Down the Southern Road: A Bumpy Start
If off-season alterations surrounding the 2011 Premier Development League campaign for Baton Rouge were not apparent before, this weekend saw both the squad and its supporters face them properly. After two seasons in the Southeast Division of the Southern Conference, the club has been returned to the Mid-South from which it began in 2007, playing principally Texas-based sides as opposed to the Southeast’s cadre of Florida teams. The capital club found little success in the Mid-South during its early days of existence, finishing bottom and second-bottom of the Mid-South table before realignment to the Southeast and the concluding of a remarkable 2010 summer season that saw them qualify for the PDL Championship playoffs and finish 3rd nationally.
Perhaps as a welcome back to the Mid-South Division for 2011, the Black & Red were inexplicably scheduled to wait while all the Texas-based clubs worked out their early-season quirks by playing through two matches before Baton Rouge embarked upon a sojourn west across the Lone Star State. Forced to start early doors at a slight disadvantage by making their longest away trips of the season to two clubs already off the mark, Baton Rouge somewhat expectantly lost to West Texas and Chivas El Paso prior to returning home this past weekend to host the other two Texas sides in their new division.
While all of this could be considered a minor irritation and something clubs from Scottish football would scoff at, the schedule shift might have held some degree of significance other than extreme jet lag for the Capitals. Qualifying for the US Open Cup–the American equivalent of the FA Cup and a competition stretching back to 1914–was underway and the side sitting atop one of the PDL’s nine divisional tables after the opening four matches determined the PDL representatives. Retaining a bit of an advantage when it came to the early schedule, Chivas El Paso hosted and defeated both New Orleans and Baton Rouge to eliminate them both and earn the Mid-South spot for the US Open Cup, continuing its trend of achieving qualification every other year since 2001.
In four seasons of operation, Baton Rouge has yet to qualify.
Back to home then, with English coach Stuart Hayers eager to avoid having Baton Rouge equal its 2010 season total for losses within the opening three matches of the 2011 campaign. As with other changes, though, Hayers’ side must also adjust to the fact that home in 2011 is not really home. With the pitch at its Olympia Stadium currently ripped up for the installation of an undersoil drainage system, Baton Rouge kicks off instead a block down at the gridiron football stadium of Christian Life Academy. Although the stadium seems a bit odd with a small, elevated seating section of aluminum benches that lifts the spectator absurdly high above the pitch, Hayers admitted it had been tough to even find a temporary home for the club this summer, graciously saying of the host school, “They were the ones that opened their arms to us.”
Beggars cannot be choosers obviously, but it must be said that it will be a welcome return to the concrete monstrosity that is Olympia after this home season at the watchman’s tower.
Before an opening crowd Friday evening that might have been fewer in number owing to an unfamiliarity in finding the club’s temporary grounds, the Capitals dutifully nicked three points off bottom side RV Grandes. For a team that’s only been in existence less than a year following the move of the original RVG to the competing Southern Premier League, Hayers’ side admittedly makes it tougher on themselves to earn the win. With experienced players such as Ben Callon at forward, Brandon Chagnard on one wing, explosive midfielder Justin Portillo on the other, and the French newcomer Francois Navarro in the attack, Baton Rouge have ample offensive talent to have made the encounter rather lopsided. While former defender Joe Tait has moved up to the 3rd division, Chorley FC CB Mark Ross looks an able replacement while new GK Kyle Buxton looks to be a young quality between the sticks. In keeping with the feel of this new season, however, where a once familiar tune sounds vaguely off-key, the Black & Red struggle a bit prior to finally seeing off the side in a tight 1-0 affair.
With the city having emptied out as many had left for the beaches to take advantage of an extended Memorial Day weekend, Sunday evening’s contest against Laredo was witnessed by considerably fewer Baton Rouge supporters than Friday’s. What was missed was a rather more fluid Capitals performance that looked a bit like last season’s side, with Ross becoming an enforcer in the center, dominance in the midfield, and some slick passing in attack. The only thing absent was a goal, as the Black & Red fell to Laredo 1-0 on a late 83rd minute strike that was completely against the run of play. Just to emphasize the point to his squad, Hayers mentioned the word “finishing” at least four times in his post-game interview, and this followed having pulled forward Callon off the pitch in the 75th minute rather against his will. Despite still having two matches in hand, Baton Rouge now sit twelve points below leaders Laredo in an uncomfortable yet slightly familiar second from bottom of the Mid-South Division.
More familiar foes await the capital club for the remainder of the campaign, with Nashville, Mississippi, and a derby with rivals New Orleans on the upcoming fixture list. Perhaps a return to these more traditional battles from the old Southeast will reinvigorate the mostly-British club on the bayou and find Baton Rouge returned to its winning ways. At the very least, the next time the Black & Red see El Paso possibly with a chance to catch them on points, it will be under more equitable circumstances.