With a history that goes back more than three decades, the Charleston Battery are one of American soccer's iconic clubs, and will play for their fifth league title this weekend. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
Mike Anhaeuser has a confession to make.
When he arrived in South Carolina’s Lowcountry in 1994 to play for the Charleston Battery – then about to kick off their second season in the professional ranks – he didn’t envision it becoming his long-term home.
“When you’re a young player, out of college, you’re hoping you come here and you move on,” said Anhaeuser this week. “I was young and hungry to try to make it in the second division and when MLS started try to move there as a player and that’s where you first start.
“But it was hard to leave.”
Thirty years later, Anhaeuser’s name has become synonymous with the Battery, for which he made more than 100 appearances before going on to serve as an assistant coach and then head coach for more than two decades.
For Anhaeuser, and for others who have built longtime connections to the club, it comes back to the sense of place and community that Charleston and the Battery have provided.
“For me, it’s really my life after college,” said Anhaeuser. “It’s still a big part of my life today, going into these games and seeing another championship coming to Charleston. It’s just really been a part of my life.”
Longtime Charleston Battery stalwarts John Wilson (left) and Mike Anhaeuser at Patriots Point this season. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
It’s a word you hear a lot when talking to past and present members of the Battery, and it goes back to the club’s foundation.
The distinctive Black-and-Yellow striped home kits provided an immediately recognizable identity.
Opening the first privately funded soccer-specific venue in the United States at Blackbaud Stadium in 1999 offered a blueprint for the future of the game in the country.
Hosting clubs from Major League Soccer each spring at the Carolina Challenge Cup, to say nothing of clubs from the Premier League during the summer, broadened the club’s horizons.
At every turn, Charleston aimed high. Add its famous run to the final of the 2008 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the name of the club from one of the smallest markets in the top two tiers of American soccer became one most soccer fans recognize.
But there was another element that was essential, and that was the connection to its passionate supporters. Attend a game now at Patriots Point and you’ll find people who have been season-ticket holders since the club’s inaugural season in 1993. They’re joined by a longstanding collection of die-hards that have seen the club’s ups-and-downs.
The connection for the club and players with supporters’ group The Regiment was part of the attraction of coming to play for the Battery, as was coming to one of America’s great cities. As longtime player and assistant coach John Wilson recalls, if you needed something, chances were someone in the Battery’s extended family would be there to help.
“In Charleston, if you needed a mechanic there was probably some fan in the stands who either was a mechanic or knew somebody,” said Wilson. “If you needed a dentist there was probably somebody there was a fan in the stands who was a dentist or knew somebody. It was a true community.”
A native of South Carolina himself, Wilson is another club legend. He sits second in the Battery’s history with 269 appearances, consistently one of the best left backs in the league. When his playing days came to an end in 2014, he served as Anhaeuser’s assistant for seven more seasons.
John Wilson is second all-time in the Charleston Battery's appearances list, and helped lead the side to its last league title in the 2012 USL Championship Final. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery
But the latter of those years brought a more turbulent existence for the Battery and the community that supported them. The club was still successful on the field – posting top-four finishes in the Eastern Conference in both 2017 and 2018 – but the connection between the club and its support was seeming to wane.
“When you see it kind of lacks a little bit, it is concerning,” said Wilson. “I always know that, yes, it is about wins – but who are you winning for? The fans. Especially at a club like Charleston, a tight-knit community like that, you have to continue to have that relationship.”
Enter Rob Salvatore, who late in 2019 became the new primary owner of the Battery. His aim? To breath new life into the club, reembrace the community that had served as the Battery’s lifeblood as it became an American soccer institution, and expand the club’s reach in the digital age.
“[It was] almost like the worst house on the best street where it has these great bones and you can make magic of it,” said Salvatore. “It does have a national profile. There are people who have been in this game who are my age who played professionally 25 years ago. And they’re like, “Oh, I played on Stoney Field, I used to come to the CCC.’
“Just the other day I was talking to [current Birmingham Legion FC President] Jay Heaps [before the Battery’s playoff game with Legion FC]. He said, ‘this is incredible, I played on this field.’ I’m like, ‘When did you play on this field?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we were down when I was on the [New England Revolution]. We trained here, we scrimmaged here.’ There’s so much of that.”
Mike Anhaeuser and current Charleston Battery Chairman and Co-Owner Rob Salvatore celebrate at Patriots Point this season. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
As much financial investment as there has been behind the Battery’s turnaround, the emotional investment being the leader of a club like the Battery is the part Salvatore has quickly grown to understand and appreciate.
“Trying to rebuild the team, I picked up pretty quick it wasn’t going to work unless I was all-in on it,” said Salvatore. “You are not going to shortcut anything, whether it’s engaging the community, building a supportive culture, having a locker room and a management team that really wants to build something great, engaging sponsorship, generating revenue, having an impact. You have to do the work, you have to be genuinely committed to it. You have to have your intentions out there.
“One of the things that maybe this community has responded to is, I am here. Our ownership group is committed. We have excellent people in the organization all the way across the different disciplines. And I think our intentions in terms of what we wanted to do with the community have been out there and people have said we will support you on that journey.”
