"Local clubs are a critical missing piece in US soccer’s talent development."
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Did you know that Asheville is not only home to a ton of breweries, but a soccer club so successful that they've gotten calls from Olympique Lyon about their jersey as season ticket program? You knew the first part but not the second? Well I guess that's what this interview is for! Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself first. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Asheville City SC.
I am Ryan Kelley, President of ACSC. I was born and raised in Western North Carolina, as were my five partners.
How did you come to be a fan of soccer?
Several of our front office staff grew up playing the game through high school and on traveling teams. I wasn't one of them, I didn't become a fan of the game until my freshman year of college. My randomly assigned roommate had just returned from the World Cup in Germany. We shared a small room so I couldn't escape it. I got hooked watching US games, watching Drogba and Chelsea in Champions League games (before the Premier League was so accessible), and it wasn't long before I couldn't get enough.
What is the 'origin story' behind the creation of Asheville City?
One night last May I came across Dennis Crowley's article on my Twitter feed about his starting of Kingston Stockade. It got my attention right away, and I soon shared it with my lifelong friends who are now my partners. As natives of the area, we immediately identified Asheville as a perfect fit (so much so that we couldn't believe that it didn't already exist). We have looked to clubs like Stockade and Chattanooga to build our vision for ACSC. We see our club as a "think global, act local" approach to improving US Soccer to the point that we can compete for and ultimately win the World Cup. Our philosophy consists of taking the very best local players, both youth and adult, and integrating them into a competitive training environment with the best college players that we can recruit in an effort to raise the level of play in our area. We hope that others will follow our lead in the same way that we have followed Stockade and CFC.
What is about Asheville, aside from the large number of craft breweries, that makes it such a fit for soccer?
Asheville is already a soccer town. We don’t have the issue that some other clubs have when they are fighting more traditional American sports for market share. What really makes Asheville stand out is the adult playing population here. We have had very successful clubs in larger markets connect with ABABA, our local adult league, on how to replicate that vibrant adult soccer playing community in their cities.
On the topic of breweries, why are there so many in Asheville?
That’s a good question. While I can’t really answer “Why Asheville?”, I can give some insight into “how.” One would assume that the environment is incredibly competitive, and there are aspects of that, but in general the breweries here are very cooperative. There is a sense that each brewery's success in some way relies on the collective success of Asheville as “Beer City.” It is fairly common to hear about a brewery coming to the aide of another when a piece of equipment goes down, etc. We are proud members of the Asheville Beer Alliance which works on behalf of all of the local breweries and their partners.
You guys have been drawing some phenomenal crowds in Year One. Was there anything in particular that you did to market the team that helped bring in all this support, or was it simply a lot of word of mouth?
If I had to point to one thing it would be the passionate soccer community that was already in place. We have been welcomed with open arms by the youth and adult soccer communities in Asheville and that is something we appreciate everyday. That’s not to say that it was automatic, we sought to build those relationships with both the leadership of those groups and their members from a very early point in the process. We haven’t done any conventional marketing, it has all been social media and grassroots. We also had a lot of success with the jersey as the season ticket; we bought every jersey that we could from Nike in the United States and had to place emergency orders from the UK to meet demand and still came up short. A highlight for us was getting an email from Lyon asking us about the system.
Really? You guys had Lyon emailing you about jerseys as season tickets? That's awesome for you guys! How many jerseys/season tickets do you think you've sold?
We’ve sold over 500 season tickets.
I don’t like to say that we were surprised because we knew the potential that existed with the local soccer community. However, that being said it is safe to say that the response has exceeded our expectations. I saw numbers this week that put us in 4th place in attendance nationally behind Detroit, Chattanooga and Grand Rapids. That is great company and a testament to the supporters of the game in Asheville.
Touching on your earlier answer, it sounds like there is a real spirit of collaboration in Asheville. Was the response from the local soccer community expected, or were you surprised by how quickly they rallied around the team?
Our goal coming into the first season was to make the playoffs which we were able to accomplish with a few games in hand. As a first year team, we had virtually no training prior to our first match (half of one session the day before which was rained out), which was a divisional league match. I think when you consider things like that, which are common for first year clubs, you have to look at our inaugural season as a success. That being said, we want to win. We have had too many draws and let a really good opportunity to control our own destiny with regard to home field advantage slip through our fingers last weekend. We have every intention of making a deep playoff run.
