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VOL. 11 | NO. 35 | Saturday, September 1, 2018

Kick in the Grass

Local soccer franchise preps for Saturday match at AutoZone Park

Pete Wickham

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Mentally, the ownership group bringing a United Soccer League team to share AutoZone Park with the Memphis Redbirds has been flipping the switch for the better part of two years. After the last out of the Redbirds regular-season home finale was recorded Monday, the act got physical. The concept became real.

Groundskeepers now get their first experience turning the baseball diamond into a soccer pitch, while the fledgling Memphis front office makes its final marketing push for what’s billed as “Soccer Showdown” on Saturday night.

With the local franchise still seven months from taking the field, the Memphis group will showcase a 7 p.m. “friendly” between Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids – led by longtime U.S. National team and Germantown resident Tim Howard, against the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks. It is the first high-level outdoor pro soccer match in the city since the Memphis Rogues era in the late-1970s.

Charles Brunettie (left) and Geoffrey King smooth out where the pitcher’s mound is at Autozone Park on August 28, 2018. (Memphis News/Jim Weber)

“Until now it’s been behind-the-scenes work,” Redbirds/USL Memphis President Craig Unger said, adding that after Monday night’s final out, things “swing into motion on two fronts. We convert the field and prepare the facility to welcome a whole different crowd.”

On Saturday, the Memphis group will unveil its team name, logo and colors – likely on social media to start. When the gates open at 5 p.m., new merchandise will be waiting.

“It’s our coming-out party, and we’re excited,” Unger said. “Everything will be out there at last.”

He said ticket sales have been strong leading up to the event. “We’ve been happy with the response of the soccer community and the curiosity seekers who want to see what it’s about.”

Unger said he and team executives are just as curious to see how the game and venue actually play out.


When, Where: 7 p.m. Saturday, Auto Zone Park
Who: Colorado Rapids (Major League Soccer) vs. Tulsa Roughnecks (United Soccer League)
Tickets: $15-30, available at AZP or on usl2memphis.com
Fans who make a 20 percent deposit on 2019 Memphis season tickets will receive free ticket to Showdown.
RECORDS: Colorado 6-14-6 after 6-0 loss to Real Salt Lake Saturday, Tulsa 2-12-10 after 3-2 loss at St. Louis FC.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Colorado -- Goalkeeper Tim Howard, Memphis resident and US National Team member since 1902. Has played with Colorado since 2016 after a decade in English Premier League. He is also an advisor to the USL Memphis team. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta – U.S. National team member and a Dallas hometown product was recently dealt by FC Dallas to Colorado for the Rapids’ leading goal scorer. Acosta, 23, has two goals and two assists in his first six games with the Rapids. Tulsa – Midfielder Joaquin Rivas, a 26-year-old from El Salvador who has scored nine of his team’s 25 goals.
OTHER GAME DAY EVENT: Sometime Saturday, Memphis will reveal its team name, logo and colors on social media. The Memphis team will begin USL play in March.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: go to usl2memphis.com

“To be honest, right now we don’t know what the capacity of the facility will be for soccer,” Unger said. “We know that seats on the first-base side of the park will be prime. But third base is a little trickier (since it will be behind one goal line). Some seats around home plate will face in the wrong direction for soccer. The right field bluff we know will get used, but the left field bluff sight lines aren’t good. We’ll have to see.”

Of the seven USL expansion teams preparing for 2019, Memphis is the only one using a friendly to tickle the fan base.

“We wanted to put a match in at AutoZone Park because we wanted to see and feel what the stadium would be like,” Andrew Bell, the team’s sporting director, said. “Let people see like when we put down the sod and have a high-level match here, activate it properly the whole day and see what develops.”

It’s been a hard season for both Colorado (6-14-6) and Tulsa (2-12-10), but Bell said there’s incentive for players, and fans.

“You start with Tim Howard,” Bell said. “No American player has ever reached a level that he did playing in Europe (with Manchester United and Everton in England) and with the U.S. National Team. I know how emotional it will be for him to play here.”

The Rapids made news a month ago, trading their leading goal scorer-- Dominique Badji -- to Dallas for a 23-year-old member of the U.S. team, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who will be one of the rebuilding blocks for an American side that failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup. He’s scored two goals in six games with Colorado.

“You can see Colorado is looking to its future, and that they like his potential,” Bell said of Acosta.

In preparation for the USL exhibition game over Labor Day weekend, Austin Holt stays out of the muddy first base lane at AutoZone Park on Aug. 28 while making the changes necessary to convert a baseball field into a soccer pitch, including laying new sod, removing the pitcher's mound and restriping the field. (Memphis News/Jim Weber)

As for Tulsa? “Their players will want to prove a point to the technical people in the MLS that they can play at that level,” Bell said.

