Columbus Crew striker Tom Heinemann wasn't sure how he was going to feel this past weekend when he stepped back onto the field at Blackbaud Stadium.
Heinemann, the former Charleston Battery striker, knew it would be emotional. When he entered the game in the second half against the Battery on Saturday night, he smiled and waved, acknowledging the fans who had supported him for two seasons when he was one of the top scorers in the USL Second Division.
"This is where it all began for me," Heinemann said. "This is where I got my start in professional soccer, so Charleston will always have a special place in my heart no matter what uniform I'm wearing or where I'm playing. I've been able to catch up with a lot of people and reconnect with them. That's been awesome. To be back playing in Charleston again is kind of surreal. It makes me appreciate everything that has happened to me in the last two years."
The last time Charleston fans watched Heinemann in a Battery uniform, he was hoisting the USL Second Division championship cup on a hot and humid August night in 2010 after the Battery's 2-1 victory over Richmond.
"Those are memories I'll take with me for the rest of my life," Heinemann said. "The friendships I made on that team and with the fans will stay with me forever. Those bonds you have with those guys on a championship team are never going to be broken."
Less than a week after winning a title with Charleston, Heinemann was picked up by the Carolina RailHawks for their playoff run in the USSF Division 2 Professional League. He played four games for the RailHawks, recording two goals, including the game winner against the Montreal Impact in the semifinals.
"It was a great experience. It was a chance to play in the playoffs and win another championship and get closer to my dream of playing in the MLS," Heinemann said.
Heinemann had been close to making an MLS team in 2009. He spent the spring of 2009 in the Columbus Crew's training camp, but was released just four days before the start of regular season.
"Tom was very close to making the team, but he needed to get more minutes that we could give him," said Columbus Crew coach Robert Warzycha. "I think going to the Battery and playing there was the best thing for him at that point in his career."
It was Heinemann's play with the Battery and RailHawks that got him back on the Crew's radar. Heinemann signed with Columbus in January of 2011.
He had a solid rookie campaign, playing in 28 games with 12 starts. He finished with three goals and one assist. He got his MLS goal midway through the season against Colorado.
"You never forget your first goal," Heinemann said. "I had been close a few times, so I was getting a little frustrated that I had not scored. Obviously, I want to get on the field more and contribute more this season. I've had a pretty good preseason, and now it's a matter of waiting for my opportunity."
At 6-4 and 180 pounds, Warzycha said still Heinemann needs to utilize his size to his full advantage.
"Tom is a very hard worker and his size makes him a unique player in our league," Warzycha said. "He just needs to be a little more consistent. He had a good season for us last year and hopefully he can build on that for this season."
What: 2012 Carolina Challenge Cup
Time: 5 p.m. - Columbus Crew vs. Chicago Fire
7:15 p.m. - Charleston Battery vs. D.C. United
Where: Blackbaud Stadium