After a rough inaugural USL League One season, could the new head coach and roster overhaul lift the Richmond Kickers back into the playoffs?
The 2020 USL League One season is on a delay due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Exactly when, or if, we will see the Richmond Kickers take the pitch at City Stadium remains up in the air. However, prior to the break, we thought it would be a good idea to do another round-table discussion of the club – similar to last year’s preseason expectations.
I reached out to a number of individuals from die-hard fans to casual supporters of the Richmond Kickers and individuals who follow the entire league to supporters from outside of the area. To keep the responses as anonymous as possible I left the names or descriptions off this year and instead present the various responses for each question. Feel free to add in your responses on Twitter at @Nate_RVA.
1) Describe your personal level of Richmond Kickers’ support heading into the 2020 season and how that compares to the other teams you follow?
- “So I look at myself as a die-hard Richmond Kickers fan. Having been a fan since 2014, I have seen more of the downfall of the kickers opposed to the glory years but made me love the club even more as it makes me appreciate the glory years when they come back. As far as other teams I do have a European team I root for but there is only one club I support and that is the Kickers”
- “I am a season ticket holder and would say my level of following the team is down from last year. I am sure it will be the same as last year when the first game kicks off but right now I am focused on the other teams I support such as DC United and the Washington Capitals as well as traveling beyond the DC-Richmond area to take in USL games and even an XFL game.”
- “My personal level of support is more focused on the operational side of the club. However, the club ranks low compared to other teams I support.”
- “Rabid. I rarely miss a game, pre-season game, or Open Cup match and travel whenever possible to support the team. No comparison at all. Follow USMNT, USWNT, and DC United but the distance and costs have moved those to the back burners.”
- “Our support is good-natured. We want to create a subculture in the stands that is tight-knit and doesn’t take itself too seriously while still steering clear of the more toxic commercial elements of fan culture in the US. Our political views simply reflect where we live, as does our celebration of the team. We’re looking to similar emerging subcultures all over USL and MLS around the country in doing this, soccer in the US is uniquely welcoming of working-class fans who don’t shy away from politics and can retain criticisms of corporate excess.”
- “I have an affinity for the Richmond Kickers given their long history and I’ve personally known several of their players. However I’m generally neutral in order to keep my journalistic integrity, however, I did support them before they were in League One. My biggest passion is for my long MLS 1.0 team, but I also support an English Premier League Team.”
- “The Richmond Kickers are my number one team, and my college teams are the only ones that come close. I have season tickets and am hoping that I can get a trip to a road game going this year.”
— Steve Wiley (@SteveW_Musco) March 13, 2020
2) What is your perception of the new ownership group now after a full season and two offseasons?
- “I’m still not entirely sure what to think about them yet. I think they know the right things to say a lot of the time, but I’m not always sure their personal ethos matches those words. The major pluses are investing more in the backroom staff and capital investments.”
- “I think the ownership group is taking the team in the right direction. Like all fans, I would like it to be faster but I am happy to see resources being invested in the team and the stadium. The lighting improvements announced today are great as the previous lights made the game hard to follow when the game moved to the other side of the stadium as the night wore on and watching the replay streams was also less than ideal. The new lights are a big part of fixing that. I would like more communication from the front office even if it is bad news. As an example, Matt Spear hyped a lot of things for the season, and some, like the international friendly, didn’t happen. It wasn’t until the off-season that Rob Ukrop gave an interview that said why which made sense financially. Communication will go a long way toward getting people excited and invested in what the new ownership group is trying to do. Finally, I think a new crest is in order. Richmond Kickers’ name can stay but I would love to see a logo that incorporates images from our great city, such as the bridges or skyline. That would be a great visual indicator that the new ownership is changing things but still honoring the past.”
- “I believe the new owners took some time to try to understand the needs of the community, fans and physical assets. They did not rush into things like the stadium upgrades but are progressing at a sustainable pace. It’s sometimes frustrating how slow progress can be, but I think the new group is trying to grow things organically. These aren’t billionaire owners who can snap their fingers, and sustainability and longevity will be more important than going into massive debt now and risking the team fold.”
- “Indifferent as long as they respect the fans and don’t try and monetize people. Soccer is a business and I recognize this, but I’m not interested in appearing in commercials or worrying about being censored for the benefit of corporate sponsors who see the team as a vehicle for good PR.”
- “Hit and miss. They are in the process of completely changing the team from an offshoot of youth club to its own entity, so I understand that it will take time. The stadium improvements are great. Still not seeing any sort of clear or creative marketing. Forward Madison has shown that a good marketing team that doesn’t play it safe can make a difference. I’m not sure the Richmond Kickers get that message. Joyful Authentic United – Joyful, hasn’t been much joy yet; sure we’re Authentic, whatever that means, United – with who? There is no reason we shouldn’t be bringing in the same number of people as the Richmond Squirrels.”
