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VOL. 133 | NO. 175 | Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Enthusiastic Fans Embrace City’s New Soccer Team

Pete Wickham

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How’s this for a 9-01 day? At 9:01 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, Memphis’ expansion United Soccer League franchise rolled out its logo and identity as Memphis 901 FC on social media.

By 12:01 p.m., fans were already snatching up gear in the team’s AutoZone Park store – seven months before 901 FC plays its first game in March.

By 5:01, AutoZone Park was draped with freshly-hung banners and signs – a task barely finished in time to greet a sellout horde of soccer jersey-wearing kids and adults who stormed the gates for an exhibition “friendly” between the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks and Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids – captained by longtime-Germantown resident and U.S. National Team icon Tim Howard in goal. Howard, in his off-time, is an enthusiastic advisor to the fledgling Memphis franchise and was the face of the buildup to the day’s events.

By 7:01, Howard’s recurring case of goosebumps no doubt flared again as the crowd of 8,957 in his adopted hometown – a crowd that included his two children -- gave him another huge ovation during player introductions.

But, by 9:01 p.m., the game and the night belonged to one of Howard’s teammates who grew up in the metro area and cut his soccer teeth here. A fact that, in the blitz of pre-match Howard publicity, few outside old friends and teammates noticed.

Niki Jackson, a seldom-used rookie, got the start for Colorado, and a week after his 23rd birthday became the Man of the Match with the hat trick that gave the Rapids a 3-2 victory.

“It’s been a wild time, and I’m trying to see all the people I knew growing up here,” said Jackson, surrounded by a group of 80 friends and family – a group that made up nearly 1 percent of the sellout.

The Rapids’ roster lists his birthplace – Vicksburg, Mississippi. But the team bio lists Memphis as his hometown. “Moved to Collierville when I was 2 and was here until I was 12,” he said. “This is where it all started for me, where my soccer career began. To be able to come back this weekend as a professional – no better feeling.”

But the former Memphis Falcon started finding his way to a series of elite soccer camps out West. The family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., and he moved up the ladder. At Grand Canyon University, he earned a finance degree in three seasons. The third was a breakout campaign where he was top five nationally in goals (16) and points (34). A fourth-round pick by the Rapids in this year’s MLS Super Draft, he was one of two GCU players picked.

“We’ve been out West, but they never announced that he was from here,” said his mother, Tammy Jackson. “Might have changed the night’s narrative.”

His speed and shooting touch did that nicely. He took passes on the run and sprinted by the Roughneck defense twice in the first half to erase a pair of one-goal Tulsa leads. Moments into the second half, he took a perfect pass in the box and poked the one-timer home for the game-winner.

“We’re notorious for comebacks,” said Jackson, who left with a slightly turned ankle later in the game.

He’s played in just nine games for the Rapids this year, scoring a pair of goals – including one in the first minute he played during the season opener.

“Niki possesses pace and power,” Howard said. “He gets opportunities. All he has to do is be clinical – and tonight he put in three.”

The night’s rowdy ambience only made it better for the youngster. “I was totally floored by the crowd and the noise,” he said. “If this is the way they come every night (for 901 FC) it’ll be an awesome place to play.”

Colorado headed back home Sunday but Jackson was hoping “if we don’t practice Monday maybe I can stay a little longer.”

Howard, too.

“It was loud and rowdy and banging drums everyone seemed to have a great time and there wasn’t a seat to be had. And it was a good game of football on top of that,” said Howard, a New Jersey-native who has spent his off-seasons here since 2003.

He and his teammates paraded over with 901 supporters who had been stoking up at The Brass Door down the street. Their cellphone cameras were working the whole way. After workout Friday they made stops at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland and the Rendezvous.

“This was a weekend off (from the MLS) and those are precious during the season,” Howard said. “For the Rapids to agree to the game and these guys to put forth that kind of effort. They were incredibly supportive and happy to see Memphis put on a heck of a show. They were impressed by what they saw here.”

After a week split between promoting the game – and talking possible player targets with 901 Technical Director Andrew Bell and coach Tim Mulqueen – Howard’s emotions were overflowing.

“All I can say to the fans is thank you. That atmosphere and what it provided speaks for itself. For all of us involved with 901 FC, we are over the moon with what we experienced. City of Memphis, we’re here.”

Team president Craig Unger and principal owner Peter Freund worked their way around the pitch, applauding fans in the grandstand before the game. Of more importance was the fact that every time he scouted the season ticket table and the team store, there were always lines.

“The challenge was to get the stadium rebranded, and we finished that just as the gates open,” Unger said. “But all this – it’s magic.”

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