With the start of the United Soccer League schedule pushed back almost two months due to COVID-19, it's been a long preseason and even longer offseason for the Charleston Battery.
After 7½ weeks of training, Battery players and coach Mike Anhaeuser are eager to get their season started on May 7 against New York Red Bulls II in Montclair, N.J.
"Usually we only have about four weeks to get ready, but this year it's been about seven weeks and the guys are ready to go," said Anhaeuser, who has been with the Battery as a player and coach since 1994. "Our players, unless they have played internationally for their countries, have not played a game since the middle of last October.
"That's going to be interesting, and I think we have seen some rust from teams and players early in the season. But I know our guys are looking sharp and are ready to go."
The Battery went 9-3-3 in an abbreviated season in 2020, and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. This season, they will play a 32-game slate compressed into six months, with the sold-out home opener set for May 14 against Charlotte Independence at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
Anhaeuser's club returns most of its core starting lineup, including keeper Joe Kuzminsky and the back line of Leland Archer, AJ Paterson, Jarad van Schaik and Logan Gdula.
Archer, a College of Charleston product, played for his home country of Trinidad and Tobago against the U.S. Men's National Team in the offseason, and Paterson captained the Grenada national team in the World Cup qualifiers in March.
The midfield of Angelo Kelly, Robbie Crawford, Mauro Cichero and Nico Rittmeyer also returns, thought Rittmeyer is currently injured.
Up front, leading goal scorers Zeiko Lewis and Nicque Daley are each back for their third seasons. Another top scorer, Stavros Zarokostas, is back for his second season after signing from the University of Rhode Island last season.
The Battery also have added some new players, including forward Geobel Perez, who defected from Cuba during the U-17 World Cup in 2018. Midfielder Burke Fahling is a product of the Seattle Sounders academy, and defender Ben Di Rosa played for Maryland's national championship team in 2018. Another defender, Erik McCue, is on loan from the Houston Dynamo in the MLS.
And on May 6 the Battery signed midfielder Dionysius "DZ" Harmon and keeper Jack Pondy. Harmon played three seasons at Coastal Carolina, where he was an all-Sun Belt player. Pondy, from A.C. Flora High School in Columbia, has signed his first pro contract and played for Winthrop and UConn in college. He's been playing with Soda City FC in the United Premier Soccer League.
Anhaeuser again will build his squad on solid defense. But he'd also like to see his team open things up on the offensive end, as well.
"We really tried to open the game up on the outside to be more offensive last year," he said. "Obviously, we were a very good defensive team, but last year we were able to score multiple goals in games, especially at home.
"We're going to try to replicate that. We want to be attacking on the outside with our outside backs and wing play, and we want to get extra guys in the box to try to create more chances than we have in the past. I think the fans enjoy that a lot more than a 1-0 game, and we're going to do everything we can to push the game to the other teams."