- “I thought there would be more activity this offseason. Stadium upgrades were announced late, not sure if they were the right improvements to make. They haven’t differentiated themselves too much from the previous ownership group. I’m not sure ownership listens to the fans in regards to what the fans want to see from the team. What’s the end goal?”
- “Honestly this city is lucky to have a soccer team, let alone one so long-lived and storied. That isn’t lost on me, and that they are our local team. It’s easier to show our support for them than maybe any other team in any other sport.”
- “At first, I was high on them because finally, the Richmond Kickers would have some real finical backing behind them. After the way how things ended last year, I am more wait and see. This is truly playoffs or bust for the ownership body. I do however think you have to give them time because are improving things around the club.”
— USL League One (@USLLeagueOne) March 10, 2020
3) What are your expectations for Richmond this year – on the field and in the stands?
- “My expectations are a playoff seed in between 3-5 seed. I think a lot of people are sleeping on us and expect it to be like the team from last year but with big transfer coming in (for the Richmond Kickers) like Kyle Venter and Emiliano I expect a solid team on the road and dominate team at home.”
- “At the very, very, least on the field, we should make the playoffs. It’s been a long stretch since we’ve seen the playoffs. Another “rebuilding” year will make me question what the hell they’re trying to build. In the stands, I hope to see continued incremental improvements to the stadium and in attendance.”
- “I expect the fan interaction to slowly improve now that management has a year under its belt. Over time I suspect more promotions and fan-oriented activities will draw in slightly bigger crowds… of course, on-field performance is key.”
- “I haven’t been around for 2 years, so I can’t fully answer this one, but the ticket price going up from when I left is disappointing. And the fact that the crowd energy has slowly degraded.”
- “Sadly expectations have dropped. Playoffs still have to be the minimum acceptable outcome, especially with 6 making it in. I thought the organization as a whole did a very poor job with all things ticket sales last year, so that has to improve. There’s no reason to drop almost 1000 per game over two years no matter the organizational or league changes. A couple of those attendances last year were flat out embarrassing.”
- “On the field, I expect Darren Sawatzky, to move from the possession-based game we had last year to the more aggressive style he promised and I expect players to be of the quality that Darren was brought in to find. Off the field, my only expectation is that they get better each year and learn from the last. If I had one piece of advice for the front office it would be to look at what the Richmond Squirrels are doing, take what can apply to soccer, and duplicate it because the fanbase they have created for and maintained for their minor league team is amazing despite having a similarly non-modern stadium. Maybe baseball is just different but I have friends who are big major league baseball fans who will go to Squirrels games even when they are in last place. My friends who are big MLS/Euro soccer fans won’t go to the Richmond Kickers because the quality is too low or the stadium and its bathrooms are decrepit. There has to be a way to adopt some of what the Squirrels are doing.”
- “Minimum expectation on the field is playoffs. For the stadium, continue the momentum of stadium upgrades (especially bathrooms).”
- “I expect them to be a little better than previous years, we’ve brought in some interesting players and should be doing better in a league full of MLS baby teams and genuine regional darlings, anyway.”
- “Things are weird right now. I guess right now we expect a season that goes a bit longer than usual. If our group can’t go to games, we’ll find other ways to show our support to the team. We obviously want to keep people’s health in mind, perhaps we’ll drop a tifo somewhere public, or do some stuff outdoors that minimizes contact. And when it’s safe to go back, we’ll be there to support the team.”
4) Based on what you know at the moment, how are you feeling about the coaching change and the roster?
- “Cautiously optimistic. Sawatzky is saying the right things, but so did Bulow. I have major questions about the attack and who will play defensive midfield. The team can’t score goals for years now, and the solution is a 30-year-old who has fallen down the ladder in Argentina and a rookie?”
- “The coaching change was probably necessary, and everything coming from Darren has been positive. The team seems more cohesive this year than in previous seasons. Exciting to have bigger talent (Terzaghi). Need improved results on the field.”
- “Last season left a bad taste in my mouth. Two years ago, David Bulow was given half a season where he did poorly. He said next season when he could pick his own players it would be different and he said some players gave up because they knew Richmond was going to League One. Fast forward to last season and we actually played worse than the year before statistically. When I told my son I was renewing our season tickets this season he said: “why? The Kickers suck.” Those are tough words to hear as he used to love Kickers games but I can’t blame him after the last two seasons were so bad. Some games made us wonder if there was something better we could do with our Saturday evening. But, I have faith in Darren to change that so I renewed our season tickets. As for the roster, I am really pleased with what I have seen. Akira is one of the best at this level and the holdovers from last year are solid. I am glad we kept our backline intact and adding a player like our captain Kyle Venter is amazing. The attacking options look good and I am ready to see what this team can do in a competitive game.”
