“WE READY!” – Fans hope Memphis 901 FC helps spur interest in soccer among African Americans

Early signs are promising

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A drum corps helped hype the crowd. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

By Shambreon Richardson, Special to TSDMemphis.com

On the scoreboard, Memphis 901 FC did not win their inaugural game, an 0-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies on March 9. Memphis gave up a goal early and never recovered.

“Yeah, the result was disappointing, we wanted to come out and give the fans something today,” said 901 FC Defender Wes Charpie. “But the atmosphere was unreal.”

And if the atmosphere in the stands at AutoZone Park carries forward, Memphis 901 FC seems set to grow deep roots in the 901 – and quickly.

“First and foremost, I think the fans, atmosphere, the environment were all tremendous positives for Memphis, for our club and the city,” said 901 FC Head Coach Tim Mulqueen. “We are so thankful for that.”

Soccer – or fútbol, as it’s called elsewhere in the world – is widely regarded as the most popular sport in the world. At AutoZone Park Saturday, with eclectic vibes, people from different cultures, backgrounds, neighborhoods and ethnicities flooded the match bringing a sense of diversity and unity.

“I’m actually excited about it,” said Joshua Johnson, an African American who attended the game. “I became a soccer fan when my son started playing and there was no professional soccer around before this. So I’m excited to have a chance to come out and watch and hope this would inspire my son a little bit more.”

Another fan was hopeful that pro soccer creates another outlet for Memphians.

“Anything that helps the African-American community have something more than just rapping, basketball and football should have a more defined cultural aspect to it,” said Jacob Johnson. “I think it would be a great thing.”

Owned by Trinity Sports Holdings, the same group that owns the Memphis Redbirds, marketing for the United Soccer League franchise has embraced Memphis’ urban culture. A YouTube clip for the team has an African American announcer proclaiming, “This is OUR sport too!”

Tim Flowers, CEO of Mall of Memories, came out to see for himself what Memphis’ new fútbol team would bring.

“It’s good for us to have a local franchise here that our people can come down and see and be a part of and learn the sport,” Flowers said. “Fútbol is an international sport, so when you go all around the world you’re able to connect with people via sports. Sports bring people together!”

Sure enough, even as the game drew to a close, a sea of fans from all backgrounds chanted together: “We ready! we ready, we ready for y’all!” They wrapped arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth with laughter, emotion and a genuine sense of unity.

“I just got back from Madrid, Spain yesterday,” Flowers added. “I went to see (Memphis 901 FC) play and because I was educated in fúbol I was able to connect with the locals (in Spain) and they accepted me! Do you see? It’s a way to connect with people all around the globe!”

Patrick Kobano, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been a soccer coach in Memphis for more than 15 years. He hopes Memphis 901 FC will get more African Americans interested in “the beautiful sport.”

“We do need to support the franchise here,” said Kobano. “Continue to come and support the team. Soccer is universal, every country in the world plays soccer, not every country in the world play basketball. It’s not an expensive sport, all you need is a ball. We need the community to start embracing soccer, they call it the beautiful game for a reason.”

When Sherita Johnson and her husband signed their son up for soccer, they mostly just wanted to give him something to do.

“Since then my husband and son fell in love with it,” she said. “It just gives him more exposure to the soccer world, plus it’s more things to do in Memphis right?”

The USL season continues through summer into October. Memphis 901 FC’s next match is Saturday, March 16 at AutoZone Park against Loudoun United FC, based in Leesburg, Va. And players are hoping that the warm reception continues.

“This is stuff you dream about to be honest with you,” Mulqueen said. “You work your whole life to get to this moment and it gives you goosebumps.

“To feel the crowds chanting and screaming, it’s something you dream about,” he added. “So, yeah, it’s an amazing feeling. We just gotta keep on building and moving forward.”