When Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Andre Lewis and striker Mamadou Diouf found out they were coming to Charleston to begin their professional soccer careers, they both had mixed emotions.
Orlando City vs. Charleston Battery
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Blackbaud Stadium
Tickets: (843) 971-4625
Lewis and Diouff had been drafted by Vancouver in Major League Soccer's 2014 SuperDraft - Lewis in the first round with the seventh overall pick and Diouff in the second round with the 30th selection. Both had dreamed of beginning their careers in the nation's top professional league.
2014 Charleston Battery Schedule
March 22 Orlando City 7:30 p.m.
March 29 Richmond 7:30 p.m.
April 12 at Orlando City 7:30 p.m.
April 18 New York Red Bulls 7:30 p.m.
April 26 Pittsburgh Riverhounds 6 p.m.
April 27 at Rochester Rhinos 4 p.m.
May 2 at Harrisburg City 7 p.m.
May 4 at Dayton Dutch Lions 7 p.m.
May 10Wilmington Hammerheads 7:30 p.m.
May 17 at Wilmington Hammerheads 7:30 p.m.
May 24 Pittsburgh Riverhounds 7:30 p.m.
May 31 Orlando City 7:30 p.m. 7:30 p.m.
June 14 LA Galaxy II 7:30 p.m.
June 21 at Charlotte Eagles 7 p.m.
June 27 Richmond Kickers 7:30 p.m.
July 5 at Harrisburg City 6 p.m.
July 12 Charlotte Eagles 7:30 p.m.
July 19 at Richmond Kickers 7 p.m.
July 26 Phoenix FC Wolves 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 1 at Rochester Rhinos 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 3 at Montreal Impact 2 p.m.
Aug. 8 Dayton Dutch Lions 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 13 Los Angeles Blues 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 15 Rochester Rhinos 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 24 at OKC Energy FC 8 p.m.
Aug. 27 at Sacramento Republic 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 Pittsburgh Riverhounds 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 Harrisburg City 7:30 p.m.
But as MLS clubs begin to expand their relationships with teams like the Charleston Battery, which plays in the United Soccer Leagues' Pro Division, front-office personnel are discovering that getting young prospects like Lewis and Diouf meaningful game experience is far more important than worrying about bruised egos.
Last summer, the Battery and the Whitecaps had a loose trial affiliation, sending a handful of players to the Lowcountry in hopes of developing them for the main club. The game experience proved to be valuable for both parties, and in January the two clubs signed an official affiliation agreement.
When Charleston takes the field against Orlando City on Saturday night at Blackbaud Stadium in the season opener, the Battery could have as many as a half-dozen Whitecap prospects on the field, including Lewis and Diouf.
"This affiliation will greatly benefit the development of our younger players by providing an opportunity for them receive more minutes in a professional environment," said Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi. "As a result it will help with player transition from our residency and U-23 programs into the first team."
As Lewis and Diouf have settled into their new surroundings, both have realized that playing in Charleston could be a crucial stepping stone in their professional careers. Instead of being upset over their assignment to a lower league, both have embraced their new home.
Diouf, 23, was an All-Big East striker at the University of Connecticut and thinks a season in the USL Pro division will only help him down the road.
"Of course I wanted to start the season with Vancouver, but at the end of the day, the best thing for a young player like me is to play," Diouf said. "I wasn't going to get a lot of playing time in Vancouver, so I needed to go to a team where I was going to get playing time. I looked at it like a new opportunity."
It's a sentiment shared by Lewis, 19, who played professionally in Jamaica last year. He said the competition level in the USL Pro is higher than what he was accustomed to back home. Lewis, who is 5-9 and weighs 145 pounds, knows he needs to develop not only his skill level, but his body as well.
"Everyone is older than I am, so they've had a chance to get bigger and stronger," Lewis said. "I know I have to work to get bigger and stronger and this is the place for me to do that. When the coaches told me I was coming here, I thought it was the right decision. I need to get in as many games as I can."
Charleston head coach Mike Anhaeuser said the new partnership with Vancouver will benefit both clubs. Eleven of the 14 teams in the USL Pro have affiliations with MLS clubs.
"The league is getting younger, it's becoming more of a developmental league and if it's done properly, I think everyone benefits," Anheauser said. "I think we've begun to model ourselves after the European clubs and they've been wildly successful doing it."
Charleston hired Troy Lesesne, a former Battery midfielder for the club, as an assistant coach. A major part of his job will be to work as a liaison between the Battery and Vancouver.
"Developing players is really important to Vancouver and to us," Anhaeuser said. "Troy's going to be a big part of that."
The brief affiliation has already paid dividends for Vancouver. A year ago, Vancouver midfielder Bryce Alderson made 14 appearances with the Battery. This year, he made the Whitecaps' roster.
"I think Bryce's time here in Charleston was crucial for his development," Anheauser said. "I think that's what both clubs are looking for. We wanted good, young players and they want their players to develop."
On Friday, Charleston received another top-flight prospect from Vancouver when the Whitecaps loaned 20-year-old striker Omas Salgado to the Battery. Salgado was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLS draft.
"Omar is a young player with a lot of potential, and this loan is a natural step following two seasons with limited playing time," Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson said. "Our partnership with the Battery provides the opportunity for Omar to earn first-team minutes with a number of his peers during this stretch of our MLS season."
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