Down the Southern Road: Angels & Demons
Residents of the American South live alongside the spirits of their past, both good and bad. With a history tempered by a Laissez les bon temps rouler approach to life yet pockmarked by the ills of slavery, a civil war, segregation, poverty, and colourful but corrupt public officials who let their good times roll a bit too big, today’s inhabitants always find themselves rubbing elbows with spectres which refuse to be parted from them. In the city of New Orleans, for example, an entire section of the tourism industry operates to entertain guests with ghost tours of the French Quarter, completed only with visits to famous cemeteries on midnight excursions to see if the ghosts of voodoo queens like Marie Laveau can be spotted gliding out of their graves. The local sports team in New Orleans might have been ridiculed nationally for having an exorcism performed on its home field to placate those tortured souls that were causing the club to suffer one terrible losing season after another, but those who supported the team understood. The stadium had been built on the site of an old, abandoned cemetery during the 1970s and its ghostly residents were obviously unhappy with having been disturbed.
To the west of The Big Easy, Premier Development League club Baton Rouge could rightly have considered themselves cursed early on in their 2011 campaign. Realigned to a tougher division and virtually homeless to start while renovations progress at their regular home stadium, the Capitals began the season with only 3 points from their opening five matches and were struggling to score goals. After a rather unfair 0-1 loss to Nashville at the temporary grounds of Crusader Stadium which saw coach Stuart Hayers experiment with the squad’s formation, Baton Rouge crossed themselves on a Texas road trip that had them travel the width and length of the Lone Star State by visiting Laredo and RGV, respectively. With continued tweaks to the starting XI including having Lancashire native Ben Callon operate from the midfield as opposed to his usual forward position having born fruit, the Black & Red returned home this past weekend having taken all six points on offer from their southwestern sojourn. Local lad Brandon Chagnard, an integral part of last year’s successful campaign, exorcised a personal demon by breaking his duck for the season with the match winner over Laredo. Midfielder Francois “Paco” Navarro gave RGV more nightmares by scoring his second goal of the season–his first strike was against RGV earlier in the campaign. Paco obviously delights in haunting the Brownsville-based squad by saving his match winners for them.
That, or perhaps the Frenchman believes RGV to be a Mexican team (it rests just along the southern US border) and thinks he’s fighting a personal battle to reverse France’s loss as commemorated by Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
The catharsis continued when the capital club returned home to face a familiar foe in Mississippi Brilla FC. For those wondering whether the Mississippi side is named for some type of cleaning product or exotic shellfish, “brilla” is the Spanish word ”shine” and serves as a reference to the organization’s ties with Brilla Soccer Ministries. Established as part of a mission to deliver a Christian message to others through the medium of football (presumably to a Spanish-speaking audience), the PDL club highlights the Brilla name prominently above a sunburst on a club crest that is be-ribboned with reference to the “shine” passage from the New Testament Book of Matthew. Black & Red supporters were treated to a devilish display from the home side, however, as the Capitals romped to a 3-1 victory in further validation of Hayers’ tactical tinkering over the past fortnight. In addition to moving Callon from forward to midfield and having striker Gui Brandao remain at LB to add width to his side’s attack, Hayers had also taken to calling his assistant coach, former QPR lad Luke Sheekey, off the bench more often to function as a mid-game spark should his offensive players tire in this more physically-challenging league. While having Gui at fullback does create some panic moments at times as the Brazilian is often found much further up the pitch than his mates along the back line, the recent centre pairing of former Chorley FC player Mark Ross with youth player Kyle Wood has appeared solid whilst former Bournemouth FC lad James Queree has come on at RB, allowing Ross to defend more broadly across the width of the pitch. As already mentioned, this quirky melody played a sweet Hallelujah in front of Capitals supporters, as Callon, Achille Campeon, and Sheekey scored to send Brilla FC away with no points but praising their conquerors’ good names.
The Black & Red sought to banish the evil eye once and for all this past weekend if they could have earned three points from Chivas El Paso and record a 4th consecutive victory. Before an admittedly small crowd, due in no small part to the Father’s Day weekend, the Capitals could only muster a draw, leaving them two points behind derby rival New Orleans and allowing Chivas El Paso to leap Laredo to top the Mid South Division on 22 points. With young players Justin Portillo, Adrian McCinnis, and Stephen Cabos unavailable as they were off for a regional football tournament, Hayers opted to call his own number to partner the reliable James Livingston in midfield in a rather continental 4-2-3-1 formation that saw Paco and Chagnard as the wingers, Campeon up top, and Callon as the central attacking midfielder. The midfield superiority with this formation dominated throughout the match, as Chivas El Paso barely entertained so much as a run through the centre of the park for the duration lest they cede possession. Rather, the west Texas side nibbled near the touch lines, seeking to counter attack and catch the Capitals when fullbacks Gui and Queree were too far advanced. This is precisely how Chivas El Paso scored two goals in succession just before the end of the first half, silencing a small crowd expecting a lively jazz funeral but instead acting as if they were at a poorly attended and solemn wake.
For much of the second half, Baton Rouge maintained its possession of the ball and compressed the match into El Paso’s side of the pitch, but there seemed an invisible veil hung between them and a chance to come away from the encounter with at least a point. Livingston and Ross remained ever-present in preventing Chivas El Paso from scoring a third to put the nail in Baton Rouge’s coffin, but goals were needed, so Livingston was sacrificed for the more offensive-minded Sheekey in the 68th minute. Not until the 81st minute did the football gods reward the Black & Red for their efforts, when Chagnard scored a stunner from the right, assisted by Sheekey. Now rattled by allowing the goal and weakening under the Capitals’ relentless pursuit of an equalizer, El Paso again faltered in the back, committing a handball in the box that was immediately determined to be a penalty. Callon calmly stepped to the spot and converted past Chivas El Paso’s GK Jorge Muniz, who was otherwise quite good on the evening. Seemingly content with a draw, Chivas El Paso resorted to wasting time rather than attempting a winner, forcing stoppages of play with repeated fouls. The Black & Red were unable to find a winner, however, and the points were shared. At certain times in the dying embers of the match, Chivas El Paso looked to be baiting Baton Rouge players into earning yellow cards through dissent or fisticuffs, but cooler heads prevailed to keep proceedings level.
While hopes for Baton Rouge earning a playoff spot this season are not on the highway to heaven just yet, that draw placed them in purgatory for now. A home and away derby with rival New Orleans approaches, and a loss in either match will truly make the fat lady sing. Baton Rouge are nine points off the pace, but with still two matches in hand, they effectively control their own destiny. So, there is not yet the need to pour out the holy water or call in a priest for Last Rites. The squad could do with a little voodoo magic in their favour, though, in order for the ghosts of chances missed not to come back and haunt them.