Yes, it’s undeniably strange to be writing about Mike Anhaeuser’s pending induction to the USL Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Not that it’s undeserved. It’s just that Hall of Fame honors are typically doled out to people on their way off the stage, and the resulting testimonials tend to take on the tone of eulogies. “It’s like getting to go to your own funeral without having to die,” songwriter Bobby Braddock quipped at his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
Except here’s the really amazing thing to keep in mind about Anhaeuser: He’s just 44. A Hall of Fame honoree at an age when many successful professional head-coaching careers are just beginning (Sigi Schmid, for instance was 45 when he first took the helm in Los Angeles).
Anhaeuser has spent the last 20 years of his life with the Charleston Battery (the last eight as head coach, the last six as head coach and general manager) and it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which “Auggie” could be part of the franchise for the next 20. At least.
Which does raise the question: What will soccer do to honor him then, now that the Hall of Fame is already in the bag?
Anhaeuser, a native-born Hoosier, arrived in Charleston in 1994 as a tough midfielder from NCAA powerhouse Indiana, where he’d been part of the school’s 1988 National Championship team as a freshman. Anhaeuser graduated at the low-point of professional soccer in the United States, and by the time he joined the the Battery three years later, the club was in its second year, part of an American soccer revival that kept the game going during the barren era between the collapse of the old NASL in 1984 and the rise of MLS, which would play its first match in 1996.
Anhaueser became a midfield fixture under Battery coaches Tom Hankinson (1993-94) and Nuno Piteira (1995–1999), and earned his first professional championship when the 1996 Battery beat the Charlotte Eagles to claim the USISL Pro League title. He was looking ahead to a sixth season under newly arrived coach Alan Dicks until a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament cast a shadow over his future. The 29-year-old returned to training in early 1999 with a post-operative knee and uncertain prospects.
One of the new players in that Battery camp was a rookie forward out of Clemson named John Wilson.
“I don’t think that the knee really got to where he thought he’d be able to play at the level that he was used to playing with,” said Wilson, who would go on to play professionally in MLS before returning to Charleston in 2008 after a career-threatening injury. “So that’s when he became the assistant.
“I was a young player, really wet behind the ears. And I think he understood, me being from South Carolina and from Seneca, (that) I was very laid back and shy. And he always treated me with respect. I think he’s done that my whole career. ”
While rookie Wilson was looking up to the veteran Anhaeuser for pointers, Battery CEO and majority shareholder Tony Bakker was keeping his eye on the injured player’s progress from a management perspective. Bakker, a native Londoner who played association football while attending college in the UK, saw traits in Anhaeuser that he wanted his club to reflect.
“Mike had been with us since 1994, so we knew him quite well and had a hunch that he would be able to make the transition to coaching,” Bakker said recently. “He was very tenacious and competitive as a player, and that desire to win has certainly carried over into his coaching career.”
Anhaeuser spent his first three years on the sidelines as Dicks’ assistant. The club made it to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in 1999 and finished at the top of the USL A-League Atlantic Division in 2000. By the time Dicks left in 2001, Anhaeuser had convinced Bakker that his hunch was right. The team considered promoting him to replace Dicks, but ultimately concluded he wasn’t quite ready. Instead, the club turned to former pro footballer Chris Ramsey, who had just completed a three-year turn as the England U-20 manager. Ramsey, Bakker said, “brought a whole different level of experience to the club, and I think the time Mike spent working with him really helped his coaching development.”
For “Rambo” Ramsey, inheriting a competitor for the Charleston coaching job as his top assistant was a potentially difficult situation. Today, however, he’s clearly a fan.
“When I first arrived in Charleston, Auggie welcomed me and helped me settle in,” Ramsey said last week from London, where he works today as the head of player development for Tottenham Hotspur. “Unfortunately for him I pipped him for the job, (but) he showed no malice towards me and did all he could to forge a successful partnership between himself, Andrew Bell and me.”
During their tenure together, Ramsey and Anhaeuser turned the Battery into annual contenders, winning the Southeastern Division twice and claiming the USL A-League (North American second tier) in 2003. But the team slipped to 8th in 2004 and Ramsey departed. The job Anhaeuser had come close to winning in 2001 was finally his as the team headed into the 2005 season.
Not that he had a lot to work with. The team went 9-14-5, finished 9th in the league, missed the playoffs and crashed out of the U.S. Open Cup in the second round. But Bakker wasn’t worried. “The first year was pretty terrible, but we were in transition and we knew it was going to be tough,” Bakker said. “Mike was dealing with some fairly significant player turnover, but he stuck at it and we were still hopeful we could make the playoffs even late on in the season.”
