Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds
A year ago, goalkeeper Alex Tambakis arrived in Charleston for preseason looking to both stake his claim at a starting position with the USL’s Charleston Battery, and build toward his long-term goals with his new club, Atlanta United FC.
On Saturday night, he’ll return to MUSC Health Stadium with his United teammates as a visitor for the first time as the club kicks off the 2017 Carolina Challenge Cup against Columbus Crew SC (4:30 p.m. ET | Preview). For the 24-year-old, it will be a happy return after his successful 2016 season.
“It’s going to be great,” Tambakis said this week. “I have a lot of friends there and just to be back there, it’s exciting. To see the fans and everybody that I know, it was a very good year last year and I’m just very happy to be there.”
Tambakis entered a competitive situation to say the least last year. In addition to his arrival on loan from the Battery’s partner, Charleston also had Cuban goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper to compete for the No. 1 spot in the lineup after a season in which Cooper was named to the USL All-League Team for the first time.
The two split time early in the season, but eventually Tambakis won out. Tambakis made 12 of the final 16 starts for the Battery in the regular season and both starts in the USL Cup Playoffs as the Battery earned a place in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a surprise win against host FC Cincinnati on the road on the opening round.
The competition between the two helped push both forward. Cooper was in fact invited to Atlanta’s preseason camp this spring, and Tambakis is looking forward to seeing him again when United arrives in Charleston ahead of the Challenge Cup’s kickoff.
“It was great to see him again,” Tambakis said of Cooper. “We trained. It was good for him also to have training here to get more experience and be ready for the new season. I’m going to see him again in Charleston, so we’ll talk there when I see him again.”
The competition between the two was ideal for Battery Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser, and highlighted the beneficial way the partnership between Charleston and Atlanta will profit both clubs moving forward. With competition for places in the team a key element to the Battery’s success, having Tambakis and Cooper going head-to-head in practice each day helped both raise their level.
“It’s a part of the partnership where you have to create competition to make players better, and I think that really helped Alex. I think it helped Cooper, and I think it helped some of our other players with the players that they brought in,” Anhaeuser said. “We don’t want to make it easy for guys to come in and say they’re going to be starting or not starting. They need to compete, because that’s what it’s going to be like no matter where you play.
“If you’re going to play for the first team in Atlanta, they have to do that from Day 1, so I’m sure that’s what Alex is going, and I’m sure it helps him.”
Tambakis appreciated playing for Anhaeuser, and the manner in which he ran the club on a day-to-day basis on the field.
“The thing I liked the most was the passion that he had in training and games,” Tambakis said. “He just made us give our best every single day, and that was the best thing for all of us.”
Tambakis now has a new Head Coach in Tata Martino, whose most recent two positions with the Argentinian National Team and FC Barcelona make him arguably the highest-profile coach in Major League Soccer’s history. With high expectations placed upon the side before it has kicked off its first regular season, Tambakis said the work building up to the season has the team feeling ready for what’s to come.
“It’s amazing,” Tambakis said. “He’s a top-class coach. We started off easy, and now we’re building up, building up, and the trainings have been great. It’s a different style, a European style, and with the talent that we have and the coach that we have, we’re going to build a very good team.”
A 4-0 victory against Chattanooga FC last Saturday in front of 12,484 fans in Tennessee certainly whetted the appetites of the fans on hand, and many will likely be making the trip to Charleston for the upcoming week’s games. Atlanta faces Charleston on the final night of the tournament, one week before the MLS regular season kicks off.
Photo courtesy James Loving / Richmond Kickers
It could prove a final chance for Tambakis to make his case to be the club’s opening night starter ahead of Alec Kann before the mid-season arrival of U.S. international Brad Guzan to Atlanta’s squad. With the likes of Justin Portillo, Taylor Mueller and Maikel Chang set to be the opposition that night, the game will prove an interesting one.
“It’s going to be a little bit awkward seeing them on the other team, but that’s how soccer is,” said Tambakis. “I’m in Atlanta, so I’m going to give my best for Atlanta, and they’re going to give their best for the Battery. It’s a game, we’re all going to enjoy it, and be friends after the game.”
And while the focus will be on the field for the upcoming week of preseason action for the Greek goalkeeper, it definitely won’t be the last time he makes a visit to the place his professional path in the United States began.
“I really loved Charleston. Actually, it’s one of my favorite places,” Tambakis said. “You have the beach there, the weather is amazing, the people are very friendly. Everything about it is amazing. It makes me want to go back there to visit, and it’s going to be very nice to be there now with the team.”