Let's talk about the NPSL for a bit. You've almost finished your first season. How do you feel it's gone? Developed any rivalries with nearby teams?
We have had some nice rivalries develop. Our matches with the Atlanta Silverbacks have been hotly contested and physical (with no love lost between supporters’ groups as well). We also just announced an annual match with Chattanooga featuring a traveling trophy. Our supporters' groups and brewery partners are integrally involved in the event so I expect it to be a big success.
I'm always interested in learning about people's decision making processes. Why did you guys decide to join the NPSL instead of the PDL?
The primary factor for us in deciding between the two leagues was that we didn't want to be confined to a U23 structure. Asheville has one of the best adult playing associations anywhere and we didn't want to alienate that group. We had two open tryouts in January and were thrilled to add members of that league to our roster. They have all contributed, including scoring the late winner against Savannah.
Where do you see the NPSL in your region heading over the next couple of years? More growth, or kind of settling in?
Certainly more growth. Asheville was an untapped market at this time a year ago, and now it's in the top ten in attendance across the entire fourth tier and leading several division two clubs. There is no doubt in my mind that there are still many cities out there just waiting for the opportunity to be taken. Adding more cities is great for us, it reduces cost, allows our supporters to travel and starts new rivalries.
Speaking of PDL, were you bummed out at all when you found out Tobacco Road was jumping leagues? Seems like that could have been a really fun local rival for you guys.
Of course, when we started the process Tobacco Road, NCFC and Myrtle Beach were all part of our planned conference. However, we are thrilled to be part of a new southeast conference that I think many would say is the strongest in the league. We have developed heated rivalries and had the opportunity to travel to many great cities and venues.
What to do you mean when you say you didn't want to be confined to a U23 structure with the PDL?
The PDL has a strictly developmental focus and as a result has age restrictions on the roster. The NPSL has no such limitations which we thought better aligned with Asheville’s adult playing community.
In your opinion, where else in the Carolina's do you think would be a good fit for the NPSL?
I’m sure you are aware that teams in Durham, Raleigh and Myrtle Beach moved from the NPSL just last season. There are also PDL teams in Greensboro, Charlotte, Wilmington and Columbia. I think the coverage is pretty strong now with the exception of Greenville, SC. I would love to have an NPSL team in Greenville, that seems like a natural rival. I think Winston-Salem and Fayetteville are the other possibilities based on size alone, but it would take a local who knows the market to know if those would be viable possibilities.
With the playoffs over and you begin looking towards Year 2, what are one or two things you hope to accomplish to lay the groundwork to ensure Year 2 is even bigger and better for Asheville City?
We want to take what we learned from our first season and put ourselves in position to win the NPSL in 2018. We are prepared to make the investment necessary to make that happen. Obviously you can’t always control what happens on the field, but in our experience this season there are plenty of steps that we can take to put ourselves in a legitimate position to contend.
For the benefit of those who read this and run teams, what are one or two things you learned not to do from Year 1 that others might be able to avoid?
We were able to avoid so many potential pitfalls because of the relationships we built with successful clubs as we were getting started, so rather than saying something specific to avoid, I would encourage all new clubs to reach out and make those connections. We are happy to talk with anyone who wants to make the leap.
When it comes to your field, I've heard that it might be a good idea for Asheville City to find a new home. Would you agree with that statement? And whether you do or not, why do you or don't you agree?
We look forward to Maxing Out Memorial next season and for years to come. I don’t think there is a better true downtown location anywhere. There are improvements that need to be made but the funding is in place to make those improvements. The timeline for the project is something that the city is working on now and something that we advocate for on a regular basis. Memorial Stadium has no issue meeting league standards.
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch?
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Didier Drogba. (think that may work for past and present)
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
The Numbers Game, Catch-22.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
Where can people find out more about you and Asheville City SC online?
All of our social media handles are @ashevillecitysc and our website is www.ashevillecitysc.com
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like Asheville City SC?
We believe that local clubs are a critical missing piece in US soccer’s talent development. If you want to see the United States men win a World Cup before you die, get out and support your local clubs that are generating awareness of the game with youth that otherwise may not have given soccer a chance.