So a good friend of mine told me last week that she’d won a season ticket to the Battery and was kinda looking forward to coming out for a game, but didn’t know anything about the team. Which got me to thinking: There’s probably lots of people like her around here — kinda interested in giving the Battery a spin, but not quite sure what they’d be getting into.
Here then, in honor of my friend Pam and all those other future supporters, are my Top 10 Reasons to Become a Charleston Battery Fan.
10. The Battery have been in continuous operation longer than every professional soccer team in North America not named Vancouver Whitecaps or Charlotte Eagles.
While the current incarnation of the Whitecaps dates back to 1986, the only U.S. professional team that’s been in the running longer than Charleston Battery is the Charlotte Eagles, which was founded in 1991. The Battery and the Richmond Kickers began playing in something called the USISL in 1993, with the Battery in the second division and the Kickers in the third. That means the Battery hosted its first match at historic Stoney Field in Charleston three years before the first MLS match was played.
The thing about being around for a few years as a soccer club is that you start to acquire traditions — the real, organic ones. The Battery is now in its 22nd year, which means some of its quirky traditions are old enough to drink.
For instance, the Battery have this weird fan thing going with D.C. United called “The Coffee Pot Cup.” It involves vandalism and beer, and it predates the founding of 25 of North America’s current professional teams.
Oh, and if memory serves, somewhere around Charleston there’s this trophy called “The Southern Derby Cup,” which might still be in our possession, even though Charlotte won it last season. And the original 2012 USL PRO Championship Cup? There are all sorts of rumors about where that wound up.
With Charlotte’s nonprofit religious ownership selling the club to a new group of ambitious investors this year, and with the Whitecaps and the Battery signing a new affiliation agreement, that means that the two North American clubs with the longest continuous, unbroken traditions are now partners. Which is just kinda cool.
9. Not only does the club host three teams from Major League Soccer every February, the Battery win quite a few of those matches.
Soccer isn’t like the sports Americans are used to, at least when it comes to teams from different leagues playing each other. Never happens with gridiron football, but it happens all the time with soccer, and it happens even more than usual in Charleston, thanks to one week in late February each year.
The event is called the Carolina Challenge Cup, it dates back to 2004, and it’s one of the first preseason tournaments of its kind in North America. Every February three MLS teams join the Battery for a three-night round-robin tournament that takes place over the course of a week. And while new fans often reasonably expect the third-tier Battery to struggle, the club actually does alright for itself.
Charleston has finished third or better five out of the 11 times the CCC has been contested. Only once (2009) has the home team failed to earn at least one draw during tournament, and the Battery finished second in 2008 and 2011. The opening night of this year’s tournament was played in front of a raucous sold-out audience. You should have been there.
BTW, last season the Battery played seven matches against teams from MLS… and won four of them.
8. Blackbaud Stadium — a.k.a. “The Baud” — is The Bomb.
People still argue about which stadium — ours, or the much-larger Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio — deserves to be recognized as the “first” soccer-specific stadium in what’s known as the Modern Soccer Era in the United States (both opened in 1999).
Not that it matters. While Crew Stadium was built for big-league crowds, The Baud was patterned after traditional lower-tier football grounds in the United Kingdom, where team owner/founder Tony Bakker grew up. It’s a charming and simple soccer palace that honors tradition without ever feeling too self-consciously precious.
It’s also unique in that the Blackbuad Stadium/Office/Training Ground complex — and its joint parking lot — takes up almost the entirety of an unnamed island between St. Thomas Island and Daniel Island, in a marsh nourished by Beresford and Nowell creeks. Indeed, one sensible argument for the Battery declining the opportunity to move up to NASL during The Great Soccer Schism of 2009-10 was the fact that — even if you expanded the stadium to seat more fans — there’s simply no more room on the island to park more cars.
Blackbaud is so beloved by the nation’s soccer press that sometimes the adoration feels a bit like R.W. Apple’s unseemly obsession with Hominy Grill. Locals just take the place for granted, but visitors consistently sing its praises. Oh, and it’s solar powered. Which makes the Battery black and gold and green.
7. Our stadium has its own soccer pub — and it’s a world-class museum of soccer memorabilia.
Though most people in the Lowcountry don’t know it, soccer fans across North America venerate the Battery’s Three Lions Pub (officially “Three Lions Club”) on the second floor of the building behind the West Stands at Blackbaud Stadium as one of the world’s great shrines to the Beautiful Game. In addition to being a gloriously homey English-style pub with polished mahogany fixtures, it’s also home to a priceless — and I do mean that literally — collection of soccer memorabilia.
How important is Three Lions to the Battery? First off, it’s the place where players, coaches and team staff mingle and drink with fans after every home match. Even the losses. It’s also a recruiting tool. Former Battery star Nicki Paterson toured the Three Lions as a visiting player before a game against the Battery, and remembers how the pub and the stadium sold him on coming to play here someday. And to put that in perspective, he’s from Scotland.
Unfortunately, getting into the Three Lions Club can be a bit tricky for new fans. Access is controlled by badges and wrist bands, but $540 buys you a season ticket with Three Lions privileges that gets you into every match the Battery play at home, plus a parking pass, plus a catered pre-game buffet.
If you just want to see the place, contact the Battery through their website and ask for a tour — or just wait until the 2014 World Cup starts. The club has plans to open the club for watch parties.
6. There’s at least one alligator in the pond by the team’s practice field, and it completely freaks out the MLS players who come here every winter for the CCC.
