- Brian Chilson
- LITTLE ROCK RANGERS: Ferdinand Matebu (center) steals the ball from a Memphis City FC player at the semipro team's game in April.
During his son's soccer practices at Riverdale two years ago, Jonathan Wardlaw tossed around half-serious ideas with other parents to answer a nagging question: How can we improve soccer in Little Rock? His son had just begun playing competitively for Arkansas United, one of the youth clubs in Central Arkansas, and his team couldn't keep up with the talent of regional tournaments in places like Memphis and Tulsa.
As the parents considered potential answers to their problem, they realized that everything was in place for a semiprofessional team: a rarely used stadium with a central location, a growing Latino population, and established local clubs that could collaborate with the team. Although semiprofessional hockey, basketball and indoor and outdoor football teams had failed in Little Rock, the parents were confident that a semipro soccer team would stick.
With only a vague plan, Wardlaw researched U.S. semiprofessional soccer leagues and eventually learned of the National Premier Soccer League, a fourth-tier league with 85 teams nationwide. After expressing interest to the league, he was invited by league commissioner Joe Barone to watch the NPSL championship game in Chattanooga. With over 18,000 people packing the stands, the electric environment and passionate support surpassed Wardlaw's expectations.
"Chattanooga is smaller than Little Rock, so I knew that if they can do this, I can do this," he said. "That was a Saturday night, and that following Monday I started filling out paperwork and sending it in."
After gathering contributions for the $20,000 franchise fee, Wardlaw submitted the team's application, and on Oct. 18, 2015, the Little Rock Rangers were officially accepted into the NPSL.
Nathan Hunt, then-club president at the youth club Arkansas Rush, helped Wardlaw assemble a coaching staff. They recruited local coaches Will Montgomery and Jennifer Pfeiffer as well as Michael Surtees, the director of Arkansas Rush who first suggested the NPSL. The team held tryouts at War Memorial Stadium in January, drawing roughly 150 players. The staff, which works voluntarily, makes all roster decisions, while Wardlaw, acting as club president and general manager, focuses on the business end of operations. ("I don't want to be a Jerry Jones-type on the sideline," he joked.)
The coaching staff added an unexpected member during January tryouts. KLRT, FOX16 anchor Kevin Kelly, who played college soccer, decided to try out despite being 30 years older than most players. After being cut, Kelly was offered an assistant coaching position by the team. He helps out when he can, mainly coaching the goalkeepers, but his anchoring schedule makes it difficult.
"I sometimes will rush [to War Memorial] between our 5:30 and 9 o'clock show just to catch half the game," Kelly said.
While the coaching staff is entirely local, the Rangers' roster has players from 16 different countries, from Brazil to Australia to Malawi. Most play college soccer; to protect their NCAA status as amateurs, nobody on the team gets paid. For those in college, playing for the team provides a way to stay in shape throughout the summer. Most of the older guys simply play out of a love for the game. While there is an opportunity to be seen by major league scouts in the league's selective combine, Wardlaw admits the chances are slim.
Many of the players have positions within youth soccer clubs like Arkansas United and Arkansas Rush, which the team thinks will improve the overall quality of soccer in Central Arkansas. Team captain Nick Doyle, a South Africa native, provides a model Wardlaw hopes many Rangers will follow: Play for a local college, fall in love with the area, and coach for one of the youth clubs.
"As long as I'm coaching in the area, I'll always be playing here," Doyle said. "Some guys are going to use it as a springboard to try and go into higher leagues, and I know they can. There are some really good players on the team, and I want to help them succeed."
- Brian Chilson
- EARLY FASCINATION: Little Rock's first semipro soccer squad has drawn a good number of interested spectators.
The turnout at the games so far has surprised players and coaches. The first home game drew 3,700 fans, which created an unforeseen problem. Confident in its estimation, the club printed 2,000 adult tickets and 500 children's tickets for the game. Wardlaw's parents were running the ticket office and quickly realized they didn't have enough tickets. When they caught wind of the shortage, staff members admitting fans at the entrance gate were forced to run stacks of used tickets back to the office to be resold. While chaotic, the first game's overflow of fans made up for any logistical issues.
"I didn't expect it. It's a big city, but soccer is still growing in Little Rock," Doyle said. "I didn't expect like 3,000 fans, but it's quite inspiring for our players."
The new team comes at a critical juncture for War Memorial Stadium. The Razorbacks are gradually ending their affiliation with the 68-year-old stadium, and soccer could fill the void left by the Hogs. The Rangers had to get a waiver to participate in the league with a nonregulation-sized field, but the club hopes renovations can be made in the future. With a few changes, War Memorial could become a more versatile, sustainable venue. Chattanooga hosted the women's national team for a nationally televised game last year, so why couldn't Little Rock?
"I'd love for us to be the anchor of War Memorial," he said. "Obviously, I don't think we'll ever put 50,000 people in here like the Razorbacks do."
However, what the games lack in attendance they make up for in diversity. According to U.S. Census data, Arkansas's Hispanic population has grown 114.2 percent from 2000 to 2010, and with that growth has come the creation of several Hispanic soccer leagues in Southwest Little Rock. After seeing a few highly competitive games among the leagues up close, Wardlaw became confident in the local passion for the sport. With five players from Mexico on the roster, as well as American players with Hispanic families, the diversity on the field and in the stands is emblematic of the city's changing demographics.
The club, which is a nonprofit, plans to use ticket revenue to create scholarships for underprivileged kids, including many from neighborhoods that host the Hispanic leagues, to play club soccer.
"It's the world's game," Wardlaw said. "I'd love to see black, white, pink, purple kids playing together, doing club soccer, and if this club's paying for them to do that, that's even better."
The Rangers play at home at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 28, against the Houston Dutch Lions. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.