English team arrives for Battery matchup

West Bromwich Albion captain Darren Fletcher (24) and Cristian Gamboa (16) celebrate a goal last season. (photo provided).

Even 4,000 miles and an ocean away from downtown Charleston, West Bromwich striker Brown Ideye knew what had happened that terrible night a month ago.

Ideye and more than two dozen members of the English Premier League’s West Bromwich soccer club arrived in downtown Charleston late Thursday afternoon in preparation for Friday night’s exhibition match with the Charleston Battery at Blackbaud Stadium.

But before the Baggies settled into their hotel rooms and got a good night’s sleep, they wanted to pay their respects to the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings.

West Bromwich manager Tony Pulis wanted to take a short walking tour of downtown Charleston and had one place in particular he wanted his players to see — Emanuel AME Church. West Bromwich’s entire entourage, nearly three dozen strong, including members of the coaching and support staff, strolled five blocks from their hotel to Calhoun Street and the site of the shootings.

Dylann Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist, is accused of shooting nine people who gathered at the church for a Bible study meeting last month.

The awful crime made international news.

The members of the team talked quietly amongst themselves, snapping picture of the flowers, photos and signs at the memorial in front of the church.

“It was all over the television and in the newspapers,” said Ideye, a native of Nigeria, who was in England when the shooting occurred. “It was such a horrible event. I couldn’t understand it.

“How could someone kill people that he didn’t know? I think we needed to come here and show our respect for the victims.”

Ideye hopes that Friday’s match against the Battery will bring a brief respite from the grief for soccer fans around the Lowcountry.

It’s only the second time an EPL team has come to the Lowcountry and faced the Charleston Battery. The last time was in 2010 when the Bolton Wanderers defeated the Battery, 2-0, in an exhibition match. The Baggies will be the fourth team from England — Sunderland A.F.C. (2004), Bolton (2010) and Portsmouth F.C. (2011) — to face the Battery in the last decade. As of Thursday night, there were less than 500 tickets remaining for Friday’s match.

“The EPL has a worldwide audience of more than four billion people,” said Charleston Battery president Andrew Bell. “Even since 2010 when Bolton was here, the interest in the league has surged to new heights. The interest in soccer in general is on the rise here, especially after what the U.S.’s women did winning the World Cup, and this is probably one of the biggest matches we’ve ever had. I think it’ll be a great experience for our club and soccer fans in the Lowcountry.”

As West Bromwich prepares for its EPL regular season opener on Aug. 10 against Manchester City, the Baggies scheduled three exhibition matches in the United States. The Baggies lost to Major League Soccer’s Orlando City, 3-1, Wednesday night in the first game and will take on the Battery Friday before heading to Virginia to take on the USL’s Richmond Kickers on Sunday.

Pulis is hoping the hot and humid conditions continue through the weekend. Game time temperatures Friday are expected to be around 90 degrees.

“Three games in five days is going to be tough especially in these conditions,” Pulis said. “I think the conditions are really going to help us. They’re difficult. They are not what we’re used to, so its important that we get our fitness during the matches. We welcome the heat and the humidity. I thought we played well for 45 minutes in Orlando, but the second half I think the heat caught up with us. I’m hoping we get more of that (Friday night) against the Battery. We want it to be tough for them physically.”

If it’s all the same, West Bromwich captain Darren Fletcher could do without the heat and humidity.

“(Pulis) wants a fit team, a strong team and we certainly won’t see conditions like this back home,” Fletcher said. “It’s brutal. Our legs are not quite there yet. We’re feeling a little bit leggy, but we know that the end result we’ll be feeling pretty good at the beginning of the season.”

Pulis’ son, Anthony Pulis, has been a midfielder for Orlando for the past three seasons and is familiar with the USL and the Battery.

“My son has played in this league for a few years and I was lucky enough to be able to come over and watch a few games,” Tony Pulis said. “We know that the Battery will be well organized and well set up. It will be tough for us. It’s a lovely pitch, I’ve just been over at the stadium, so I’m looking forward to it. It should be a great atmosphere.”

Fletcher has been coming over to the United States and facing MLS teams for several years and has seen the sport grow on and off the field in America.

“I’ve seen the progression over the years,” Fletcher said. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the MLS is getting better. Fitness has never been an issue. You can see tactics improving, game plans improving, technical ability improving and when you keep seeing progression you know you’re moving in the right direction and I see the MLS doing that.”

For Battery players like captain Jarad van Schaik, Friday’s match is a chance to see how he stacks up against some of the best players in the world.

“I think it’s a chance for everyone to play against guys who are playing at the highest level in one of the best leagues in the world,” van Schaik said. “It’s a great opportunity to see where we stand against them. It’s also a chance to see what we need to improve upon to get to that next level. West Brom has so many good players, Darren Fletcher is a guy who I really like to watch, but I’m excited about playing against all of them.”

Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser said the Battery won’t sit back defensively and hope for a result. The Battery have been nearly unbeatable in the last 14 months at Blackbaud Stadium, suffering just one regulation loss (15-1-6) in their 22 matches.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see us go into a defensive shell,” Anhaeuser said. “We want to push forward and we want to score. We’re going to play them the same way we’ve been playing all season and hope things open up and it’s an exciting match.”