In Little Rock, AR there is an NPSL team who are in their third season. Of course, at this level the players play for free and funding is comparatively pretty sparse. Awareness of the team and league can be even sparser. I myself am really in only my second year of being a soccer fan. I came into it via the 2014 World Cup, tried to latch on to an EPL team, never really did for a couple years, then was prompted to try MLS. When I learned my hometown (Dallas) had a team, I said I’d give it a shot. Watched a couple games on TV, knew I had to go to a match, stood and got crazy with El Matador, and was instantly in love. But I digress… As this all developed, I just never (regrettably) got around to going to the Little Rock Rangers game here until their last game of the season a couple weeks ago at the invitation of a friend on Reddit, who was coming to write about the teams.
You’ll note I said “regrettably”. I had such a fantastic experience at that game. Of course, we gravitated over to the boisterous supporters, who call themselves The Red Watch. Chanting, banging drums, popping smoke bombs, throwing streamers… they do it all. And passionately. At the end of the game, when the ref blew his whistle to send the team to playoffs, (with permission) we stormed the field. What a time!
I knew I’d be going to the playoff game. So I followed The Red Watch on twitter looking for tailgate info. The leader replied to me they were still scrambling to try to put things together in time, so I asked what I could do to help.
Their signature red smoke bombs delivery was not going to make it in time for the game, so he asked me if I knew where to get any locally. So I hit the internet and the phone. For over an hour, I was in complete chaos. The search led me on a rabbit chase of a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy. Finally we found a shop about an hour away and got the goods. I was so excited to have come through for them! That night, the team’s first ever playoff game and playoff victory took place.
Their next match was in Kansas and ~7-8 of The Red Watch traveled to the game, the team picking up the tab for the van rental and gas. The Rangers won on penalty kicks. The next round was in Laredo, TX on Wednesday night and a pub offered their back room for a watch party. So many people were crammed in; I couldn’t believe the turn out. And yes, victory again in extra time. We knocked off the #1 NPSL team in the nation who had not lost a match all season. (And this win guaranteed a US Open Cup spot.) Wow!
But now enter a dilemma. With little funding and the huge expense of traveling to Miami for the south regional final immediately required, the team simply didn’t have the money. The supporters recommended to the owner to try GoFundMe but he was reluctant. However, he posted it on their way back from Laredo. We met the team when they arrived home last night. The players were so appreciative; their faces as they pulled in were priceless. The team captain gave a little speech, many photos were taken, then they were off to home and much needed sleep. And the experience shows how much more than a game it is to people who love this sport. And that sentiment is amplified by the fact that in a little over 24 hours, the travel fund met its $20,000 goal!
In a few short weeks, I have got to witness and participate in all this as a brand new supporter. It has brought joy to me in a time in my life when I have been searching for something to look forward to, and I’ve made new friends that will go beyond the season and the game, and there’s nothing like taking in some local pride! These leagues need our grassroots support. So as those of us cheer on our MLS teams, let’s not forget where some (or many?) of the players come from. If we develop and support our local clubs in these leagues, our pro teams and our favorite sport will only be benefited. I end with this quote from another fan of the Little Rock Rangers:
“Soccer people are different than other sports fans. They’re more hard-core about the sport itself. It’s been much maligned and been called communist. American football fans put it down. When you have this animosity from the outside, soccer fans really tend to support their own.”
(Red smoke photo credit to Mike Ortega.)