Swish. Smack. Thwack. Tap.
There's no one distinctive sound when you kick a soccer ball. There might be a thump if you head it; there might be a whispering hiss as the ball sails cleanly into the net. Dribbling the ball down the grassy field doesn't make much sound at all.
But soccer is a loud game. For instance, you can stand in the bleachers at the Christian Academy of Knoxville's soccer field and hear what a player on is shouting all the way on the other side of the pitch: "Good pressure! Keep it up, keep it up!"
You can also hear the player's accent. It is not an East Tennessee accent.
It is not an American accent.
You might wonder why a football player from Africa—because soccer is called football everywhere else in the world but the United States—is running around a high school field in Knoxville at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, why he's joined by Brazilians and Brits and Mexicans.
Varsity soccer, this is not. Meet the Knoxville Force, your new, local semiprofessional soccer team.
The Force proclaimed its existence at a press conference in February, but a lot of Knoxville still doesn't seem to know they exist. The announced attendance at their one and only home game yet this season was 1,129. The crowd looked a little bit smaller than that—announced attendance numbers always include season ticket holders, whether or not they are present—and most of it was made up of soccer-playing kids and their parents. It's affordable, family-friendly entertainment, just like minor-league baseball.
The Force isn't minor-league soccer the same way the Tennessee Smokies are minor league, however. The Force is the newest team in the Southeastern Conference of the National Premier Soccer League. While the NPSL is affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation, which also oversees Major League Soccer, there is no direct affiliation between two leagues—i.e., the NPSL teams are not farm teams in the same way that minor-league baseball teams are. It's possible one member of the Force might one day make it to the big leagues, but it won't be because D.C. United expanded its roster at the end of the season.
If you were to compare the NPSL to minor-league baseball, it would be to say that the Force is like a Class A team, at the bottom behind the Class AAA North American Soccer League and the Class AA United Soccer Leagues Professional Division. (The USL also has a Premier Development League, which functions at the same Division IV level as the NPSL.) There are now 39 NPSL teams around the country—quite a few considering that the league began only eight years ago, in 2003. Chattanooga has had a team for three years now, and Huntsville for five.
It is that Huntsville team, Rocket City United, that the Force played at that first game, on the professionally manicured pitch at the University of Tennessee's Regal Soccer Stadium on May 7. They lost that game, 2-0, but the Force looked significantly more professional than they had two evenings earlier, when scrimmaging at the Christian Academy.
Of course, that scrimmage against players from Knoxville's Hispanic soccer league was the first time most of the Force had actually played together as a team. Most of the players had only gotten into town a few days earlier.
A handful of the Force players are former superstars at Catholic or Bearden or other local high schools—the Force's Ryan Stinton was named the 2010 Player of the Year by the News Sentinel when he played for Farragut. But like their international compatriots, they are mostly all in college somewhere or other, some at large and some at small schools in the Southeast, playing soccer. If they are playing NCAA Division I soccer, this means they can't play semipro soccer until exams are done. Even now, in the middle of May, a few players on the roster are still not on the team in the flesh.
"It's difficult," says head coach Derek Broadley, a genial middle-aged Scotsman with a thick London accent. "We're starting with a blank sheet of paper. We're going to make some mistakes along the way."
Broadley grew up playing soccer—well, football—in a country obsessed with it, like pretty much every country in the world other than this one. He spent the past three years as the technical director of the Bermuda Football Association, trying to develop that island country's national program. He compared the beginning of his time there to the challenge of being a head coach on a brand-new team in a brand-new city with brand-new owners: "There it took about three months before I felt like we had it all together. Of course, the problem here is that the whole season is three months."
Still, Broadley dreams of turning the Force into something sustainable, even if the goal isn't working toward a World Cup qualifying game.
"I want to win matches. I want to develop a consistency of style. I want to build a fan base. I want us to play entertaining soccer," Broadley says.
But in a city obsessed with that other kind of football culture, where the complaint about soccer is likely to be that it's boring, is it possible to develop a fan base that thinks the Force are entertaining at all, much less that their style of play is?