- “Still part of that wait and see…I like the defensive approach of Darren and how the team is playing quicker up the field. My only concern is if we have the depth to keep up the standard of play and push on for that playoff seed.”
- “We’ll have to see, the new coach seems committed to making the team as a whole competitive, but I admittedly don’t know much about him yet.”
- “Hope springs eternal. There is no doubt that Coach Sawatzky has the passion, but it remains to be seen whether that can be transferred to the field. As expected the team focused on reenforcing the attack but again what looks great on paper doesn’t always translate. Bottom line I’m cautiously optimistic.”
- “The Coach is unproven at this level but has the opportunity to define his style and build his roster. It is difficult to tell if he’ll be able to do it, especially since other teams have improved too. Not making the playoffs would be a major disappointment. The defense needs to be solid, but really the team needs score goals. I’m still not sure they have all the pieces they need but I do expect a better showing than 2019.”
- “I’m an optimist, I’m always willing to give people a chance to make their own team. I think Kurt Onalfo didn’t get enough time with DC United. If they’ve got a clear gameplan then we need to give them time to build around it. That was true of Bulow, even though he got canned a bit early in my opinion. So Sawaltzky needs to be given time.”
We couldn't ask for a better day to announce the improvements coming to @CityStadium_RVA and kick off a week of exciting reveals!
— Richmond Kickers 🦘 (@RichmondKickers) March 9, 2020
5) What would you want either the club or USL League One to focus on over the next few years to increase your support, as well as fan support in general?
- “I’ll be there no matter what, so I’d rather they focus on continuing to improve the stadium experience for other fans, and of course on-field performance. Richmond likes winners if the team gets back to winning that will take care of some of the attendance and marketing issues.”
- “My support for the team is a yearly commitment. I go to all of the games I can (only missed two last season). The better question is how to increase the support of people like my son and friends. To do that, the Kickers need to play attractive soccer with a team that can compete year in and year out. There are a lot of fans who were not pleased last season. “Here we go again, same old Kickers” was a common statement in the sections I sat in and since I move to a new section each game, I can tell you I heard it a lot. That has to change. For the league, they need to expand in such a way as to create true geographic rivalries, market their players better, and engage with the podcasters and journalists like you more. So many podcasters do it for no compensation other than some small sponsorship revenue but are key to getting info to the fans, promoting the league, and providing a venue for a frank discussion. Even the Kickers “official” Total Soccer Show podcast had few interviews or insights from the team. That was a missed opportunity to shape the narrative on what the team was trying to do both on and off the field. There is some synergy to be had there that will benefit all parties.”
- “Increased involvement of fan organizations, a sincere attempt to attract the larger Richmond community outside of wealthiest suburbs, more music, less kitschy stuff.”
- “League should have local rivalries and incentivize different independent clubs to join League One. The club should focus on creating a better game day experience for fans. Improve the stadium to attract bigger events – improve bathrooms, player facilities, press box, concessions.”
- “For the club, I want them to help out in low-income areas to build the game of soccer and not just focus on one area of city but the whole city and surrounding areas. Kickers have the ability to be a big club but still moves sometimes as if we are a small pub team. Go out a build relationship with people and truly become that club for the community. For USL L1, bring up clubs from USL L2 that are ready for the transition to USL L1 to help fill in the gaps out in the west coast and mid west regions. Even here in Richmond our closest rival is Greenville who is 5 hours away. USL L1 needs more regional teams.”
- “For the league, the U.S. Open Cup. It is such a unique sporting event in this country there is no reason not for it to feature more prominently than it is right now. Where else can you see an amateur squad go up against top-level professionals? This being said at this point I just hope we have an Open Cup as COVID-19 looks to be putting it on hold. As for the club, continue to reach out to the untapped markets in Richmond. African American, Latin American, and Central American communities are underrepresented in the stands. We need all of Richmond supporting the team.”
- “Soccer is a trendy sport. It’s always the sport of tomorrow. It attracts a lot of trendy yuppies because of that. Clubs should focus on whatever their local flavor is, and don’t be cheesy about it. People will show up for it. Suburban soccer culture isn’t gonna sustain you into the next decade.”
Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion. While we await the hopeful start of the USL League One season, let me know what other Richmond Kickers’ content you would like to see. You can follow and message me on Twitter at @Nate_RVA.