Battery still going strong at 20

Jose Cuevas (center) scored in the 29th minute for the Charleston Battery against D.C. United.

It started out as a hobby, a small-business project to satisfy a lifelong obsession with soccer.

In 1993, watching his team play for the first time at Stoney Field, a local downtown high school football stadium, Tony Bakker could have never imagined that the Charleston Battery would become a part of the city’s permanent landscape nearly two decades later.

The Battery will face the Richmond Kickers in the club’s home opener at 7:30 p.m. today at Blackbaud Stadium. Charleston, Richmond and the Charlotte Eagles are celebrating their 20th seasons, making the three franchises the longest continuously operating professional soccer teams in the United States.

The idea of bringing a professional soccer team to Charleston didn’t originate with Bakker, the team’s majority owner. Tim Hankinson, the club’s first head coach, brought the idea to Bakker along with the team’s name and logo.

“Tim put together a business plan for establishing a USISL franchise in Charleston,” Bakker said. “I thought it sounded like a fun project to invest in. I really had no idea where it would lead that first season.”

Over the next 19 seasons, the Charleston Battery would win three league championships, move into the nation’s first soccer-specific stadium on Daniel Island, beat teams from Major League Soccer on a regular basis, host teams from the English Premier League and establish a brand name nearly unparalleled in minor league sports.

“It has been an unbelievable ride,” said Battery head coach Mike Anhaeuser, who has been a part of the club as a player or coach for 19 of the 20 seasons. “I guess I can believe it because I lived it.”

The one driving force behind the club has been Bakker.

“Without Tony there would be no Charleston Battery,” said former Battery keeper Dusty Hudock. “This has been a labor of love for Tony, and his passion for the game and for the Battery has made the club successful.”

Ironically, the club’s first game in May 1993 came against Richmond and drew about 2,000 fans. For the next six seasons, the Battery would call Stoney Field home. The Battery would win a PDSL national title in 1996, the first of three league championships the club would garner. But it was a 5-0 playoff loss to Minnesota in 1995 that convinced Anhaeuser the Battery was here to stay.

“We had something like 5,000 people show up for that game,” Anhaeuser said. “Even though we lost, I knew then that the community had embraced us as a club.”

Four years later, the Battery moved into Blackbaud Stadium. It was a leap of faith not only for Bakker, but for soccer in the Lowcountry.

“We needed to play in a better facility,” Bakker said. “We were building the new Blackbaud headquarters on Daniel Island, so it made sense to build the stadium as well. It was a risky venture, but it was important to control all the revenue streams and in essence control our own destiny.”

The Battery’s reputation grew. In 1999, they beat D.C. United, 4-3, in a U.S. Open Cup. From there the Battery beat teams from the MLS with regularity, culminating in their 2008 appearance in the U.S. Open Cup final against D.C. United.

Perhaps the Battery’s best collection of talent came in 2003 when they won the A-League title, whipping Minnesota, 3-0, in the final.

“There were not that many MLS teams back then,” said striker Paul Conway, the team’s career leading scorer. “There were maybe eight or nine teams, and I’m confident that we could compete with any of them on a weekly basis. We were among the seven or eight best clubs in the country during that season.”

The Battery has flourished in a market dominated by the other football — American football.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” said Battery defender John Wilson, who enters his ninth season with the club. “It’s the culture of the south. I still get people coming up to me asking if I still play that ‘communist sport.’ To think about how far we’ve come in the last decade is incredible.”

The popularity of soccer in the Lowcountry — at the youth and adult level — can be traced back to the Battery’s success.

“The sport has grown all over the country, but look at all the youth teams and adult leagues that have sprouted up,” said former Battery defender and assistant coach Mark Watson. “The level of growth in Charleston wouldn’t be nearly where it is today without the Battery.”