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Mar 24, 2008

Behind the scenes with the Charleston Battery

"Let's put the ball in the box on the keeper, on all free kicks, shots, everything, follow up the shot. Don't overplay, don't overcommit in the back ... you get tired, we get fresh legs in there and we try to kill them off this half."

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser is delivering his halftime speech as his Battery squad prepare to take the field once more against the San Jose Earthquakes. The game is the second for the Battery against MLS opposition in a tournament that takes place every year at Blackbaud Stadium, a beautiful facility that seats 5,000. The event in question is the annual Carolina Challenge Cup, a four-team round robin preseason tourney that the Battery started hosting in 2004.

So far, the weather has not been kind. Not only was the Battery's first game against the Red Bulls a few days earlier postponed due to inclement weather, but tonight the heavy winds have been a major factor in the first half and the second half will see the oncoming of rain.

"Make sure you get your [rain] studs on," says Anhaeuser as he moves from player to player and gives them a few last words of encouragement. Anhaeuser is something of a local institution in Charleston. An NCAA championship-winning player with Indiana in 1988, Anhaeuser played six seasons as a midfielder with the Battery and still ranks among the all-time leaders in both games played (115) and assists (17). After suffering an ACL injury in the 1999 preseason, he switched to a coaching role, serving as an assistant under both Alan Dicks and Chris Ramsey, before moving into the lead role in 2005.

As a coach, Anhaeuser is well-regarded in USL circles -- he was voted USL First Division Coach of the Year in 2006 and has his players' respect. "He believes in the players, he's always trying to be positive," says Dusty Hudock, the veteran goalkeeper and club captain. "He allows the players to play with confidence and he's brought in a lot of talented players."

Anhaeuser's team are well-positioned to start the second half, the Battery are tied 1-1 with the Earthquakes and have not looked out of place against MLS opposition. The Battery took an early lead, but San Jose's tying goal, from U.S. national team midfielder Ramiro Corrales, came about largely due to a rare defensive breakdown by the Battery. Other than that, the Battery have limited the Quakes to mostly hopeful long balls over the top looking for either of their pacy forwards, Gavin Glinton (a former Battery alum and crowd favorite) and Kei Kamara.

"We gave up too many goals last year, plain and simple ... with a goalkeeper of Dusty's caliber in there, we leaked way too many goals. So the objective was to get more experience and more depth in the back and I think we've done that."

It's no secret what Anhaeuser's main goal has been this offseason. The defense was a liability for the Battery last season and major steps have been taken to address that. The Battery have been emphasizing the back line early in preaseason work and the acquisitions of former MLS defenders Marco Reda (Toronto FC) and Jack Stewart (Real Salt Lake) are likely to prove to be a huge boost.

"It's really our defensive shape that's the No. 1 thing I want to see tonight," said Anhaeuser earlier in the day. "But we're not going to play defensive, we have a few guys on trial so they're going to push forward. I want the backside winger to get into the box so we get two, three guys into the box at all times."

Pregame, the team is in the locker room and appear loose, joking and quietly confident. The coaches require that the players are at the stadium at least one hour and 15 minutes prior to kickoff. The Battery haven't prepared for this game any differently than they would for a non-MLS team. Even so, at this stage, there's a physical gap between the two teams that needs to be acknowledged.

"We're in preseason and we're still just getting started," says forward Ian Fuller, who won't be playing due to a slight injury. "They've been training for two months and this is just our third game."

In the background, music is playing -- some form of alternative rock that not all of the players recognize. There doesn't seem to be a set hierarchy in terms of who chooses the music. "It's pretty much whoever brings in their ipod," second-year midfielder Mike Richardson says. "Although if I brought in my music, I'm pretty sure the guys would take it off in a couple of seconds."

Although he played nearby at UNC Greensboro, Richardson has a small town background, a fact that's not lost on his teammates and the genesis behind his nickname. "I'm from a small town, Dobson, NC, so I picked up a country accent from there. Ian Fuller started calling me 'Banjo' so it stuck."