There have been bumps in the road on the playing side, but the appointment of Lee Cohen as the Battery’s President last year and addition of Ben Pirmann as Head Coach this offseason has made Charleston a contender on the field in short order.
More than that, though, the club has leaned heavily into its history through activations at Patriots Point and in its digital storytelling. For Salvatore, that was an essential part of reestablishing the club’s connection to the community that knew and loved the Battery, while aiming to reach locals who might not have realized how deep the Battery’s roots in the Charleston community are, and those outside the Charleston region who might not know the depth of the club’s three-decade history.
“I said if we’re doing good work in the community and the team is good on the field, I don’t want to hire a phalanx of salespeople to go out and bang the phones, I want our content to tell the story,” said Salvatore. “Empowering [Content & Communications Manager] Ben [Clemens] and the others in our marketing group, to say ‘listen, we’re doing good stuff. Let’s create really compelling content around it. That will engage our fans, they’ll be able to go on the journey.’”
The Battery’s history – and the stories that come with it – has plenty to be unearthed, too. This season’s success has been one element, but both Wilson and Anhaeuser saw the talent that came through the Battery’s doors – as players, coaches and front office staff – which is now dotted around the American soccer landscape.
That’s part of Charleston’s history as one of the cradles of American soccer. From appointing a future legend in Tim Hankinson as its first Head Coach in 1993 to the silverware the club has accumulated over the years, Charleston provided the platform for hundreds of alumni to flourish, on and off the field.
“When you’re able to be in a city like Charleston, it helps attract talent,” said Wilson. “I also think the founding owner, Tony Bakker was a big part of that. … That became the place that some players – instead of plying their trade in MLS – would come to the Battery because there was a foundation there to develop as a player, as a coach. I think that’s why there’s just an unbelievable list of alumni who have passed through there.”
Legendary Cuban midfielder Ozzie Alonso launched his career in the United States with the Charleston Battery in 2008, winning the USL First Division's Rookie of the Year award. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery
“This shows that you have something very good and you’ve done things well, when you’re able to put people in position that allows them to move into other places,” added Anhaeuser. “They take those things that hopefully they learned from Charleston and put them in the places where they are now, even in different cities or different countries and everywhere. It’s fantastic.”
The club saw players such as Raul Diaz Arce, Ezra Hendrickson and Terry Phelan compete in Black-and-Yellow. Current New York Red Bulls Head Coach Troy Lesesne was a player and assistant coach for Anhaeuser.
Sporting Kansas City’s Tim Melia and Atlanta United FC’s Ozzie Alonso both competed for the club before notable top-flight careers. More recently players like the San Jose Earthquakes’ Jeremy Ebobisse, Real Salt Lake’s Maikel Chang and Atlanta’s Miles Robinson got their start in the Battery’s colors.
As many people as the club has moved up in their pathway, the club has also worked to ensure those like Anhaeuser who remain in the community also get their due. Earlier this year, the Battery opened an alumni deck at Patriots Point for past players and staff to congregate at before and during games. It is named in honor of Anhaeuser, who remains a regular at games and is enthusiastic about the direction the club is now headed.
In April, the Battery unveiled the Michael "Augie" Anhaeuser Alumni Deck at Patriots Point, which is now a gathering point on gameday for the club's alumni. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
“Anytime you get an honor, like what they did with the ‘Augie Stand’ that they put up, it makes you feel that little extra something special,” said Anhaeuser. “You feel proud of what you’ve done. It makes you feel great that you’ve been involved with a good club, and then it also shows that it’s nice to see that they’re pushing everything forward.”
The Battery will play for their fifth league title this Sunday night when they host Phoenix Rising FC in the 2023 USL Championship Final (7 p.m. ET | ESPN2 | ESPN Deportes | SiriusXM FC). Both Anhaeuser and Wilson will be there, alongside other alumni hoping to see the current squad and Head Coach Ben Pirmann accomplish what they did previously.
For Pirmann, this sort of opportunity was one of the reasons why he decided to join the Battery in the first place.
“When I took the job, the big draw of this club was twofold,” said Pirmann. “Number one was the history, the ability to instantly be in every single conversation.
“The Battery are a monster club in terms of historical relevance. I believe we're competing for our fifth league title in 30 years, so there’s been a lot of a lot of people that have come before me and before us players, staff, front office owners, coaches, that have done a lot of work to help professional soccer in this country. That’s part of what we play for in the Black-and-Yellow. We’re excited to put this badge on – it’s a heavy badge, but we really enjoy it – and Sunday should be a really monumental occasion.”
Charleston Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann and President Lee Cohen have overseen the club's return to the top of the USL Championship, and a place in the 2023 USL Championship Final this weekend. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
Almost 30 years after his arrival in the city, for Anhaeuser, it’s an opportunity for the national audience and those watching overseas to embrace one of American soccer’s greatest institutions.
“It’s always been the intent to put the Battery or keep it at a certain level, so people and players knew it was a place you wanted to go to play, a place you want to go watch games,” said Anhaeuser. “I still have my life here and it will never go away. It’s been a tremendous place and, yeah, the soccer community I think all over the world [understands that].
“Sunday’s only going to put it on another pedestal, especially with the live ESPN coverage. It will help build that bigger and bigger, which for me is fantastic for the club.”