Sunday, August 19, 2007

Charleston BatteryCarolina RailHawks (14-08-2007)

Groundhopping is not an easy hobby in the U.S. As the distances between the different teams are so huge, and the schedules so absurd (many midweek games, streaks of home or away games), a groundhopper should be happy to be see one game a month. However, with some good will and positioning, one can do better, and so we did. On a hot Tuesday M.G. and I decided to drive from Atlanta (Georgia) to Charleston (South Carolina) to see our second game in the USL First Division (i.e. America’s Second Division) in one week. After a trip of no less than 320 miles, or 515 km, we saw the floodlights of Blackbaud Stadium from the motorway and drove up the parking lot in front of the ground.

Charleston Battery is one of the older ‘professional men’s ‘soccer’ teams in the US. It was founded in 1993 and has been in various leagues uninterrupted. Blackbaud Stadium, built in 1999, was the first privately-funded soccer-specific stadium in the US and seats 5.100 spectators. Unfortunately, the day we were there, the ticket offices had problems with their printers, which meant we had to wait for more than 15 minutes to get to the window. Fortunately, the people around us were chatty and one Battery fan tipped us to keep an eye on the number 16, an allegedly overqualified South African player by the name of Stephen Armstrong. When we could finally get our ticket, the printer was still so slow that we decided to go for the cheap tickets, i.e. $8 (or 6 euro), as they were pre-printed. At there was some kind of promotion this evening, we got two for the price of one, which made the game cheaper than most East European games I saw! Moreover, as the ushers in the stadium were not very concerned with checking tickets, we could sit wherever we wanted.

Because of the ticket-delay we had missed the singing of the national anthem; this time there was only one. Fortunately, Blackbaud Stadium did provide for the inner human; in good American sports tradition it was well-stocked with snacks, including Papa Joe’s Pizza. After taking in some chicken nuggets, we made our way to the stand to see the unfolding of the “Southern Derby”. In fact, “Carolina Derby” would be more fitting, as the opponent comes from North Carolina (and there are other southern teams in the USL1, notably Atlanta Silverbacks).

As I would later find out, both Carolina teams were in the bottom half of the USL1, with the Railhawks trailing at the lower end. This wouldn’t be visible on the pitch, however. Already in the 6th minute the visitors would score after a beautiful first touch of Nigerian striker Connally Edozien: 0-1. This was to the delight of the 6 away fans, who had made the 288 miles (464 km) trip from Cary, North Carolina (probably the shortest for any away game!).

This was not to the liking of the vast majority of the (officially) 3.063 spectators, who were a lot more critical and engaged than most crowds I had experienced in the US. They also had little to be happy about, as their team was totally outplayed by the Railhawks, who showed a lot of nice short passes and much more determination to win the game. The pace was generally quite low though, which must also be explained by the very warm and sweaty conditions. In the first half Charleston Battery came not much further than a shot wide of goal, one minute before the “pretzel twister minute”— If the home team scores during that minute, the whole stadium can get a free pretzel after the game at some store… which, obviously, didn’t happen. What did happen, however, was a beautiful attack over four players, involving a smart backheel pass and a clinical finish by, again, number 8, Connally Edozien: 0-2 would also be the half time score.

We used the half time wisely by sampling the many goods that Blackbaud Stadium provided. I bought a long-sleeved t-shirt of the home team, pennants were again not available. Than it was time to feed the beasts, so M.G. was getting some “ices” and I was taking a bite of a little bag of “kettle korn”, a delicious version of popcorn.

We knew it was time to get back on the stand when we heard the commentator, who wasn’t as present as his colleague in Atlanta, shout “Let’s back that Battery Attack!”. Unfortunately for him and the 3.000 others, it was to no avail. Rather, it would be Edozien who would score again: 0-3 after a free header from a corner kick. Not exactly a hattrick, as the three goals had been scored in different halves of the game, but an impressive performance nevertheless! After this definite blow to the Battery, the home fans started to increasingly attack the referee for biased decisions. This was quite lame, as the ref might have been poor, he was hardly biased. And even if he would have been biased, that would not have been the main reason for the home team’s defeat. They were just totally outplayed!

Probably one of the few decent attacks of the Battery was a good volley in the 73rd minute. After that, their goalie would stop a hard shot from some 25 meters and another chance for the Railhawks the next minute. But the final score was a well-deserved 0-3 victory for the visitors.

Sticky from the sweat, and a bit sick from the kettle korn, M.G. and I happily left the stadium. While walking out, we were once again addressed by the Battery fan, who asked us for our impression of the number 16. I told him that I knew the answer to his earlier puzzle, i.e. why Armstrong is not playing in the MLS: he is slow and hides too much from the game. The fan agreed, but said that the player was also already 31. This friendly encounter solidified our positive experience at the Blackbaud Stadium. As the city itself, the Charleston Battery is well worth a visit!

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