Walk into the Three Lions Club at the Charleston Battery’s Blackbaud Stadium and you can instantly tell this is a team run by soccer fanatics with a deep respect for the sport’s history.
The British-style pub attached to a building behind the main stand is a treasure trove of soccer memorabilia, with every inch of wall space covered in autographed jerseys, photographs, balls and pennants from around the world, from famous names like Carlos Valderrama to obscure English teams.
Above the bar there’s even a pennant bearing the name of the Dynamo’s predecessors, the Houston Hurricane, who played in the Astrodome in the North American Soccer League from 1978 to 1980.
It’s one of the finest collections of its kind in the world—as much a museum as a gathering-place. The USL PRO team is also proud of the product it puts on the field, and their track record of developing players is a key reason why the Dynamo have formed an affiliate partnership with them for 2015 that will see about four MLS players gain valuable experience on loan in South Carolina.
“It came about through the relationship we have with [general manager/vice-president] Matt Jordan. We’ve known Matt for a while and he was the initial point of contact,” Battery president Andrew Bell told HoustonDynamo.com. “We know him from when he was playing and when he was at Montreal. When he moved into a technical role at Montreal we stayed in touch. He’s a good guy, we’ve got a great relationship with him—a friendship.”
Head coach and general manager Mike Anhaeuser joined the Battery as a player in 1994 and became a coach five years later. “I’ve known Andrew and Mike for quite a while and worked on a few different projects with them over the years,” Jordan told HoustonDynamo.com.
“I’ve always respected Charleston as an organization, they have excellent facilities and a proven track record of helping players develop and be successful in MLS.”
In 2014 the Battery partnered with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Anhaeuser is looking forward to another year of helping to develop promising MLS talent. “It’s an honor to take these players,” he told HoustonDynamo.com. “They’re going to have a great opportunity to step right in and play games … It allows them to step up and do well—who’s got that something extra to make it to the next level?”
Anhaeuser said that young players coming to USL face a variety of challenges that will help them mature on and off the field—from living in a new city, to traveling long distances for road games, to competing in front of passionate fans.
With the Dynamo set to field a strong, deep roster in MLS this year, Jordan is sure that players who have not yet forced their way into the first team will benefit from competitive action.
“Meaningful games is a critical element in the development of any young professional. USL is a very demanding league where you have to be prepared to perform every day, which will be great for our players,” he said.
The Battery have helped develop players including a trio currently with the Seattle Sounders. “Our coach has done a good job of identifying players. If you look at Major League Soccer right now there are some really good players that came through our system. Osvaldo Alonso, Mike Azira, Lamar Neagle. We’ve done it independently. And with the right partnership and hopefully with Houston we can be the place that can help these young players move up to the next level,” said Bell.
“We’re a proper soccer club, we’ve been doing this a long time—23 years now. We try to do things absolutely the best we can on and off the field. We try to win, we take every single competition very seriously whether it’s the Carolina Challenge Cup, U.S. Open Cup or the USL championship. We’re trying to win, obviously, we want to win championships, but at the back of our mind we know that part of our mission now is to develop players and bring them through to the next level, whether it’s our guys or the ones that are coming down on loan.”
Partnering with a lower-league team is a growing trend among MLS clubs, while many are now fielding standalone USL PRO teams. Last year the Dynamo had an affiliate arrangement with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds which saw five players head to Pennsylvania, including forward Jason Johnson and goalkeeper Michael Lisch.
Jordan said that the Dynamo are examining which path will work best for the club in the future. “We're very pleased to enter into this partnership with Charleston for the 2015 season while continuing to discuss the most logical next steps towards having a standalone team in the future,” he said.
For now, the entire Dynamo roster is in Charleston as the Carolina Challenge Cup continues with games against New York City FC and Orlando City Sc. While the squad will head back to Texas this weekend for final preparations ahead of the big MLS kick-off at home to the Columbus Crew on March 7 (TICKETS), several of the players will be seeing plenty more of the Holy City this season.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.