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VOL. 133 | NO. 101 | Monday, May 21, 2018

Memphis Giving Area Players, Fans Taste of Professional Soccer

Pete Wickham

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In the hotel-casino universe they’d call this a “soft opening” – hold the bells and whistles, but concentrate on the building blocks that will make up the ultimate experience. So it was on a recent Saturday night as USL Memphis sporting director Andrew Bell excitedly paced around Christian Brothers High School’s stadium waiting to watch some soccer rather than just talk about it.

“This is the first step, and I’m ready,” he said with an anxious smile as interns manned a table selling tickets for the night’s entertainment, a Premier Development League match between Memphis City FC and Mississippi Brilla. More important, they had USL Memphis scarves and T-shirts at the ready for those moved to put down a deposit on season tickets for the team’s March 2019 debut at AutoZone Park.

Bell could check off a box on a to-do list facing him and team president Craig Unger as they build a roster, and fan interest, over the next 10 months.

“Getting Memphis City on the field is one step forward, and we’ve prioritized the things we need to get done, and reach out to a different market than we’re used to (with the baseball Redbirds),” Unger said.

“We’ve got to build our marketing department from the top down and get them rolling through the community. We’ve already made some fantastic contacts, but that’s the first priority,” Bell said.


Premier Development League affiliate of USL Memphis


Thursday, May 31 -- Peachtree City MOBA
Saturday, June 2  -- Peachtree City MOBA
Sunday, June 10 -- Mississippi Brilla FC
Saturday, June 16 -- So Georgia Tormenta FC
Friday, June 29 -- Tri-Cities Otters
Saturday, July 14 -- Birmingham Hammers

All games at Christian Brothers University, 650 East Parkway
Gates open 6 p.m., kickoff at 7 p.m.
Admission $5 
USL Memphis will begin play in March 2019 at AutoZone Park.
For more information, go to usl2mempnis.com

By mid- to late summer, he said the plan is to unveil the team’s name, colors and a head coach.

“If we identify the coach we want as someone already in the league we may have to wait,” Bell said, “but we’ve been getting a lot of inbound calls with interest in the position.”

Memphis City became a building block last month when the USL Memphis ownership purchased the 3-year-old team as its developmental side.

“If we get 1-2 players from this squad who can make the step up I’d be happy,” Bell said, after City played to a 2-all draw with Britta to open a 14-game season against regional opponents.

One might be Anthony Fernandez, a 22-year-old former Delta State University midfielder who opened eyes at an open tryout and earned a spot on a roster with college players from nine countries.

“I was just looking for somewhere to play this summer, because playing soccer is what I love to do,” said Fernandez, who was working in a restaurant in his hometown of New Albany, Miss. “That the USL is a potential next step … that’s a goal of mine.”

Most of this Memphis City team is made up of current, former and future college players like Houston High star Peyton McKnatt, who will suit up with the Memphis Tigers this fall. He struggled in the first half on the front line, but scored a game-tying goal late in the first half. He was moved to the wing at the break, and started the play that led to a goal by Jared Greene, one of two Virginia Commonwealth players on the roster.

USL Memphis soccer fans sing a chant prior to a press conference held at AutoZone Park to announce and introduce the team. (Daly News File/Houston Cofield)

“I’m trying to test myself, keep working and improving,” McKnatt said. “It’s an opportunity to play against players already at the next level.”

Bell said when the high school season ends, “we’ll reach out to some of the best players at that level and invite them to train with us this summer.”

There are even a couple of players on the wrong side of 30 working to keep up with the kids, like former Christian Brothers University player Ryan Heine, who anchored a Memphis City defense that got over some early yips to neutralize the Mississippi squad most of the evening.

Memphis City’s new jerseys feature the logo of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – where Heine works as a researcher.

“That gives me the freedom to come out and keep playing the game I love,” Heine said. “And as for (USL), you never know. Might as well dream.”

Andrew Bell

Bell said he came away with a good first impression. “They played hard and showed potential.”

He said the Memphis USL squad will have “a lot of players who’ve come through the NCAA system. But as a top-tier league we’ll have players coming from all over the world.”

Bell and the players worked a group of a few hundred fans who came to CBHS for the opener (the rest of Memphis City’s home games will move to Christian Brothers University).

“Folks can sit in the stands, or bring lawn chairs and blankets if they choose. That will be the nice part of playing at CBU,” Bell said. “We hope people will come and give this level of soccer a try, enjoy it and then come Downtown.”

He knows of 30 or so rowdy Memphis City supporters, known as the Rogue Squadron, who will bring their drum line, bullhorns and catalogue of rowdy songs to add to the party at AZP next season.

“We’ve been with Memphis City for three years, but you know we’re going to be with the USL team next year,” said Clayton France, the group’s current president. “Having a pro team to support is huge.”

Bell said he welcomed the announcement of a Memphis franchise in the Alliance of American Football, a spring developmental league set to start play next year. “A rising tide lifts everyone up,” he said.

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