A few weeks ago, the founder of our local soccer team asked me to write a few words about AFC Mobile. The story first appeared at AFCMobile.net.
I've always been a sports fan. Growing up, I participated in sports but wasn't all that good. I played a little junior high soccer, got cut from the team at basketball try-outs; and while I grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where hockey was king, I couldn't skate to save my life.
But my dad took me to a hockey game or two, and I still remember the fight between the Marquette Iron Rangers and the Green Bay Bobcats with 52 seconds left in the game. It was quite a sight. When the ice finally cleared of players, it was still covered with gloves and hockey sticks... and a little blood. Not sure this is good for an 8-year-old to see, but I was hooked. And I went to everything after our family moved to Seattle -- football, baseball, basketball, hockey, even a soccer team called the Seattle Sounders.
The Sounders became a very big deal to me and introduced me to soccer in the 70s. Tickets weren't expensive, and I could easily go to their games as a kid. So my friends and I would take the bus in to watch them play at the Kingdome. Fun Fact: the Sounders drew over 58,000 to a game in 1975 and were averaging about 25,000 fans a game by the late 1970s. The energy in the building was awesome, even though we still hadn't figured out supporters group or scarves or any of the things we associate with soccer today. Sadly, soccer wasn't quite a thing yet in the rest of the country. The NASL of that era spent too much money and had too few fans, and the league collapsed in the early 1980s.
As my sports fandom grew, so did my awareness that I was definitely NOT an athlete. I instead became the best fan I could be -- loyal, loud, proud, and with the team to the end. If I couldn't make an impact on the field, at least I could contribute from the stands. I've always cheered for the home team, where the jersey represents the communities I've called home.
The teams don't have to be good, just ours!
Enter AFC Mobile -- a club founded from the grassroots, a labor of love. AFC Mobile was formed to support soccer, and then joined a league and put out a schedule. When it became clear that we finally had a team, one that would represent our community, that was simply fantastic news to me! I don't totally know how to describe my excitement, and my nervousness about this soccer experiment. Would soccer even work in Mobile? My wife and I decided we had to buy season tickets. Sure, we love soccer and wanted to see the games, but we also understood the importance of "butts in seats" to a team's success. If this was going to work, it was critical that fans show up.
We didn't need to worry.
AFC Mobile came out of the gates with more than 800 fans for its first match, one scheduled on Mother's Day. The atmosphere was just incredibly fun, thanks in part to the Causeway Rebellion supporters group, but also due to the pent up energy of a crowd that was just excited to have a team and had been anticipating this opening match for some time.
We lost the game, but we clearly won the hearts and minds of the community. At the next game, the crowd was even bigger. And at the home finale, we had more than one thousand people on hand. This is in a league that typically drew 200 or fewer fans a game, and the Mobile community delivered five times that! Sweet lunacy, indeed!
AFC Mobile became something more than a team in its inaugural season. They became our club, our community, and a rallying point for a city that's used to cheering for teams 200 miles away (looking at you, Auburn and Alabama). They embraced the community, and we loved them right back.
Even though the first season wasn't great on the pitch, AFC Mobile is ours.
We finally got the elusive first win at the very last match of the season -- a wild affair on the road that saw AFC Mobile take down its arch rival Biloxi City FC. (And how Biloxi became our derby match is a grand story in itself, best saved for another day).
If there was promotion and relegation in our league, we would have been relegated. We won one game in ten, finishing in last place, and yet it was one of the best times I've ever had in sports. Because so many people came out, so many people cared, and something special happened in the Azalea City. I was sad when the season ended.
In American soccer, teams don't move to the next level on the pyramid because they're good. They move on to the next level for a metric that's at least as important: fan support! AFC Mobile and this community passed its first test. AFC Mobile had a great first season in the stands, and it will grow. When I met some of our players at the kit reveal before this inaugural season, I reminded them of who they were, and what they represent. Years and maybe decades from now, they will always be the first representatives of our community's soccer team. They were keenly aware of this, and thrilled to be part of it.
As supporters, we should also remember our role in all this. We showed up and we wore scarves (in 90 degree heat) and we sang and we stomped. We bought swag and wore it proudly. We made the players feel like they were part of something. We showed a community that soccer can and will work in a city that's addicted to the other kind of football. We did the unexpected.
We can take pride in that fact as fans and supporters. We are the first generation of AFC Mobile, and we are laying the foundation for the best that's yet to come.
Always Mobile, Always Home.