By Charlie Morrison
If one were to take a mere casual glance at the Charleston Battery Soccer Club, the club’s status as one of the most successful, stable lower-division professional soccer clubs in the country would seem natural. After all, soccer-friendly Charleston and Daniel Island are booming with growth, and residents old and new can enjoy the beautiful game played by their own established, recognized professional club at the MUSC Health Stadium on Daniel Island.
A casual glance, however, would belie the truth that the Charleston Battery’s is a success story that was anything but guaranteed. If it weren’t for the vision, the ambition and the sheer will of a small group of smart soccer people, the club, which is celebrating 25 years as Charleston’s only professional soccer club, probably wouldn’t have ever lasted five.
A professional club
In 1992, after relocating his software company Blackbaud to Charleston from England three years earlier, Charleston Battery founder Tony Bakker announced that he had purchased a professional soccer franchise that would represent Charleston in professional soccer. With the help of University of South Carolina graduate Tim Hankinson, Bakker laid out a vision of what would become the Battery. With that vision and the guiding principle that they were going to run the club with a professional mindset, Bakker and Hankinson set off to create pro soccer in Charleston.
It was a daunting task and as such, Hankinson, Bakker and the Battery had humble beginnings. In 1994, their second year as a franchise, Battery team members were still playing their games at Stoney Field, a downtown field they shared with high school and college clubs that was without a dedicated locker or shower room. That year, however, they brought in a player who was to be a key figure in the club’s history, former Indiana Hoosier midfielder and NCAA champion-turned-Battery player, coach and general manager Mike Anhaeuser. Now in his 24th year with the Battery, Anhaeuser has become a bit of a Battery legend.
Anhaeuser played 115 games over six seasons with the Battery before, in 1999, an ACL injury effectively ended his career and he transitioned to coaching. Anhaeuser spent six years as an assistant coach before the dozen he’s now logged as the Battery’s head coach and general manager. In his eyes, it was Bakker who keyed the club’s now decades-long success story by doing things with the utmost sports professionalism.
“From the beginning, the goal was for the Battery to be a professional club,” said Anhaeuser, who himself was recruited from Indiana, where he’d won a NCAA championship with Indiana University in 1988. “The passion to win was always there from the owner and it wasn’t just a local team, they went out and got top college players. I don’t think every team paid their players back in the day, but we did. The team was good. From the first year, they competed and the next year we only lost two games.”
“Being able to come here and know that there was a team and being actually recruited made you feel like there was something special here,” he continued. “It didn’t matter that we played at Stoney Field. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have a locker room or showers the first year. What mattered was we had a team. We trained and we were able to play games in a league with other professional players.”
“Charleston, if you go back 25 years, was a different place,” noted Charleston Battery President Andrew Bell, who joined the club in 1999 as the team’s play-by-play man only to take on a number of other roles with the club before assuming the mantle of team president in 2008. “You can look at the earlier media guides and it’s funny because there are pages in there explaining soccer. The knowledge hadn’t yet progressed with the population. But you have to put it in the context of where the sport was at that time in the United States. It was before the 1994 World Cup, it was before Major League Soccer (MLS).”
A place to call home
If there was a make or break decision that had to be made correctly in the club’s early years, it was Bakker’s and the Battery’s 1998 decision to construct what was then Blackbaud Stadium. In creating what was the first dedicated soccer-only stadium in lower division professional soccer in the county, Bakker took an enormous risk. His choice to not build the stadium downtown, where a deal with City of Charleston officials couldn’t be reached, but on Daniel Island, then an obscure, undeveloped corner of the Holy City, only exacerbated that risk.
“What Tony (Bakker) has done is intertwined with Daniel Island, and again, if you put it into the context of the time, it’s an unbelievable thing,” said Bell. “Tony had not only invested in the club, kept it going and recruited high-level players for it, but then he decided to build a stadium. And this is at a time when Major League Soccer was struggling, and there was no guarantee that soccer was going to make it in the United States. It was very brave to do it.”
Brave, indeed. Risky? For sure. Successful? Undeniably. Take it from Anhaeuser.
“Going back to 1999, being a player it was such a stepping stone from the professional side of things,” Anhaeuser said. “It didn’t matter if it was located downtown or on Daniel Island, it was the club and being here was just a part of it. It was new, it was growing and in 1999, we were able to have our own facility and our own training ground just for soccer…Nobody else really had that. The stadium really put us on the map, kept us there as players and coaches and made it hard to leave.”
A soccer family
With the fresh, new Blackbaud Stadium (now MUSC Health Stadium) just waiting to be filled, then-head coach Alan Dicks and team president Nigel Cooper set to the task of finding players to put on display. With the growth of MLS, by the time the stadium was constructed the Battery was situated as a logical feeder team for players looking to grow to the heights of the top professional league in America.
The system in place, Cooper and later Anhaeuser recruited soccer talent, bringing in a wide variety of players to fill the team. They recruited across the globe, introducing players on their way up the pro soccer ladder and those on the way back down. Each signing, from Cuban star Osvaldo Alonso to Ugandan Mike Azira, to call Daniel Island his professional home.
“We’re looking to find players good enough from the college level from international teams to make it. That’s always been the goal here, to try to move players on,” said Anhaeuser. “When you do that you’re going to get the next guy who wants to make it…the next Mike Azira, the next Osvaldo Alonso.”
“We have players that have gone on to other things in the community,” echoed Bell. “[Former Battery player] Paul Conway is a lawyer on Daniel Island. We have guys that have stayed and opened restaurants. There’s a whole community of ex-players that have chosen to live in Charleston with their families.”
“The thing about the Battery is it is a family,” Anhaeuser continued. “It’s not like you’re here for one or two years, it’s not just a seasonal thing…If you want to stay in soccer after the Battery you can certainly move on to coaching locally at Summerville or James Island, for example.”
The new ownership group B Sports Entertainment, led by local software industry executive Eric Bowman, took over the Battery in February of last year, and like all smart sports owners who take over a club as stable and successful as the Battery, key decisions the new owners hurdled included what changes they shouldn’t make. In the case of Bowman and the Battery however, he had on-the-job training.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing,” said Bell. “The new ownership group is led by an individual who had been a season-ticket holder and a major sponsor. He traveled with us. He’d come on trips with us. He was very familiar with the team and I think fell in love with it. This is a special club.”
And when it comes to success, the club’s record clearly speaks for itself. According to a press release, the Charleston Battery is the longest continuously operating professional soccer team in America—and the first to reach its silver anniversary.
“This is a special club, in terms of its history as well,” continued Bell. “If you are a soccer fan in the United States, particularly from 10 or 15 years ago and have grown with it, you know about the Charleston Battery. We’re part of the fabric that makes up the sport in this country.”