In the tiny neighborhood known as City Stadium, the quiet buzz of highway traffic mingles with wind chimes and bird song. This is Richmond’s less celebrated triple crossing, where the Downtown Expressway diverges, joining the Powhite Parkway and Interstate 195 to form a triangle-shaped border.
But despite its accessibility, few drivers take the exits into the neighborhood interior unless they’re residents or spectators. And nary a Carytown pedestrian wanders the three blocks south into its calming hum.
Unlike the grand, protruding ballpark known as The Diamond on the Boulevard, few people see the neighborhood’s namesake facility regularly. City Stadium seems to sink quietly into its gravel parking lot. “Don’t mind me,” it says.
And so, many don’t.
When asked to name professional sports teams in Richmond, an unscientific poll of recent Carytown pedestrians yields less than half who can name the team that plays at the nearby stadium.
The Flying Squirrels, they say first. Or they try to name a local university team. Once the pollster mentions the Richmond Kickers, a light bulb goes on. And more than half say they have been to a game.
Yes, Richmond has a professional soccer team. Around 25 guys, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who get paid to play soccer from March to October.
The team has played every year since 1993, making the Kickers one of the oldest, continuously operating, professional soccer teams in America — the oldest, if you go by the weekend of its first game, versus another team that also started in ’93.
In a city that no one would confuse for soccer-crazed, the Richmond Kickers have quietly built a successful soccer empire. And they’ve done it without threatening to leave town (where would they go?) or public funding (why would they expect that?).
The team truly is a self-sufficient Richmond creation, attracting a growing crowd to its games and spreading its love for the game through a popular youth soccer program.
And now, as its pro team marks the start of its 25th season next week, the Richmond Kickers have signed a 40-year lease on City Stadium.
While the lease is for a nominal amount, they’ll be paying real estate taxes, utilities and upkeep — in addition to admissions and other taxes.
They’ve also committed to investing $20 million in the stadium during that time. And to upgrade the space, they’ve hired HKS — “the best sports stadium architects at least in the country, maybe in the world,” says Vernon Inge, president of the pro team.
The Richmond Kickers are putting down roots — all without asking for taxpayer money. It might just be something people walk south of Carytown to see.
On a cold January weekend, the Kickers’ training grounds at Ukrop Park turn into a field of pipe dreams. Around 90 men have paid $175 to play several hours of soccer in front of Kickers coaches — with little hope of being signed.
Coach Leigh Cowlishaw knows what positions he needs filled — left back, center forward — and has an idea who will fill them. There are players leaving other pro teams and players loaned from D.C. United. It’s a tight roster of 20-25.
But there are tryout surprises every year, Cowlishaw says.
“There’s a lot of method to the madness,” he says. “It’s based a lot more on opinions than scientific data a lot of that time, and that’s the beautiful part of the sport.”
Cowlishaw, 46, and seven other coaches have done their research, checked references and plugged names into Google. They’re looking for players missed by Major League Soccer or ones they can groom during the next two to three years.
Open tryouts are a happy concession to fairness.
Rob Ukrop, a former star player and president of the Kickers board, says he gets a lot of emails from people who want to try out. Most of them quickly realize that the level of play is far higher than they expected.
Inge, 50, notes the “tremendous jump” between college soccer and the pro level played by the Kickers. “We see these kids that are really good players in college and they’re shocked,” he says.
A 23-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, is cautious about his chances.
The hopeful, Evan Lee, played four years at Ohio Weslayan University and pro with FC Cincinnati last year. He’s checking out greener pastures in Richmond, but he has two other tryouts bookending this one.
“It’s good to be around the professional environment, just to see how things are run, to play with guys of this quality,” Lee says. “Whether you make it or not.”
Lee had never been to Richmond, but he says he studied history, so he knows a little about the area. He brought his dog this weekend and has explored some parks in his potential new home.
“We try to create a sense of family and I think we’ve done a very effective job,” Ukrop says of building the professional team. Players from across the world become part of a larger Kickers community and of the Richmond region.
He and Cowlishaw have seen it take shape from the beginning. They were part of the original 1993 team — “certainly ragtag, a lot of fun,” Cowlishaw says, “because it was essentially a summer league for college players.”
Leading players came from James Madison University, Old Dominion University, the College of William and Mary. “We weren’t sure who was going to be available for games because guys were working, were finishing up college,” says Ukrop, now 46.
After one game, a player was accidentally left in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ukrop recalls, because no one was really in charge. They were living four guys to an apartment.
A turning point came in 1995.