"At least it's not Dusty's music," midfielder Jordan Hughes says, "Or we'd probably be listening to the Beatles or Elvis Presley."

"You play to win, you play with desire, you play with effort, you play with mentality and you focus. You take that next step in doing things properly both sides of the ball. No standing around, we don't play for a draw, you go out and enjoy it and make sure you take care of business."

Anhaeuser's pregame speech gets the Battery players amped and he shakes each player's hand as they leave the locker room. Forward Aaron King is one of the last players to leave. A former standout at North Carolina State, King has all the tools for the next level -- he's big and fast, but needs to refine his technique. Tonight, he'll be playing as the lone forward in a 4-5-1 formation.

"I'm going to be up top by myself -- try and get on the end of everything and try to be a nuisance to the back four and use my speed," King says. The game against the Quakes also gives King the chance to catch up with an old acquaintance.

"I know James Riley, we actually grew up together, he was a year older than me on the Colorado Rush," King says. "I used to play defense, so I used to look up to him quite a bit when I was young. I think he's a great player, but we'll definitely be battling tonight."

"In the second half when legs get tired, you saw where we need to get to physically. It doesn't matter what you do, if you can't cover the ground and you can't keep the ball because those legs are tired, you can't keep your shape. Result was not what we wanted. It can be better, we have three weeks to get to that point."

Anhaeuser's worst fears are realized in the second half. The Battery players can't match the Earthquakes' superior physical fitness and are visibly tired for the last 20 minutes or so of the game. To make matters worse, it appears that some of the Battery starters neglected to heed the call to switch studs at halftime. With the rain pouring down, Battery players slip and slide several times. Forward Kei Kamara takes advantage of a breakaway to score the winning goal and the game ends 2-1.

The locker room after the game is quiet and subdued as Anhaeuser gives his postgame speech. However, by the time the traditional postgame meal, Papa John's Pizza, arrives, team spirits have recovered. It's always the same stack of pizzas -- a mushroom, cheese and pepperoni combo, but there's always one vegetarian.

"Who's the veggie?" I ask. "No idea, but we always get one," is the response.

At this point, some players are showering, others are eating, but the Battery's lone goal scorer on the night, Darren Spicer, is in the whirlpool as a precautionary measure. Spicer was one of seven players to play the full 90 minutes, and even though he's probably the fittest player on the team, he's tired.

"It was a tough game, I thought we came out good the first 10 minutes or so, we were fresher, but the elements they were really difficult today," Spicer says. "The early goal took a little bit of the pressure off, but then we ended up defending for most of the game."

Spicer is not your average soccer player. He's been well-traveled since being drafted by Chivas in 2006, spending time with Chivas, and then playing in Germany with Brinkum S.V. Despite impressing in Germany, he left after Brinkum suffered some financial difficulties, and spent 2007 with the Minnesota Thunder. Oh, and he also has a degree in international politics from Princeton.

"My family's been really supportive, they know I love soccer, they know its something I've loved to do since I was five years old and they've always supported that."

Back in the locker room, King is fairly pleased with his performance, a solid outing where he came close to scoring on a first-half header. "I think the first half I did a pretty good job of holding up the ball, got behind the defense a couple of times," King says. "I've been working on trying to get a head on it, came close on that one time, trying to keep building."

As for his reunion with Riley? "I talked to him a little, said 'what's up,' he's obviously a focused guy," King says, laughing. "I got a chance to body him up, well at least try to."

Despite the loss, Anhaeuser is upbeat. "I think we really did well the first 30 minutes, but I knew we were running into the wind, I knew we didn't have 90-minute legs, maybe only two or three of the players. But you can't use that as an excuse ... they did a great job of keeping the ball and moving the ball on us ... but at least we kept our [defensive] shape."

The Battery will get another opportunity against MLS opposition later in the week against Toronto (a game they would win 2-0). The night's not quite over though -- San Jose midfielder Ronnie O'Brien pops his head into the locker room as he's leaving with a query which makes the Battery players laugh.

"Any kind of fizz? Anyone got something with sugar?"

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com.