUND: Louisville City FC has suffered some surprised home defeats in the past, but that didn’t make Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Toronto FC II any less shocking as the visitors took their first road win of the season and third overall as they ran away with the game in the final half-hour. The side has typically responded well to those types of defeats, however, and last season in fact defeated the Battery 1-0 in the first game following a 3-0 home loss to Orlando City B.
“That was not the performance we wanted,” said Louisville Head Coach John Hackworth on Thursday. “Now we have another wonderful opportunity to go out and show ourselves and our fans and the community what we're really about.”
2. MAN DOWN: We’ve discussed previously the influence of Tah Anunga on the Charleston Battery’s midfield this season, but after this past Saturday’s red card and one-game suspension against the New York Red Bulls II the Battery are going to have to figure out how to manage a tough midfield battle against a strong Louisville set-up that includes key players Paolo DelPiccolo and Speedy Williams. Charleston was putting a brave face on the absence, though, as it got a full week of preparation in.
“He’ll be missed greatly, of course,” said fellow Battery midfielder Angelo Kelly. “We have to readjust and whoever steps into the middle is going to have to step up and play their game as best they can. They’ll have to try to match what he brings every week. We’ll have to manage the midfield against Louisville because they’re a possession team. It’s going to be a good battle. We’ll try to keep the ball as much as possible and create as many chances as we can. Try to boss the midfield as much as possible.”
3. GOLDEN SHOT: Two players who should feature prominently in the contest, however, are the club’s leading contenders for the USL Golden Boot. With Louisville’s Cameron Lancaster sitting tied with Orange County’s Thomas Enevoldsen on 16 goals going into the contest and Charleston’s Ataulla Guerra on 14 after his brace against the Red Bulls II last Saturday, the two rangy strikers are likely to get plenty of attention from their opposing back lines.
4. UNHAPPY HUNTING GROUND: The Battery have had success against Louisville in the past, most recently taking a 2-1 victory when the sides met in July at MUSC Health Stadium that saw Guerra find the net, but Charleston’s history at Slugger Field is not a happy one having claimed a point just once in five previous visits, including a pair of eliminations in the USL Cup Playoffs. Trying to overcome that history is going to be a challenge, especially with Louisville looking to produce a reaction to Tuesday’s game, but the Battery are up for it.
“We have to go up to Louisville with the attitude that we’re going to take it to them,” said Battery Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser. “We can’t sit back. If you do that against Louisville, they have some big guys in the box and some strong players who can hurt you. They have guys who are scoring, it’s not just one, so we have to be ready. It’s going to be a battle and we know that.”
5. TAKE YOUR PLACES: Saturday’s matchup sets up as key in the race for seeding at the top of the Eastern Conference. With second-place Louisville sitting two points ahead of the fourth-place Battery, and holding a game in hand, a victory on home turf would give the defending USL Cup champion a solid leg-up as it looks to seal a top-two place in the conference standings for the fourth consecutive season. The Battery, meanwhile, will want a victory to both maintain their challenge for a top-two spot at the end of the season, but also to make sure it wards off the chasing pack looking to grab a top-four spot of its own and the homefield advantage in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals that comes with it.
Coming off a game with a similar attacking ethos to their hosts on Saturday against the Red Bulls II, Anhaeuser believes his side is ready.
“Louisville is an aggressive attacking team, especially at home,” said Anhaeuser. “They want to get after you. They’ll play three up top and will send numbers forward. Sometimes they only leave one or two back. We had a great game on Saturday to get us prepared for this one in Louisville. Now we just have to keep the same things going.”