Every championship team has that one defining moment when the players rise above the occasion to show their true nature — their championship form.
That moment for the Charleston Battery occurred in the most unlikely of places, on a field and against a club where championship dreams have died over the years for the Battery.
The notion that Charleston would be facing Wilmington on Saturday at Blackbaud Stadium in the USL Pro Division title match seemed impossible several weeks ago.
When the Battery entered Sahlen Stadium to take on the second-place Rochester Rhinos with a week left in the regular season, there was nothing to indicate that the Battery could muster enough energy for another run at a league title. Heading into that game, the Battery appeared to be a team searching for an identity and in desperate need of a victory.
Over the previous six weeks, the Battery had limped to a 1-7-1 mark and had turned a once promising season into a major freefall with no end in sight.
Veteran striker Sallieu Bundu had been transferred to Ravan Baku, a team in Sierra Leone, two weeks earlier. Striker Dane Kelly and midfielder Navion Boyd, two of the Battery’s most dangerous players, were both out with injuries.
Making the situation worse was the fact that the Battery has never had much success at Sahlen Stadium.
But Charleston midfielder Tony Donatelli, a former Rochester player, scored two goals as the Battery handed the Rhinos their worst home loss, 4-0, in the franchise’s history.
It would prove to be the turning point in the season for the Battery and a springboard from which they would launch their current run to the USL Pro Division final.
“I think what the Rochester game showed us was what we were capable of,” said Charleston captain Colin Falvey. “I think it gave us a bit of confidence and proved that if we played properly we could beat anyone in the league.”
When Charleston enters Blackbaud Stadium Saturday night it will mark the third time in the last decade — and the fourth time in the club’s history — that the Battery will take the field with a league championship on the line. Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser has been there for every championship game as either a player or a coach. The Battery won league titles in 1996 (USISL Pro League), 2003 (A-League) and 2010 (USL Second Division).
“I think what all those teams had in common was that they all jelled at the right time,” Anhaeuser said. “We had a very tight team in 1996. In 2003 and 2010, I think we just knew we were the best team in the league, but there were points in each of those seasons when you could see the team coming together and playing for each other.
“How a team responds to adversity is really important. You can have all the talent in the world, but talent can only get you so far. You need the guys playing together toward one goal.”
Charleston has certainly had its share of adversity in the playoffs.
In the opening round, the Battery fell behind 1-0 to Harrisburg City only to rally behind goals from Nicki Patterson and Donatelli.
In Saturday’s semifinal match against Rochester, the Battery was forced to play most of the match without Jose Cuevas, the team’s second-leading scorer and a candidate for the USL Pro Division rookie of the year honors. Down a goal with less than a minute left in regulation, Donatelli’s header would send the match into overtime, where the Battery would eventually win on penalty kicks. There was plenty of tense moments in the shootout. Keeper Andrew Dykstra made three huge saves, while Zach Prince kept the Battery’s season alive in the fifth round with a goal. Then after a Rochester miss, J.C. Mack ended the game with his goal in the seventh round.
“Even near the end of regulation and in the shootout I still felt like we could win,” said veteran defender John Wilson. “We showed a lot of grit and character and grinded out a win. That’s the mark of a championship team.”
1996 USISL Pro League
2003 USL A-League
2010 USL Second Division
U.S. Open Cup
2008 U.S. Open Cup Finalist
First Place (Regular Season)
1996 USISL Pro League Atlantic Division
2000 USL A-League
2002 USL A-League
2003 USL A-League
2010 USL Second Division
Southern Derby Cup