From humble beginnings, Carolina Challenge Cup has grown into national event

Fans and players stand for the National Anthem before the match between the Charleston Battery and Seattle Sounders in last year's Carolina Challenge Cup at Blackbaud Stadium. Wade Spees/Staff/File

Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser surveyed the scene inside the Three Lions Pub on Friday afternoon and could only shake his head in disbelief.

At one end of the pub at Blackbaud Stadium, there was Orlando City SC midfielder Kaká, the 2007 FIFA player of the year, checking out a Brazilian World Cup national team jersey that he had signed years ago. At the other end, New York City FC’s David Villa, Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer, was huddled with a couple of his teammates discussing plans for dinner in downtown Charleston.

On Saturday, Kaká and Villa will take the field before a sellout crowd at Blackbaud Stadium in the 12th annual Carolina Challenge Cup.

If anyone had told Anhaeuser on the eve of the first Carolina Challenge Cup back in 2004 that players like Villa and Kaká would one day be playing in the preseason tournament, he would have laughed.

“No way, absolutely not,” Anhaeuser said. “Back in 2004, they were two of the top players in the world, playing on the biggest stages for the biggest clubs. I guess it shows you how much the sport has grown in the United States.”

And how far the Carolina Challenge Cup has come in the past decade.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Charleston Battery routinely played Major League Soccer teams in preseason matches.

Charleston Battery president Andrew Bell would get flooded with calls from MLS general managers and coaches inquiring about the team’s preseason schedule. Instead of playing against another league club or an elite college team, the MLS was looking for quality, professional opponents to help tune up for the regular season.

One afternoon, Bell, Anhaeuser and team owner Tony Bakker were kicking around ideas for the upcoming season and came up with a plan for a preseason tournament featuring the Battery and MLS teams. From those humble beginnings the idea eventually evolved into the inaugural Carolina Challenge Cup in 2004.

The first tournament featured two MLS teams — D.C. United and the Columbus Crew — along with the Battery and Wilmington Hammerheads of the United Soccer League’s second division. Two of the six matches were played in Wilmington.

“It grew out of the single-game exhibitions that we used to host against MLS teams just before the regular season started,” Bakker said. “In 2004 we had the chance to bring in two MLS teams during the same week and we came up with the idea of playing a tournament-style competition instead of just the exhibition matches.”

Bell was convinced that the local community would get behind the tournament. That first year, the Battery’s marketing strategy focused on Freddy Adu, the teenage phenom who signed with D.C. United a few months earlier.

“Freddy Adu was the next big thing in soccer, so we really wanted to make him the main attraction,” Bell said.

It worked.

The first game was nearly a sellout with screaming girls seeking Adu’s autograph. More than 10,000 fans attended the week-long event.

“I think everyone was optimistic that it would succeed, but you never know,” Bell said. “We thought we had a good format and with Adu coming into town there was a buzz about the tournament.”

The next year, the Battery dropped Wilmington and added a third MLS team. That’s when the tournament began to take off.

As word spread within the MLS community about the facilities and the mild climate of the Lowcountry, clubs began to line up to get into the event. Instead of calling teams to gauge their interest in playing, Bell was turning clubs away.

“We were getting calls from some pretty big clubs asking to get in, but the field had already been filled,” Bell said.

Clubs across the country noticed the success of the Carolina Challenge Cup and began to copy its format. Similar tournaments were started in Arizona and Florida.

“I think as the popularity of the MLS has grown, so has the tournament,” Bakker said. “I think they’ve gone hand in hand with each other.”

The tournament achieved another level last year when the Seattle Sounders, one of the biggest and most popular clubs in America, made an appearance.

An added benefit was that Osvaldo Alonzo and Lamar Neagle, who had played for the Battery earlier in their careers, got to return to the city where their professional careers started.

“Getting Seattle was a major coup for us,” Bell said. “They have a massive following and having them out here gave us even more exposure.”

Having players with the reputations of Villa and Kaká will only continue that momentum for the Battery and the tournament. The MLS became more involved this year and local sponsorships have more than doubled over the past few years. Last year, the tournament drew more than 14,000 fans. This year, the opening night matches at Blackbaud Stadium (5,100 capacity) sold out in record time.

“The Carolina Challenge Cup really set the standard for preseason tournaments,” said Dan Courtemanche, the MLS’s executive vice president of communications. “The clubs that have gone to the tournament rave about the facilities and competition. And of course, Charleston, is a world class destination.”

The tournament could expand in the near future, featuring more teams and more games.

“There’s talk about bringing in six teams or maybe even eight next year,” Anhaeuser said. “We’d probably have to make it a 10-day tournament or have games at other venues. It has become a fixture in the community. I believe that it’s only going to get bigger.”