Who are the Battery?

When the Chicago Fire Soccer Club found out its opponent for Tuesday night’s third round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match would be the Charleston Battery, many fans let out a collective, “Who?”

For some the reaction is reasonable. Not every Fire fan has experienced the Open Cup, some perhaps don’t understand the concept of a lower level club competing with Major League Soccer’s payrolls. Others, perhaps don’t recognize a team from South Carolina as being a threat.

In any case, the USL Second Division’s Charleston Battery exist today as one of the longest running professional clubs in the United States, playing their first season in the United Soccer Leagues’ incarnate USISL in 1993, a full five years before the Fire kicked a ball in anger.

While many believe the Columbus Crew opened the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States, it was actually the Battery who beat out the MLS side by a few weeks, opening the 5,100 seat stadium on April 24, 1999 on Daniel Island in Charleston. The project also exists as the first privately-financed soccer stadium in the United States.

The collective wisdom among many MLS fans approaching this competition is that the big teams, even when playing less than their first team, should be able easily handle a club who’s payroll is much lower and doesn’t play as high of competition week-in and week-out.

The reality is that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has been a tricky competition for many an MLS team, even one with as storied a history as the four-time champion Chicago Fire have in the tournament.

One of the many sides that have given MLS clubs woes is the Battery, who have advanced to the tournament’s semifinal stage three times in 1999, 2004 and 2008, advancing all the way to the final where they fell 2-1 to DC United just two short years ago.

The Battery are a club that has seen a number of former Fire players fill it’s ranks, even if only for a short time.  Eric Wynalda, Jamar Beasley and Paul Dougherty have all had cups of coffee with the Battery at some point in their career, while recently retired Battery goalkeeper and legend Dusty Hudock spent part of the 1998 season on loan with the Fire.

The club has seen a number of national team players from all over the world grace the Blackbaud Stadium pitch over the years ranging from  CONCACAF locals Dan Calichman (United States), Brent Sancho (Trinidad & Tobago) as well as Jamaican duo Linval Dixon and Omar Daley, to European players Terry Phelan (Ireland) and Velko Yotov (Bulgaria).

Having self-relegated from the USL’s First Division to its Second Division following last fall’s ownership dispute, the Battery haven’t missed a beat. To be clear this is still a First Division quality team playing in USL’s second tier.

The Battery sit atop the six-team USL-2 table, five points clear of second-place Richmond after 12 matches. They feature the league’s second-highest scorer in 23-year-old Lamar Neagle, who’s netted eight times in league play and scored the winner in the Battery’s 2-1 second round Open Cup win over USSF Division 2 side Carolina RailHawks last Wednesday.

Neagle is supported by another 23-year-old striker in St. Louis product Tommy Heinemann who has added four goals and two assists to the Battery effort in 2010. Former Watford and MLS journeyman midfielder Stephen Armstrong provides experience and an offensive spark in the center of the park for the Battery, who’s 24 goals is by far the most in USL-2.

While offensively Charleston is flying high, it’s the back that exists as the club’s greatest weakness, giving up 17 goals this season, second most among the six-team league.

Goalkeeper Keith Wiggans, a long-time backup to Hudock with the Battery has taken over the starting role, with Jamaican international and former Fire trialist O’Brian Woodbine joining former Cuban international Yeniel Bermudez, Colin Falvey and Nigel Marples on the backline.

The Fire are still the favorites, hosting a third-tier team at Toyota Park on Tuesday night. Coming off Sunday’s 1-0 victory away to the New England Revolution should bolster the team’s confidence, but with only a day’s rest, expect to see a few reserves in the starting eleven against the Battery.

Though the Fire were upset 1-0 by USL-2’s Wilmington Hammerheads at this point in the tournament last year, home history appears to be on the club’s side in 2010, as the hosts have never failed to lose an Open Cup match played in the state of Illinois. Their record: 15-0-0 with 40 goals scored and 12 against.

One of those wins was a 1-0 Fire victory over Charleston at Cardinal Stadium in the 2004 semifinals, the first and only meeting between the two clubs.

Be sure to get to Toyota Park Tuesday night for the next chapter in one of the Chicago Fire’s most important institution. All tickets are $15 and parking is FREE!