It’s not every professional soccer club that can claim its own gator, but the wildlife at Blackbaud Stadium is kind of an afterthought to the staff, who’ve been working around the big reptiles so long they’re just part of the landscape.
That’s not true, however, for newly arrived players — who draw the duty of jumping over the fence and fishing practice balls out of the gator pond. And since the MLS clubs that rotate through the Battery’s Carolina Challenge Cup every February tend to bring along their own media entourages, every year the gator gets rediscovered and plastered across social media.
Here’s what most of those people don’t know: Bobby Weisenberger, the team’s athletic trainer, says there are at least two gators in the pond this year, and remembers spotting baby gators on the edges of the pond last year.
5. Don’t like gators? How about osprey? A whole family of them nest above the East Stands.
There’s always a nesting pair in the stadium lights located over the Supporters Section, and this spring there have been a couple of juveniles up there, too. The Blackbaud osprey are rather majestic, and famously unfazed by the thousands of visitors who pack into their yard during the season. You’ll sometimes spot them returning to the nest with building materials, and occasionally you’ll see one flying over the stadium with a fish — or a snake — in its talons.
4. You will never be closer to professional athletes.
The young men who play for the Battery don’t act like big-shot professionals — probably because many of them are earning roughly what their peers make waiting tables, bar-backing or hanging onto the bottom rung on the corporate ladder. Players linger on the sidelines and in “the tunnel” after matches for autographs and photographs, mingle on the field in the dark with fans during fireworks displays, attend charity events and do whatever public appearances the front office lines up for them. If you can get into the Three Lions, you’ll see them after every home match. And the team turns out at the end of every season for a picnic with members of its official supporters’ group, The Regiment.
3. ‘I went to this keg party, and a soccer match broke out.’
Fans watching Battery home games on webcasts are routinely shocked to hear that the matches have sold out (official capacity 5,113), because there are always so many empty yellow seats in the East Stands. That’s because the cameras don’t often pan to the South end of the stadium. Where The Baud’s popular beer gardens and party tents are located.
Thousands of Battery fans never actually bother going up to their assigned seats, preferring instead to hang out behind the south goal. And quite a few of them pay close attention to what’s happening on the field from that vantage point, too.
Battery parties typically start well before the gates open, too. The Regiment hosts fairly elaborate tailgates for most weekend matches, and always tries to have some free beers in “the community cooler” for walk-up fans and new acquaintances. Fans also bring their own beverages and stash them in Regiment coolers. And when someone shows up with pre-game Jello shots, things can get moving pretty quickly.
2. They win. A lot.
League titles? The Battery have four of them: 1996, 2003, 2010 and 2012. Regular season? Charleston hasn’t finished lower than fourth since 2008 — when they finished fifth.
U.S. Open Cup? Charleston is one of the giant-killer teams that MLS clubs hate to draw in the annual tournament. Last year the Battery beat the San Jose Earthquakes at Blackbaud and actually led Real Salt Lake by two goals in Utah during the Round of 16.
One of the team’s proudest memories is its 2008 Cup run, when the Battery beat Houston Dynamo, F.C. Dallas and Seattle Sounders to reach the Cup final, only to lose to 1-2 to D.C. United in Washington.
The most obvious reason for that success is the team’s general manager and coach, Mike Anhaeuser. A former Battery star from the early days, Anhaeuser turned to coaching after a career-ending knee injury, and was promoted to the top job here in 2005. United Soccer Leagues named him to its Hall of Fame this past winter. Everyone calls him “Auggie.”
Another reason for its success is the club’s reputation as a springboard to MLS. There are currently five former Battery players in the top league, and former player/assistant Mark Watson is the coach of the San Jose Earthquakes. And not to pimp the squad too much, but the 2014 roster includes eight players sent down by the team’s MLS partner, Vancouver Whitecaps. That’s more MLS talent than any other team in USL PRO, and it’s a list that includes the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, 20-year-old striker Omar Salgado, a blue-chip talent on a loan assignment as he completes his recovery from a 2012 injury. Plus there’s team captain Colin Falvey, the league’s 2013 Defender of the Year and an infamously charismatic charmer.
1. The Battery are generally recognized as the best small soccer club in North America — and they built that reputation by surviving some of the darkest years soccer has faced in this country.
Soccer — long the butt of jokes around American newspaper sports departments — is quietly exploding in popularity and profitability all across the continent. The North American professional pyramid is expected to field more than 50 teams in three divisions next season, and MLS — which lost $350 million in its first eight years — is now in the midst of an expansion bidding war.
But when the Battery played the club’s first match in 1993, none of that looked remotely likely. Major League Soccer was still a pipe dream, and most Americans had no exposure to — and little interest in — “that foreign game.” Which means that this season — right now — is basically still part of the turning of the tide toward a more expansive future for the club and North American soccer in general. And to be blunt about it, part of what’s driving the team’s future is the slow but steady process of Charleston’s “TV soccer fans” getting acquainted with the pleasures and perils of live local soccer.
In other words, this is the Goldilocks moment for soccer in this country. It’s not too hot (you can still buy a season ticket to the Battery for just $120 — about $30 less than the average single ticket to a Carolina Panthers’ game), not too cold (the Battery averaged more than 3,700 fans per match last season, or about 70 to 80 percent of the stadium’s capacity most weeks).
Which makes this moment just about perfect.