Daniel Jackson / Richmond Kickers.

Fans discuss the Kickers and their expectations for 2019

The Richmond Kickers enter their 28th season in 2019 as they help launch the new USL League One. One of ten clubs to start the new third division league, Richmond is by far the most historic organization. But, what is the perception of the club? What are the expectations, not only in 2019, but in the years ahead? To get a better idea, I spoke with a wide range of soccer fans — from USL fans outside of the Richmond area to local diehard fans to a local EPL/MLS soccer fan that has yet to be fully won over.

1) What is your personal level of Richmond Kickers support?

Supporters Group Leader: Rabid. I’m one of four main leaders of the group and we spend time throughout the year working on Red Army/Kickers related items. As we get ready for the home opener on the 30th, that time is spent on banners, a new initiative called the Red Army Cadets to get kids more involved, getting tailgate ready, etc. We also just last weekend held a charity tournament against the Front Office to raise over $1,000 for local charity RVA Access.

Long Term Fan: I would say I’m a very committed fan. I make it a point to try to arrange my schedule to attend every game, both regular season and preseason, and I usually try to fit in at least a couple of away games a year, too.  On top of that, I have a separate Twitter account that I use just for Kickers/general soccer information since I feel that the more people talking about the team in public view, the better. Honestly, it would probably take a lot to get me to not support the team at this point. I’m fully hooked in.

League One Fun Podcaster: Being a black player/writer in this industry, I am very supportive of Richmond Kickers and their work within the community, promotion of diversity, and their hiring of a diverse staff.

Richmond Season Ticket Holder: I am a season ticket holder and plan to attend all the games. I like the tactical side of soccer so I will be watching games from that perspective focused on formations, what players do well, where they play well, how well we adjust in-game, etc. I also will try to get to know the opponents and their most prominent players.

USL Fan: Mediocre at best, but my attention is piqued by the new coach and the playing style he might be able to implement by dropping down a level. Strange to think they can pull off pretty soccer by playing on a lower level, but I’ve seen some really beautiful soccer played by a semi-pro team, so I think it’s quite possible.

EPL/MLS Fan in Richmond: My personal level of support would be passing at best, and waning at worst. I’m originally from Cincinnati, so I’m used to sports teams being a letdown, but the Kickers have been something else entirely lately.

2) How long have you been following (or aware of) the Richmond Kickers?

SG Leader: I’ve been aware of the Kickers for as long as I been in Richmond, so 15 years. Been a rabid supporter for 5-6 years. The other members of our leadership group have about the same timeline of support.

Long Term Fan: I can remember my parents taking me to games in the inaugural season in 1993 back at the on-campus stadium at UofR.  We would go to a few games a year when I was younger, and then once I was able to drive I got my first ticket plan in high school and started going on my own. The only time since then I haven’t had season tickets was when I lived in the Midwest for a few years, and even then, I found my way to games when visiting family.

L1F Podcaster: I have always been aware of Richmond because of their US Open Cup run but did not follow them more closely until I started watching USL two years ago.

Richmond STH: Since last year. I lived in Reno until I moved to Richmond last summer. The city has a USL Championship team, Reno 1868, which I loved watching. As they were in the same league, I did know of the Kickers and their long history.

USL Fan: 5 years.

EPL/MLS Fan in Richmond: Since 2010 when I moved to the area for school.

3) What is your perception of the Richmond Kickers, both on the field and as an organization, over the past five seasons?

SG Leader: This one’s tricky. We’ve got brand new ownership this year and moved down a division. The team is definitely transitioning from a professional team owned by a Youth Soccer Club to a stand-alone professional soccer team. The team has been an integral part of the community since 1993 and we fully expect to that continue but how that happens might be a little different. Looking forward to seeing how they approach community engagement over the coming years.

