Rookie defender Drew Ruggles — a Georgia Southern prospect whose winter with the Charleston Battery included a dramatic equalizer against club rival D.C. United — left town Thursday to join the Wilmington Hammerheads in Jacksonville, Fla.
Ruggles was one of the success stories from the Battery preseason, earning a spot with the team through the team’s January open tryout, February invitational combine, and multiple appearances in the Carolina Challenge Cup and preseason matches.
As a physical left back who can play centrally, Ruggles seemed a lock to make the squad until the Vancouver Whitecaps sent down eight players — the largest contingent ever sent from MLS to a USL PRO affiliate.
But when the team updated its roster web page before the season opener against Orlando, Ruggles and second-year forward Austin Savage were not on it. Both players continued to train with the Battery as “non-rostered players,” and as recently as Tuesday Coach Mike Anhaeuser had held out the possibility of signing Ruggles to a professional contract before this weekend.
Anhaeuser had previously said that the first issue with signing either Ruggles or Savage wasn’t money or talent, but minutes. The depth chart ahead of both young players is considered so stacked that Anhaeuser doesn’t anticipate either getting the regular game minutes needed to serve their development, and he had previously sent Ruggles to play for the Hammerheads in a preaseason match against Coastal Carolina in Conway.
Ruggles was at the team’s training facility this morning preparing for his trip to join Wilmington in Florida
“They’ve got a camp down there in Jacksonville for four days, so he’s going down there to see if maybe he could pick up with them, and then we’ll evaluate it,” Anhauser said. “We’ve got a couple of other options if we can’t do anything.”
Though it’s counter-intuitive to most fans, the Battery consider sending one of their favored young prospects to a rival team a step toward developing him for a career in Charleston. Anhaeuser believes that Ruggles would get more minutes in Wilmington, making him an even better prospect in 2015. Yes, the Battery would have to compete with Wilmington for his services next season, but since the club typically offers one-year deals to rookies anyway, that’s not much different than the situation they’d face if he were to sign here.
Other than matching Ruggles and Savage with USL PRO teams, the Battery’s other option is pretty much limited to placing the men with Palmetto Bantums FC, a PDL team that plays in Greenwood and Columbia.
But that option doesn’t involve a professional contract, and unlike MLS teams that can loan their players here to develop, players signed to USL PRO deals can’t play in PDL matches. Plus, while the minutes with Bantums might be beneficial, the arrangement wouldn’t be helpful to a player’s bank account.
Anheuser said Thursday that sending Ruggles on trial with Wilmington doesn’t change anything with his status here — beyond the fact that he won’t be with the Battery on Saturday when they take on Richmond.
Anhaeuser and Wilmington Coach Dave Irving have a solid working relationship and have helped each other out in the past. Last week Irving loaned his goalkeeper, Matt Glaeser, to Charleston for the Orlando match when Battery backup keeper Eric Shannon didn’t receive the necessary international clearances from his last professional team in Guatemala.
Colin Falvey spent his first season in USL as a Hammerhead because Charleston had no open spots on its roster when Falvey became available.
With Quinton Griffin due to miss Saturday with a suspension and defender Taylor Mueller dealing with a head injury, the Battery had reason to consider signing Ruggles to a pro deal earlier this week. But the team believes Whitecaps teenager Jackson Farmer is ready if called upon at right back, and Anhaeuser said Mueller was healthy.
As a striker, Savage faces an even steeper depth-chart climb. The team has Whitecaps Omar Salgado, Mamadou Diouf, Andre Lewis and Marlon Ramirez, and the Battery has already signed attackers Dane Kelly, Heviel Cordoves, Adam Mena, Maikel Chang and veteran Zach Prince.
Not counting the two unsigned players sent down from Vancouver, Charleston signed three new players in the 2014 preseason: Attacking midfielder Dante Marini, midfielder Justin Portillo, and goalkeeper Eric Shannon.
TOP IMAGE: Drew Ruggles celebrates his last-second equalizer against D.C. United on the second night of the 2014 Carolina Challenge Cup. Dan Conover photos.