The Kickers put their name on the map by winning “the double” — the only team to win both the league championship and the U.S. Open Cup against higher division teams. The Kickers remain one of only three teams to win from outside the top division of American soccer in the cup’s 103-year history.
The open nature of the latter tournament means that any team affiliated with the U.S. Soccer Federation has a shot at the championship. The knockout play begins at the local level, so, in theory, an amateur adult league could beat the Kickers one year and advance to play against such teams as D.C. United.
That’s sort of what happened for the Kickers in 1995. They were barely professional, new and hungry, an unknown entity.
“My roommate was paid to send out press releases. I got paid to carry the balls to practice. Another guy to carry the pennies and wash them every night,” Ukrop says. “So we kind of circumvented the rules — we had professional players in this amateur environment.”
He can rattle off the names of those players still: four standouts from the University of Virginia, Jeff Causey, Ben Crawley, Richie Williams and Brian Bates, an All-American from Creighton University, Brian Kamler, and Todd Yeagley.
The Virginia men’s soccer team had won four consecutive national titles from 1991 to 1994. “So at that point, people in Richmond loved U.Va.,” Ukrop says, “there was just that allure of, let’s go watch these guys play.”
Cowlishaw had played for the University of Richmond. And, of course, Ukrop brought name recognition as the son of Robert S. “Bobby” Ukrop, whose father founded the beloved grocery chain and was an executive of the company.
“It was the ultimate melting pot,” Rob Ukrop says.
He remembers the Open Cup final in El Paso, Texas — scorching hot and ending in penalty kicks because of a tie. The momentous season brought national attention to the team — at least in the world of American soccer. Ukrop recalls that eight or nine of those players were quickly scooped up by higher division teams.
The Kickers, and teams like them, become bridges of opportunity for players who aren’t yet ready for Major League Soccer, Ukrop says: “And without the Kickers, that probably would’ve been the end of my journey.”
But 1995 gave the program steam and introduced pro soccer to Richmond audiences. “Without that year,” Ukrop says, “it’d be hard to get to where we are today.”
Ukrop Park, off Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield County, sprawls across several fields, and on a recent weekend it operates at capacity. Youth teams play on every field. Vendors and food tents are bustling. And on the main field, the Kickers pro team is playing its pre-season scrimmage against the University of Virginia.
“This is only about six or seven hours of work,” Kickers general manager Shelley Sowers, 36, says of the setup — “rather than 15 hours work, like a regular season game.”
Watching from behind a goal line of the professional team’s game, there’s a group of about 25 scruffy guys — it’s mostly guys — wearing jerseys and raring to go. But they don’t appear to be quite in playing shape.
“He fakes it like your girlfriend,” they chant, as a U.Va. player is helped up from a tumble. Some people nearby scowl, yelling that there are children around. No one in the special section seems to hear or care. It’s their self-appointed role to heckle.
They’re the Red Army, a rabid group of fans that coalesced a few years ago, an update on an early Kickers fan club, the Cornerkicks. The rowdy bunch — around 75 to 100 strong at a regular season game — bang drums, hassle the ref and other team, set off smoke bombs and basically rabble rouse the entire game.
As member Richard Hayes describes, “We have discussions with the refs and the players, see how their day is going, make sure they’re feeling all right, that sort of stuff.”
The Kickers, without condoning some of the raunchier taunts, has welcomed the army into the Kickers family and helped it grow. They gave the group its own section at City Stadium and on the field of this pre-season game.
“They wanted to put us away from the family section,” Hayes says, “for some obvious reason.”
“They’re part of our fabric,” Ukrop says, crediting them with giving home games a more exciting atmosphere. And the members of the Red Army see themselves as part of the team, biologically linked to their successes and failures.
“We’re consistently one of the better teams,” says Hayes, who started coming when he moved from Washington. His cohorts all support different Major League Soccer and European outfits, but they come together over the local team.
“It’s such a small, intimate affair,” Hayes says. “At other pro games, you’re not going to have people this close to the field. You interact with the team at the level you don’t get to interact with on another level.”
Mikey Garbett has a tattoo of the Kickers logo and says he’s missed only six games since 1995 — an admission that draws boos of faux-shame from his friends.
“You can see how far along the team has come. There’s a lot more strategy now than there was then,” he says. “Then, you kinda kicked the ball up the field and hoped for the best. It was slightly above high-school level.”
The fan base has grown from a few guys in the corner to a whole section strong, Garbett says. The Red Army even showed up to a City Council meeting in December to support the Kickers’ new lease on City Stadium — which council unanimously approved.
