The Charleston Battery has always approached the Carolina Challenge Cup a little differently than their counterparts from Major League Soccer.
While the teams from MLS are fine-tuning their rosters and making their final preparations for the start of the regular season that begins March 3, the Battery is a month away from its season opener and has held only a handful of training sessions.
With that in mind, Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser isn’t so much interested in results as he is in seeing how his players work together in the Cup. But every year a player that comes to the Lowcountry on a tryout agreement seems to emerge during the week-long tournament.
The most famous trial player for the Battery was midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who earned a spot on the club’s roster with his performance during the 2008 tournament. Alonso helped lead the Battery to the final of the U.S. Open Cup that summer and would later go on to sign with the MLS’ Seattle Sounders — becoming the club’s captain and leading the team to an MSL Cup championship in 2016.
A year ago it was midfielder Kotaro Higashi, who scored a late goal against Seattle during the opening game of the tournament and became a fixture in the Battery’s lineup by the middle of the summer.
Who will it be this year?
Anhaeuser isn’t sure, but he feels like there are plenty of candidates.
The Battery will take on Minnesota United in the opening round of the Carolina Challenge Cup on Saturday (7:30 p.m.) at MUSC Health Stadium. The Columbus Crew will face Atlanta United FC at 5 p.m. in the tournament’s opening match.
“I think we have that one player every year that comes in here trying to earn a spot and that showcases himself during the tournament and leaves with a contract,” Anhaeuser said.
“Last year it was Kotaro. I think we’ve got a half-dozen guys like that here right now. I can’t say names just yet, but we have guys here right now that are competing for spots. We have three-to-five players that we’re already talking about signing, so the next week during the tournament is very important for those guys to put their best foot forward.”
With the departure of strikers Romario Williams and Heviel Cordoves, and midfielders Ricky Garbanzo and Maikel Chang, Anhaeuser will be playing close attention to his attacking players.
“We lost some guys up front, so we’ve got a few guys that are going to be trying out for those spots,” Anhaeuser said. “This is going to be a time for me to check out all those guys we’ve got up top.
"We want to make sure we’ve got players that can get the job done and this is the best environment to really see what a player can do. If they can do it against MLS competition you have to figure they can do it in our league, too.”
Despite the loss of some key members from a year ago, the Battery will return as many as 14 players.
“There are six or seven spots still out there up for grabs,” Anhaeuser said. “We do have more decisions to this year. Normally, it’s one or two players, but this year it’s more like four or five guys I need to make a decision on. The next week will give me a great chance to evaluate guys.”
Charleston captain Taylor Mueller said he looks forward to playing in the tournament every year so he can measure himself against some of the nation’s top players.
“First, we want to get our fitness level up during the week, but you always want to see how you stack up against some of the best players in the MLS,” Mueller said. “These matches are played at a very high level, so you can see how guys react in certain situations. We also want to compete. We want to get a result in the end.”