The Charleston Battery have gone from the worst season in club history in 2022 to a campaign that has brought them to the Eastern Conference Final of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
During the week, or postgame, if you hear laughter coming from the Charleston Battery’s locker room, there’s a good chance forward Augustine Williams has something to do with it.
As sharp and intense as the Sierra Leone international is in front of goal, there’s another part of his personality that doesn’t tend to come out on the field.
“People don’t know, but I’m actually funny,” said Williams. “You don’t see that side of me when I’m playing. You only see that if you’re around me in the locker room and stuff like that, but I like to make jokes, I like to make people laugh. You know, I like to create memories.”
“I don’t think he knows how funny he is,” added Battery captain Leland Archer with a broad smile. “But he just says stuff that just comes out funny.”
There’s plenty of reason for the Battery and their fans to smile this season.
For the first time in a decade, Charleston is one of the final four teams standing in the USL Championship Playoffs. This Saturday night it will host Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Final at Patriots Point (7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+ | Preview).
Williams has had another sterling season, scoring 14 goals across the regular season and playoffs. Archer has been one of the centerpieces on the back line, sitting fifth on the team in minutes while taking the captain’s armband over the second half of the campaign.
Add the play of Mexico U-17 international Fidel Barajas with five goals and a league-high 11 assists across the regular season and playoffs and the rest of a sterling supporting cast and the Battery have produced one of the best seasons in their overall history.
Augustine Williams has led the Charleston Battery in goals for the past two seasons, but this year has appreciated the support he's received in the attacking third that has taken some pressure off his play. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Batt
It’s a far cry from where the club was at the end of the 2022 season, when it had completed the worst campaign in the club’s 30-year history. Charleston’s six wins and 25 points were its fewest in a campaign as it conceded 77 goals – second-most in the league.
It was a campaign in which nothing seemed to connect.
“There’s a lot of factors in that in terms of coaches, players weren’t on the same page,” said Williams, whose 16 goals earned him Championship All-League Second Team honors despite the side’s struggles. “I felt like there was not that connection that a team usually normally has as a family. I think those pieces were missing, and that did relate in the way we played. Obviously, we got injuries as well. So those big pieces I think did not help us going into the season.”
Following the appointment of Head Coach Ben Pirmann – who earned Championship Coach of the Year honors at Memphis 901 FC – things have changed rapidly for the better. It started in preseason, where the staff had the aim of building the familial atmosphere that both Williams and Archer said was missing in 2022 as well as achieving clarity on the field.
“From what I heard from because I [was on international duty], from the first day, it was like a completely different start,” said Archer. “People smashed the fitness test, [there were] probably five or six guys who they had to stop because they just kept running and running. So, I think just the mental focus, obviously coming off the year before, it was just way higher than last year.”
Of course, it’s one thing to come through preseason feeling positive about what’s ahead – even in 2022, there wasn’t pessimism in the group as it began the campaign – but the manner in which the Battery hit the ground running to start the new season instilled a belief that things were different. Both players point toward the 3-0 victory the side earned against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the third game of the season as a key moment, while Williams points toward the draw on the road at Sacramento Republic FC and Archer the side’s 3-2 win that came via a stoppage time winner by Arturo Rodriguez as an important boost in morale for the side.
“When we played against Tampa Bay, you can see the dominant performance we had,” said Williams. “For me, that’s what I was like, ‘we have a team.’ Even though everything had not clicked yet at that moment, but you can see the desire, wanting to win. You can see it was there and I was like, to myself, ‘we have a team, we have a really good team this year.’”
Charleston Battery players pile onto Arturo Rodriguez (bottom) after his game-winning goal in stoppage time against Hartford Athletic early this season. | Photo courtesy Henry Taylor / Charleston Battery
The Battery’s season had hiccups, for sure. There was a 7-0 defeat to San Antonio FC and 4-0 defeat to Indy Eleven at home – the latter which saw Archer sent off after just 19 seconds, the second-fastest red card in league history – but each time the side rebounded and avoided a serious downturn in form. Charleston’s longest winless streak this season was only three games, and it suffered consecutive defeats only once, another illustration of its resilience.
For Williams, the club’s success isn’t just due to the talent in the squad, but the collective mentality that has been developed among the players and staff.
“We wanted to build a family that was not just in football but outside of football,” he said. “That’s something we established from early on. And you know, that kind of played a huge role on the team. We’re a huge family, a really big family, and we fight for one another. We want to see everyone excel. Ben always talks about being selfless, and that’s one of the core values that we have. I think that’s a beautiful thing that we have compared to last year.”
Of course, the new arrivals have helped as well, including those that arrived having worked with Pirmann in Memphis. Right back Derek Dodson leads the team in minutes, while Trey Muse is tied for the league-lead with 13 shutouts while recording 82 saves this campaign.
“Those guys are high energy guys,” said Archer. “Especially Derek, you know. He thrives on pushing the team forward and also defensively as well. He’s a high energy character and it helps not only on the field but in the locker room.”
Charleston Battery captain Leland Archer has made 129 appearances for the club across the USL Championship's regular season and playoffs, the most of any current player in the squad. | Photo courtesy Henry Taylor / Charleston Battery
Williams, meanwhile, has a supporting cast that he feels has taken the pressure off him to provide the bulk of the team’s goals. After finishing with 10 more goals than his closest teammate a season ago, this year Williams has seen Nick Markanich join him in recording double-digit goals, with Rodriguez and late-2022 arrival Barajas providing goals and assists from their creative positions.
“It spreads all around, you know,” said Williams. “If there’s a day when I don’t score, we have guys like Nick scoring, or Arturo scoring. So, all around when people do film-study, they don’t only get to focus on one player. They get to focus on the team, which is great for all of us.”
As far as the Battery have come in one year, both Archer and Williams expect there’s more to come for this group next season and beyond. Having been told the stories of the club’s past successes by fans, including the last team to win the USL Championship title in 2012, the current squad is aiming to put itself among the figures that have shaped the story of one of America’s most historic clubs.
This Saturday’s contest against Louisville City FC will offer the next test of those aspirations. The Battery have only defeated Louisville twice in their all-time series, most recently a 2-1 win on July 14, 2018 when Ataullah Guerra and Neveal Hackshaw provided the goals. Archer was in the lineup that day during his first season with the club, and now sits on 129 appearances in the league and playoffs in Black and Yellow.
By comparison, there are still six players in Louisville’s squad who were part of that last defeat to the Battery, part of the continuity that has taken LouCity to nine consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. After ending all square in both of this season’s meetings between the sides, though, this is a game the Battery are looking forward to.
“They’ve been here in this part of the competition a lot of times, so they have that experience,” said Archer. “They’ve been a good team in this league for how many years, so we know what they can do and what they can bring. You want to play these kinds of teams in these kinds of situations. I think it will be good but challenging as well.”
“These are games that come down to moments,” added Williams. “Obviously, we have weakness, they have weakness, and obviously they have strengths. So, the more we watch films about them, the more we get to know our opponent and the more obviously we can use that weakness to our advantage.
“They’re no different than any other team we’ve played so far, in terms of every team we play, we expect them to come here and give us something. But, like we always say, the Charleston Battery’s a place where you come, you’ve got to fight to earn something. Nothing will be taken away from us.”
Whatever the result this Saturday night, it won’t diminish anything the Battery have achieved this season.
If Charleston succeeds, though, you’ll be able to tell from the laughter on the field and in the locker room.
“I mean, it’s always fun when you’re winning games,” said Archer. “That's the start, but the guys know what we can offer on the field. So, we try not to put too much pressure on each other and just have fun with it.”