The Red Army is hearty and growing. The beer truck that the Kickers starting bringing to games a few years ago didn’t hurt.
“And it’s a really neat vibe now,” Inge says, likening games to a community festival. “And it’s brought in the millennials, frankly, who live in the Fan, walkable from Carytown.”
Games average 4,000 to 4,500 people, with a record of 6,123 at a game last season. The growth in attendance also comes from the youth league, which formed in 2000 and later merged with other local youth soccer clubs. Around 7,000 girls and boys play on recreational and travel teams from age 4 through high school. The club offers more than $100,000 in scholarships to children who can’t afford the fees, Ukrop says, and soccer programs for special needs kids.
The Kickers Youth Soccer Club now fully owns the professional team. The arrangement is atypical in America but normal in Europe, where the youth leagues can funnel talented players all the way up to the pros.
“We view our structure as a pyramid,” Inge says. “We have a very large youth league that supports the play and soccer all over town.”
Pro players coach youth league teams, which, in turn, bring families of the youth league out to pro games.
The structure came about around six years ago, Ukrop says, when two early investors in the team, his father, Bobby Ukrop, and restaurateur Dick Ripp, were looking to get out of the sports ownership business.
The youth team took over.
“We run it as a break-even proposition,” Ukrop says. “We don’t want the youth club funding the professional team, but from a sponsorship opportunity and the relationships, there’s a lot of synergy there.”
Without providing specifics, Inge says that whatever small amount the pro team earns goes back to the charity, scholarship side of the nonprofit.
“Part of the challenge is, Leigh and I, when we first started in ’93, we were doing clinics in the city,” Ukrop says. “People were like, ‘You don’t need soccer here.’ It’s just basketball, football. But you’re starting to see the profile of soccer raised.”
The youth league capitalizes on soccer’s growing popularity and builds a future fan base for the professional team.
If Ukrop Park is the training ground, City Stadium is the old and trusted battlefield.
Built in 1929 on a property that once housed a brick making factory, the half-circle of seats was meant to be a whole circle, but the Great Depression and World War II left it half finished, according to a 1948 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. It was once used for car racing, and various football teams have played there. From 1983 until 2009, the University of Richmond leased it for $1 from the city for its men’s football games.
In 1995 the Kickers started using the University of Richmond Stadium, as it was known then. But when the university built a stadium on campus, the Kickers starting signing yearly license agreements with the city.
There’s a deep love among fans and the team for the historic, unique character of the stadium. Garbett played there when he attended Thomas Jefferson High School, which uses it as its home field. Ukrop recalls watching football there in the 1970s as a child. So what does that mean for its renovation?
“We’d like to maintain the character,” Ukrop says, “but get it up into what a sports venue looks like in 2017.”
The concrete half-circle that seats 8,000 will stay. But the metal stands to the east will come down. New bathrooms, locker rooms, a VIP area, a press box and various cosmetic changes also are on the wish list.
Ukrop and Inge say they’re still working out the funding specifics — a public capital campaign, private donors, naming opportunities — they just know they won’t need any public money.
And they plan to use the stadium for earned income, renting it out for more events and festivals. “We’ll use the facility in part to develop the facility,” Inge says.
Residents of the neighborhood, many of whom have been around for decades, run the gamut from indifferent to enthusiastic. “No Parking during stadium events” signs dot the streets, and residents suggest that was the only problem they used to have.
“The neighborhood has been fantastic,” Inge says. “You’re talking about a stadium in people’s neighborhood. Of course, when they bought, they knew it was there, but we went to some community meetings and it was 100-percent positive.”
The stadium changes also come just in time for an upgrade to team play. The Kickers’ league is moving to Division II, a worldwide designation that brings more money and competition.
Locally, CBS-6 signed a deal to air the team’s 17 home and away games this year. They play 32 total — half at City Stadium — starting Saturday, March 25. The regular season opener against the Harrisburg City Islanders follows a pre-season game Wednesday, March 15.
One of the Kickers’ new players, Evan Lee, will be there. After showing up for the recent tryouts, the Ohioan was signed for a year and moved to Richmond last month. He played in the pre-season opener against Virginia.
“One of the biggest differences is probably just the speed of play and the size and strength of the people,” he says. “You’re playing against grown men at this point, 30-year-old men with a lot of experience. It’s a big adjustment.”
The time commitment is six or seven hours a day, but Lee has found time to explore the city, taking his dog to Belle Isle.
He’s already a home team player. S