In 2006, Bakker’s faith in his young coach paid off. The Anhaeuser-led Battery battled their way to a third-place finish in a crowded USL First Division field, reached the semifinals in the league playoffs and made it all the way to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. At season’s end, the league named him its 2006 Coach of the Year, the first of two Coach of the Year honors he’s received so far in his career.
The 2007 season was largely a disappointment, yet Anhaeuser still managed to take the team to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, losing 1-2 to F.C. Dallas in overtime. The 2008 Battery improved to 5th place in the USL First Division, but earned its place in soccer legend by fighting its way to the U.S. Open Cup Final.
The Battery beat an amateur side in the first round, downed the Charlotte Eagles 2-1 in the second, and then faced the Houston Dynamo of MLS in the third. Anhaeuser’s boys finished level on a goal apiece, then advanced via a 4-3 penalty shootout. The win earned them a rematch with F.C. Dallas in Texas, but this time the Battery stomped the home side 3-1 to move on to the semi-final against the Seattle Sounders, who were still in USL at the time. Again the Battery finished level on a single goal, and again they advanced 4-3 on penalties.
In the championship final, Charleston surrendered an early goal to D.C. United at RFK stadium, fought back for the equalizer before the half, and allowed the game-winner with 40 minutes remaining. The team didn’t back down, though, and came close to leveling accounts an multiple occasions. It was the first appearance by a non-MLS team in the Open Cup final since 1999, when Rochester became the only lower-tier club to win the title during the MLS era. No non-MLS club has reached the final since Charleston did.
“The club relies on the technical staff to put competitive teams together and Mike has done that consistently, which is critical to having any hope of success,” Bakker said. “Winning championships requires a certain amount of luck, too, but you have to put yourself in a position where you have a chance to win. I actually felt that in 2008 we had one of the strongest-ever Battery sides, but we ended the season with nothing after the loss to DC in the Open Cup Final, and then a playoff loss in Montreal. Sometimes events conspire against you.”
The 2008 season was also Anhaeuser’s first as general manager, and helped establish his reputation as one of the best talent scouts in North America — building competitive teams in a second-tier league that contained four future MLS franchises (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal) and multiple teams from much larger markets (Atlanta, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Charlotte, Miami and Toronto among them). But when the Battery’s management declined an offer to move up with the breakaway that became the now-second-tier new NASL in 2009, Anhaeuser finally found himself competing in a new third-tier league that looked a lot more like a level playing field.
Since 2010, the results of that change have been obvious: Two USL championships (2010 and 2012), one regular-season championship (2010), two consecutive third-place USL PRO finishes (2012-13) and a 2-3 semifinal playoff exit on the home field of the eventual champion (Orlando, in 2013).
Today, with North American soccer in the midst of its most stable and prolonged expansion in the modern era, the Battery enjoy a reputation as one of the great small clubs in the United States. And after 20 consecutive seasons with the franchise as a player, coach and general manager, it’s hard to think of the Battery without thinking of Anhaeuser.
The Anhaeuser style
Alternately described as “fiery,” “tough,” “respectful,” “direct,” and “a player’s coach,” Mike Anhaeuser’s personal coaching style defies one-word labels. He can be both combative and charming, sincere and dismissive, abstractly philosophical and unapologetically pragmatic, a champion who pulls no punches but refuses to put on airs. He has earned his public image as a no-nonsense, blunt-spoken, run-through-the-brick-wall Hoosier, but that broad brush glosses over the precisely mathematical side of his personality, not to mention his famously encyclopedic soccer memory.
“I remember most things,” said former Battery star Nicki Paterson. “He remembers everything. There’s nobody like Auggie.”
Still, the Battery under Anhaeuser are, as one insider put it, “a team that yells,” and not every player adapts easily to that style. But it’s also a club shaped by Anheuser’s occasionally playful humor — which is likely as calculated at times as are the drills he runs before playoff matches.
Ramsey got to see him work up close and calls Anhaeuser “a meticulous planner and a student of the game. He observed and absorbed sessions which allowed him to increase his knowledge and enabled him to offer subtle and useful advice to myself and the players.” He is, Ramsey said, “top notch at the management aspects around the playing side.”
Anhaeuser wears T-shirts on the sidelines, manages matches with a withering intensity, and turns in blue-collar work-weeks that would exhaust a staff of three — if he had one. In addition to scouting, signing, training and managing his teams, Anhaeuser also personally sweats details that would boggle the minds of most pro soccer executives. Making sure all the balls are collected after training sessions (woe unto the rookie who doesn’t count). Dealing with cable and utility bills at the North Area apartment complex where most of the players live. Finding off-season jobs for players who remain in Charleston. Managing the media. Socializing with fans.