Long Term Fan: The last five years is an interesting timeframe.  Obviously, the last two years have been tough to take on the field, and I think that has unfortunately left a bad impression on the organization.  It was literally just 5 seasons ago though that the team rattled off a 20+ game unbeaten streak and got to the semifinals of the playoffs, so it’s not like good times are in the distant past by any means.  The reality of the situation is that better-resourced ownership groups were popping up all over the country and outflanking what the Kickers, and realistically all the legacy teams in USL, could afford.  I’ve maintained that I’d rather have rough seasons but stay within a responsible level of spending than throw good money after bad and have to wonder each year if the team would make it another season.

Off the field is a different story.  Even before the ownership change this offseason, I felt like the front office had things moving in the right direction.  Look at the long term attendance trends. It was not long ago that a crowd of 3,000 at a game would be a top level attendance for the season. Now, it’s almost disappointing if that’s the number.  Sponsors seem to be on the rise, and now there’s a new energy coming in that I think will continue to advance the team as a whole in the right direction.

L1F Podcaster: Richmond seems to be very involved with their community in both a soccer and non-soccer perspective. Their Youth Academy is broadening and growing and they like to sign a lot of Virginia products.

Richmond STH: My perception of the Kickers on the field was not good. Last season, it was difficult to watch a team that had one stretch of not even scoring a goal in 7 of 8 straight games and had the worst goal differential in the entire league. They were just outclassed by the rest of the league. As I looked at previous seasons, there had been a gradual decline of the past few seasons so I didn’t have a lot of hope for the team to improve in the near future. There is just too much money at the Championship level for small teams to compete. Then, new owners came in, they dropped down a league, and David Bulow got a chance to bring in the exact players he wants for his system so my perception has definitely improved. As for off the field, the Kickers do a lot with area youth so that is positive. They want to be part of the local community so I really applaud that.

USL Fan: A storied club that hasn’t quite changed with the league. Or maybe it’s best to say they haven’t been able to keep up with the progress of the league. They joined the league as a tier 3 club and it might have been best to keep them a tier 3 club. That said, they never embarrassed themselves, which may be more than can be said about some other clubs in the same time period.

EPL/MLS Fan in Richmond: I feel that the team’s on-field struggles are directly related to a lax ownership policy, which has been in place for several years. The Ukrop family had been involved for several years, but former Kickers and New England Revs player Robert Ukrop, with 22 Holdings, LLC, are now the majority shareholders in the club, as of last December. A lot of the Kicker’s online info indicates that they’re one of the oldest and most successful teams, but the reality is the bar has been getting lower and lower in my time following the club.

The last time that the Kickers finished first in their league was in 2013—and the results have continued to drop since, including two very tough years in 2017 and 2018. The question about the Kickers is what defines success for them. For me, and I would argue most supporters of any team, just making the playoffs on a regular basis is not enough. As much as I want to support the Kickers, I’ve been burned by lazy, out of touch owners across all the various teams I’ve followed.

As a supporter, I want to know that the players and the owners recognize my commitment to a team, and beyond recognition, I want them to match it. While I think the players long for sustained success, I haven’t seen enough of that from the Kickers’ owners, new or old.

4) In a new league in 2019, what are your expectations of Richmond on and off the field this year?

SG Leader: The past two years have been very rough, just take a look at our record. Dropping down a league but being one of the more established teams, we’re expecting to be in the running for the championship. Honestly, if that doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed. I would also love to see a deep run into the Open Cup and hopefully host a match against an MLS Team.

Long Term Fan: The base expectation for this year in League One has to be to win, and for me, it’s to win the league.  With the new league, new ownership, and quality of players here, anything less is going to feel like a disappointment, and I think with the perception of dropping a league, struggling for so long, etc, the team needs a highly successful season to re-energize and continue to expand the fanbase.  Off the field, it’s a transition year, but visible and tangible results need to happen to get everyone comfortable with their long term vision.

L1F Podcaster: With the experience they have and the players they are bringing in, I am expecting Richmond to be in the playoffs and bring a new style/system now that the coach was able to bring in a new staff and the players that he wants.