If you're in your 30s or younger, you probably played soccer growing up. Everyone plays soccer growing up these days. For little kids, it's relatively safe and relatively fun and relatively cheap—you just need a ball—and it can be played by your average unathletic kindergartner. (This reporter has memories of looking for four-leaf clovers on the field while playing defense during a particularly dull game.)
For older, more athletic kids, soccer becomes a game of speed and agility and strategy. It gets more expensive—you need cleats and shin guards and designated soccer shorts; clinic fees, overnight camp costs, league memberships. Maybe you even make the varsity team.
Then, for most of us, soccer ends. Maybe you make time to watch Team U.S.A. in the World Cup every four years. Maybe you even flip on a Manchester United or Arsenal game on the occasional Sunday morning (because being American, those are the only two Premier League teams that register in your consciousness). But if someone mentions the MLS, you think about real estate, not Major League Soccer.
That's how it's been in this country for years. That's why the players of the Knoxville Force have their work cut out for them.
But general manager Jason Goss thinks having teams like the Force in places like Knoxville are what's going to eventually change U.S. soccer culture. Goss is a former CAK high school player who went on to a career in sports management, and he's the brains behind bringing an NPSL franchise expansion to Knoxville.
"We had a great fan following before we even set foot on the field for our first game, and we are confident that over time even casual sport enthusiasts will follow the Force as we work in the community to raise awareness and soccer (football) knowledge," Goss says.
Goss points out that the Knoxville area has over 20,000 youth and adult soccer players participating on organized teams, giving the Force a built-in fan base. He says he spent a year of research studying other markets before organizing the LLC that brought the team to town—because while the players might not get paid, the Force is a for-profit business. (It should probably be noted here that the main financial backer of the LLC is David Goss, the CEO of Pro2Serve in Oak Ridge, who happens to be Jason Goss' father; the younger Goss says his dad is a businessman first and foremost and wouldn't be involved if he didn't think the Force made financial sense.)
The hope is that a winning team will equal financially sustainability. The Force did gel enough to win its second game, at Huntsville, this past weekend, 2-1; Broadley says the mere fact of the win is more important than how his team looked doing it (talented but inconsistent), because people get behind winning teams.
Indeed, he has a point. Last summer, the Chattanooga FC led the entire NPSL in attendance, averaging around 4,000 fans a game. Last summer, the team went to the playoffs.
Of course, the Chattanooga FC plays at Finley Stadium, which, while the home stadium for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is not on campus. Which means it can sell beer. Which makes it a more appealing Saturday evening activity for a demographic beyond that of families with young children who play soccer.
Goss is convinced crowds will come in Knoxville anyway. The Force's announced attendance for that first game, after all, just 46 humans shy of the crowd at this season's Chattanooga FC's home opener. Between UT and ORNL, there's a larger international population that cares about soccer here than in Chattanooga. That crowd at that first game gave the Force a standing ovation for losing, for heaven's sake.
Maybe it is football time in Tennessee, after all.
Knoxville Force 2011 Schedule
May 21 @ Chattanooga Football Club*
May 27-28 US Open Cup playoff (Chattanooga, Tenn.; times TBD)
June 4 @ Georgia Revolution*
June 11 @ Atlanta Silverbacks Reserve* (8 p.m.)
June 18 Georgia Revolution*
June 19 East Tennessee Hispanic All Stars (Sunday, 5 p.m.)
June 25 @ Jacksonville United Football Club* (7:30 p.m.)
July 3 C.F. Monterrey Rayados Reserve (Sunday, 5 p.m.)
July 9 Atlanta Silverbacks Reserve*
July 16 Chattanooga Football Club*
July 23 Carolina RailHawks U23
July 28-30 NPSL League Semifinals and Finals (Madison, Ala.; times TBD)
(*Denotes a league match)
All games are at 7 p.m. on Saturday evenings unless otherwise noted. All home games are played at UT's Regal Soccer Stadium (2317 Stephenson Dr.). Tickets range from $5 to $15, depending on one's age, the match, and whether they are purchased online. Package and group discounts are available. Dates and times may be subject to change; check knoxvilleforce.com for the most up-to-date information.
This story originally stated the announced attendance for the Force's first game was higher than the attendance at Chattanooga FC's first game; in fact, the latter team had an announced attendance of 1,175. The Force says there were actually 1,259 people at the game, including guests and volunteers.