Mike Buytas is the long-serving president of The Regiment, the Battery’s official supporters’ group. And in an era when access to the coach is a rare perk, Anhaeuser can be found at the bar in the Three Lions after most home matches — a level of accessibility that’s hard for fans of other teams to even imagine. Battery fans aren’t always easy on him, either.
“Auggie has been a part of the Charleston Battery for nearly 20 years and its hard to imagine where the Battery would be without him,” Buytas said. “He knows the league, he knows the coaches, and he has the respect of players because he has been there himself. And while we fans might raise an eyebrow every now and then, he always puts out a competitive team and has us up there at the end of each season. He gives us belief that even as a Division III team, we can compete for the USOC and with anyone else in the North America.”
Coaches across North America know him, and there’s even a branch of the Anhaeuser coaching tree in MLS now.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone who is a bigger part of a club than Mike,” said San Jose Earthquakes Coach Mark Watson, who spent the last two years of an 18-year career as a defender played for Anheuser. When Watson realized that he was getting slower and all the other players were getting faster, he followed in his coach’s footsteps, serving as the Battery’s assistant coach from 2006-09.
“He’s been there from Day One. That’s really such a big part of who he is. He’s somebody that’s there every day, he works hard, he spends long hours. I think there’s a thought that people involved in sport, or coaches, it’s kind of a cushy little job. But that’s not the case. He’s someone who has a hand in everything, and he works very hard to get the success that he’s had.”
Wilson, the former Battery player Anhaeuser pulled off the MLS scrap-heap in 2008, sees the Anhaeuser work ethic, too. But he credits the Battery’s success to another aspect of Coach’s style.
“I think he has a way with managing players,” Wilson said. “I think the way he handles the locker room and a lot of players that come through allows the players to be successful.”
Wilson, for instance doesn’t believe he’d have come back from the injury that ended his MLS career if it wasn’t for Anhaeuser. “He just made me feel comfortable. Which was something that, you know, I needed at the time. It was very nice to know that somebody still had hope that you could still play, and that they believed in you, and that they were going to give you the opportunity. And I think that’s why I came back. He’s one of the reasons that I’m still playing today, and I really appreciate that from him.”
Wilson sees the fiery side of the man (whom he says still “gets after it” when he trains with the squad), “but then he’s got the other side, you know. The joking, and just also sometimes the laid-back (side). So he’s got that fire, which I think is good, but he’s also got the other side.”
Wilson agrees with the “player’s coach” description, but concurs that it’s not because Anhaeuser tries to be everyone’s buddy. The key, he said, is that “I think that he doesn’t bombard you with all of these, say, added pressures that sometimes come along with playing professionally. And definitely, when you’re dealing with young players, yes they need to learn the game, they need to play. But they’ve got to be able to have confidence to go into a game and use their gifts. Let them figure it out, let them do what they do. And that’s what he does.
“I’ve played for coaches and – I shouldn’t say they bombard you with information, but you get all this information and then you get on the field, you can’t even relax and play. I think that’s what he does. He finds ways to motivate you.”
Wilson believes coaching comes more easily for Anhaeuser than his duties as a GM. “I’ve had to learn this as a player. It’s a business. A coach may like you, but things change, and it’s nothing personal. So I think it’s easier (for him) to be the coach … because when you start stepping into the realm of general manager, there are other things that pop up that I would say the average person doesn’t like to do. When you’ve got to tell someone that ‘You’re not good enough,’ or ‘We can’t afford you,’ or ‘This is what we have,’ then it can break down relationships.
“But I think he’s done a good job with balancing that out. I think that’s why you see players that will contact the club that were here and left and they want to come back. Because they know what they’re going to get from coach. They know he’s going to do his best to help them out on the field and off the field.”
So is the modern Battery an expression of Mike Anhaeuser?
“We definitely are a team that attacks from the kickoff, and as a club we want to score lots of goals and win,” Bakker said. “Having said that, Mike also likes to keep things tight at the back and hates giving up goals. I don’t know whether these traits are a reflection of Mike’s personality or a result of his competitiveness. Either way its a philosophy that fits well with the Battery.”
Said Wilson: “Whether or not a player likes the way he coaches or whatever, he’s won. He’s won championships. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters. And you can’t argue with that. ”
TOP IMAGE: Midfielder Mike Anhaeuser of the Charleston Battery takes up space in 1995. Charleston Battery photo.