Richmond STH: Off the field, they just need to sustain what they have. On the field, I expect a whole lot more. Looking at the league, Richmond has more experienced players than just about all but Chattanooga. I expect them to do well. I would love for them to win the league but at the very least they should get one of the four playoff spots. Depending on the draw, they should win at least 1-2 games in the US Open Cup, maybe more. I also expect a very attacking style of play. In the friendly against UVA, they used a 4-3-3 formation with the Wing Backs pushing up for even more attackers. Then the first goal came from a beautiful strike from Maxi Rodriguez who was playing most of the game in a more defensive midfielder position. There is a lot of offensive quality on this team so I expect to see lots of goals.

USL Fan: I expect them to thrive, and even find themselves—redefine themselves. I’m excited to see what they turn into in the next 5 years.

EPL/MLS Fan in Richmond: Currently, not much. The season starts on March 29th, but when I checked their website only 11 players were listed (at the time of answering). I understand that there are likely some hold-ups with player transfers, maybe some paperwork from loanees still to come in, etc., but it feels like the Kickers are leaving it very late this year. That being said, there was been a lot of activity on social media, so perhaps it is just about catching up on the website. My hope is that the new ownership group is focused on getting deals over the line and deliver a strong team both on the field and behind the scenes.

5) Looking ahead 5 years, what are your expectations for the club – both on and off the field?

SG Leader: This one depends on what’s going on with USL. If there is promotion/regulation between USL Championship and USL League 1, we would hope to be competing for promotion. If the pro/reg isn’t to be five years from now, I hope we have four to five USL League One Championships. Off the field, we hope that the Kickers make considerable improvements to the City Stadium, which certainly needs some help. I would also love to see dramatic improvements in attendance and seeing the city truly embrace the team.

Long Term Fan: Over the next 5 years, I think the league is going to once again evolve. League One will probably grow by significant amounts, and the challenge will be to maintain the club at the top of the mountain at this level.  If everything goes absolutely right, maybe you consider a move back to the second division, but I’m comfortable with where we are and solidifying the team as a top pillar in League One. Off the field, I’d like to see the next steps of the stadium renovation project move forward, attendances rise, and the Kickers to become even more ingrained in the framework of Richmond media. For all it’s changes, Richmond still feels pretty old school in how sports are covered, so getting better and regular features in the R-TD, coverage on the news, and interviews on the radio would probably go a long way.

L1F Podcaster: I would love for Richmond to continue growing in the community and rebrand/remarket to target players and fans that are not currently attending Kickers events.

Richmond STH: The USL leadership has expressed interest in a promotion/relegation system once they get enough teams. With as fast as the league is growing, 5 years is not too soon for that to happen. If it does, I want us to be one of the teams that get promoted. Even if we go right back down, it will be worth it to say we did it. I’d like to see at least one USL League One title within 5 years. I would like to see a run in the US Open Cup to at least the 4th Round when the MLS teams enter. I think there is real potential to do well in this league and as far as I am concerned, I will be just as happy to see the Kickers win League One as I would be to see Arsenal win the Premier League (which is easy because I can remember what that feels like since it has been so long). Off the field, I would like to see them become more a part of the community beyond the youth component. I would love if Kickers games became a must-do event on a Saturday night for all of RVA with the Red Army marching down from Cary Street with 100+ members. That would be a great place to be five years from now and I see no reason why it can’t happen.

USL Fan: I hope they hold their attendance numbers or even grow them. I hope they continue to draw from their academy—even grow their academy and the connection to the pro club. I’d even love to see them sell some kids on to MLS or Europe for actual cash.

EPL/MLS Fan in Richmond: It’s always tough to judge so far out, especially when there’s so much change in a single offseason. The optimist in me says that it’s going to be a massive turn around and that the engine will run properly, but the realist in me knows that when you throw a bunch of change into the mix, it usually gums up the works and there’s a lot of start-stopping that occurs. My hope is that Richmond finally gets the team it deserves. It’s a soccer hungry city, but there hasn’t been anything worthwhile on display for most of my time here, but my expectation is that the Kickers will wind up middling or worse.

 

The Richmond Kickers start the inaugural season in USL League One at home on March 30th against Lansing Ignite FC.

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