The general admission zone along the third-base line will be haven and home for the Bluff City Mafia, the supporters group that has provided chants, yells and assorted mayhem at the Memphis club’s pressers this year. They have promoted the game and their group on Twitter (@bluffcitymafia), and will experiment as well.

“It’s kind of a dress rehearsal for us,” said Clayton France, the group’s president. “We’ve got to see what works and what doesn’t work in the stadium in terms of creating atmosphere. It’s going to be a lot of fun seeing Tim Howard play in person, and fun to see this team we’ll be playing starting next year – to see how they’ll handle playing an MLS side.”

Bell said, “In soccer, a rhythm develops in the game that is often dictated by the fans. We know we’ve got knowledgeable fans with a high soccer IQ. They’ll bring the drums, the horns, the songs and chants. Players respond to that.”

“We’ve got the chants in place for Saturday, but really we’re singing for a team we’re not going to be rooting for,” France said. “It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

The MVP of the week, and maybe this whole enterprise, could be head groundskeeper Brian Bowe and his crew. Between Tuesday and Thursday, they’ll get their first crack at being sports makeover artists. After Saturday, they’ll reverse the process to prepare for the Redbirds’ upcoming playoff games.

Fortunately, there are lots of brains Bowe can pick. By next spring, seven of the 16 Pacific Coast League ballparks will also host USL teams, including expansion cities Memphis, El Paso and Albuquerque.

“So far I’ve only been to Nashville,” said Bowe, who saw the conversion at First Tennessee Field, shared by the baseball Sounds and Nashville SC, “but I’ve talked to several others, and the guys up in St. Louis (at Busch Stadium) have been helpful as well.” The Cardinals have hosted several friendlies with European Clubs on preseason tours.

Bowe estimates it will take 14,000 square feet of sod to cover the diamond. It will come in giant rolls with the turf about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inches thick with a good layer of soil underneath.

“These aren’t little rectangles of sod like you see in somebody’s yard,” Bowe said. “The sheer weight of the turf will keep it from moving. Then you roll it several times to make sure everything stays in place.”

Geoffrey King, from left, Charles Brunettie and Don Woody wet the infield after smoothing out AutoZone Park. (Memphis News/Jim Weber)

There are fine details to master. “You have to pay attention to the edges of each roll to make sure there is a smooth transfer to the existing grass so it doesn’t interfere with play,” he said. “You pay as much attention to the end of the process as the beginning.”

He and his crew will have to take out the pitching mound, and reconstruct it next week. “We also lay down a liner to keep the turf soil from contaminating the baseball dirt. The turf rolls will also have netting on the bottom to help keep that soil intact as much as possible.”

When he saw the process in Nashville, “What impressed me most was the organization. … Everyone knew what they were doing, and it was amazing how quickly they could take a baseball field and get it ready for something totally different.”

They will use an outside contractor to help with the process the first time out, but by next year the AZP grounds crew will be able to repeat it at least 17 times for regular season games, plus exhibition matches and potential special tournament events.

“Folks have told me when you are up to speed, it’s a process that can be done as quickly as 24 hours,” Bowe said. “Right now, we have a pool of about 14-16 seasonal employees and usually bring in six to seven per game. Moving forward I can see us expanding with both full-time and seasonal employees.”

He acknowledged “It was kind of a daunting idea at first. But the more I talked to people about the process the more at ease I felt. As a Memphian, I’m excited about what’s coming.”

A few eyebrows were raised when the futbol match was announced for the same evening as the Memphis Tigers’ football opener against Mercer at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Unger said the reason was availability. Saturday is a scheduled off day for Colorado. Tulsa will come to Memphis after a Wednesday game in Kansas City – then head West for games in Tacoma and Portland.

But he said that’s not a new, or scary, experience. “We’ve played games in April and May when the Grizzlies are in the middle of the NBA playoffs and everybody can be successful.”

Memphis coach Tim Mulqueen is pouring over his Rolodex and scouting reports as he builds a coaching staff and roster amidst the crowded field that is USL expansion 2019. A former MLS and U.S. National team goaltenders coach, he had just gotten back into the pro game in February as an assistant with MLS’ Orlando team. But a long relationship with Howard helped bring him to Memphis for his first major pro head coaching gig.

“Between Tim, Andrew and myself we’ve got 30 years of contacts between us so that will help,” said Mulqueen, whose nickname is “Mulch.”

Saturday night he’s looking forward to the ambience, and a few quiet minutes with Howard. They first met when Mulqueen ran a goalkeepers skills camp in New Jersey, and Howard was a 12-year-old who plunked down $25 for one session. Mulqueen saw the potential and invited him back for free.

“It’s been a great part of my life going from being a coach and mentor to a young man to being great friends,” Mulqueen said. “These days we enjoy just getting together and talking about our kids and lives.”

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