VOL. 11 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 20, 2018
Zealous and Growing Fan Base Heralds Soccer’s Return to Memphis
They can be heard down the hall, or down the block. Roaring. Cheering. Chanting, often nonsensically, at the top of their lungs at whatever hour their beloved teams are playing on TV. Always in uniform – with the proper hats, jerseys – and scarves. Do not forget the scarves.
Soccer fans around the world proudly wear scarves with their team’s colors and logo, stretching or waving them for emphasis as they turn up the chanting volume.
“It’s the tribal thing,” said Parks Russell, the ringleader of one of Memphis’ merry bands of soccer zanies. They hold court at The Brass Door Irish Pub blocks away from AutoZone Park whenever the English Premier League’s Arsenal side is on the pitch, even if it means reporting at 6 a.m. on Saturday or Sunday.
Large groups of Memphians gathering to watch soccer, not wrestling, on TV? Brave new world.
Dedicated Memphis soccer fans cheer the arrival of a local United Soccer League franchise. The still-unnamed team will begin play at AutoZone Park in 2019. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
At World Cup time, they officially are part of the “American Outlaws” fan group, emblazoned in red-white-and-blue finery. But last week, new neckwear and flags were prominent as the group marched around the corner to AutoZone Park for the formal announcement that a United Soccer League franchise will begin play there in March 2019.
They hit the press conference singing, the first target the Nashville USL team that debuts this spring. Something about the 901 having it all over the 615. Then, as U.S. World Cup star goalkeeper Tim Howard came to the podium to announce his allegiance to the new club in his adopted hometown, they called out his name the way American fans have done for nearly two decades.
“This group is near and dear to my heart,” Howard said. “If you don’t know about them, you will quickly find out.”
Russell, leader of the band, got hooked on soccer as a University of Tennessee-Knoxville student coming in from late-night revelry to watch the 2 a.m. World Cup broadcasts from South Korea and Japan in 2002. He cheered for the USA, but marveled at the artistry of France’s Thierry Henry, who played for Arsenal.
“That hooked me, and when I got back to Memphis I found a place where there were folks as passionate about Arsenal and soccer,” Russell said. “But I never thought I’d see high-level pro soccer in this city, Downtown.”
One caveat: “We can only use American Outlaws during the World Cup,” Russell said. “For now, call us the USL-Memphis supporters, name TBA.”
Of their loyalty Howard has no doubt.
“In no other sport that I know of does a community’s fan base take ownership of a club like they do in soccer.”
Over in the Cooper-Young Historic District is another Irish-themed bar, Celtic Crossing. The Brass Door owner Seamus Loftus and the Crossing’s D.J. Naylor were friends growing up in the small town of Ballina in County Mayo. Both have played and coached soccer, and both are on board with the way the Memphis Redbirds’ ownership, led by Peter Freund and team president Craig Unger, have decided to broaden the sporting horizon at AutoZone Park.
Unger talked about how the pairing can “keep every weekend buzzing Downtown from March to October.”
“This is a real step up,” Naylor said. “The U.S. not making the World Cup had us a bit down and depressed, but this was a wonderful announcement.”
Loftus said that bringing the team Downtown is the only true option.
“This is a Memphis thing. No disrespect to the Mike Rose Complex, but that’s Collierville, and this is about Memphis. There’s an energy fans bring to the sport, marching and singing through the concrete tunnels.”
The Crossing’s soccer crowd is more ecumenical – Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur.
One Liverpool regular is Memphis radio icon Tom Prestigiacomo.
“A friend of mine in Liverpool turned me on to this. … I love the beauty, the precision,” he said. “You watch the patience and skill as sides will make 20 to 25 passes to find a crack in the defense.”
He adds, “I’ll be glad to be able to wear a Memphis scarf. That will really mean something.”
Freund and Unger spent the last year researching the market.
“They reached out to us this past summer,” Loftus said. “You can tell they have the same passion for the game.”
While the Outlaws were exercising their lungs, Unger’s daughters, Emma, Ellen and Eden, sat in the front row with their mother, Pam – decked out in their soccer gear.
“When they heard about the soccer team, they got really excited,” Pam Unger said. “One of the first questions was, ‘Can we come to the practices?’”
Unger said the Memphis youth and prep soccer scene is “the heartbeat of the game in the state.”
Tony Whicker, who coached the St. George’s Independent School girls team to a state Division 2-A title this past year, was a member of the Memphis Americans and Storm indoor teams that were gone by 1990. He remembers the days of the Memphis Rogues in the North American Soccer League before that. He knows there’s a far larger pool of knowledgeable, passionate fans to draw on now.
“I think it’s long overdue coming back to Memphis,” Whicker said, “How they plan to reconfigure the field at AutoZone Park, it makes it a viable option.”
David Wolff, whose Houston High School girls team won the state AAA and mythical national titles this past year, said that soccer also can be a better entertainment option for young families.
“It’s a sport that doesn’t have long timeouts, and there’s always movement on the field,” he said. “It keeps a young kid’s interest.”
Chris Bartels, a coach with the Americans and general manager of the Storm, now runs The Legends youth program and said, “It’s a great thing, to expose our players to this level of skill.”
In addition to owning the Redbirds, Freund has a small stake in the New York Yankees, who own Major League Soccer’s New York FC, the teams sharing Yankee Stadium.
“When I came here two years ago and saw this facility, I knew a jewel like this needs to be activated more than 72 times a year,” he said.
He said research shows “there’s only a 15 percent crossover between baseball and soccer fans, so we’ll reach out to new groups of fans, and breathe more life into what is one of the best buildings in professional sports.”
And knit the elements into a big, happy, noisy scarf wrapped around AutoZone Park, as Unger said “from first pitch to soccer pitch.”