On the first truly cool Sunday in South Mississippi, they arrived sporadically to the Kroc Center’s parking lot. Some carpooled. Others arrived alone.
They pulled on their black warmups, tied tight their colorful cleats and began warming up without much fanfare.
While a handful of staffers began prepping Yankie Stadium for Biloxi City FC’s first official home match as a member of the Gulf Coast Premier League, the players stretched, passing shiny new soccer balls back and forth, scuffing and smudging them for the first time.
Sunday marked a new day for soccer on the Gulf Coast with the home debut of the Blackjacks.
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The newly formed “elite amateur” soccer team competed to a 3-3 draw at CD Montagua of New Orleans a week prior, but Sunday was their first time on home soil.
As the gates opened — free for the debut — fans gradually began trickling through. Some youth soccer players curiously walked out to the pitch with autograph books in hand, holding them out for signatures while the players went through their warmup routines.
The men’s soccer team is as much a reflection of the soccer community as it is the Coast, with members holding varying professions from nurses and coaches to laborers and entrepreneurs.
The team’s roster boasts 15 nationalities, ticking off Venezuela, France, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico and the United States, among others. Ages range from early 20s to 40s, with experience also spanning college to semi-professional veterans.
“It’s wide-ranging and a diverse bunch,” said Biloxi City FC vice president Luke Berry, who is from England.
Along with partners Bradley Pacher and Efren Flores, the trio decided to get the club, set up as a nonprofit, as an alternative for the Coast’s soccer community.
“The team came about because there has been a lack of (soccer), I suppose. We’re trying to grow adult soccer. There’s a lot of youth soccer and we wanted to have something for the kids to come cheer on, a local sports team. Obviously the Shuckers are just down the road, so we’re the soccer half.
“We’re trying to be the adult team for the Coast.”
By opening kickoff Sunday, a solid crowd had filled both sets of metal bleachers that flank the field’s press box.
As a member of the GCPL, the Blackjacks have a unique opportunity. The top two teams from the fifth-division league will qualify for the annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is a knockout style cup competition and the oldest ongoing soccer competition in America. While the GCPL is among the lower ranks of the competition, the field ranges all the way to Major League Soccer.
“The Open Cup is really the big pull of being in a league like this. It means we’re able to go and face some serious opposition. The top two teams from this league will go through to the U.S. Open Cup qualifiers,” Berry said. “The actual potential is you might get to face MLS opposition. To get there might be quite difficult, but that’s the idea. That’s why the Open Cup is such a great cup and has been around for so many years. That’s our aim and what we’re in this league for. … That’s where we’re hoping to get to.”
As Sunday’s game got under way, both Biloxi City FC and Shreveport Rafters FC traded scoring chances. As the first half wound down, the visitors began to ramp up the pressure only to take a 0-0 draw into halftime.
The GCPL is considered an “elite amateur” league, one step below the fourth division semi-professional teams.
Several times during Sunday’s match, Blackjacks were taken to the turf by hard tackles.
After writhing on the ground in pain, they’d gingerly get to their feet and carry on with the play.
A mix of professionals, each Blackjack has a delicate balance to consider when suiting up.
“It is a risk for a lot of these people. A lot of the guys on the team rely on going home and being able to get up the next day and work 12 hours to be able to put food on the table,” said Patrick Harrison, an assistant coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “It’s definitely a risk we take, but it’s definitely for the passion of the game.”
Jose Villegas is from Venezuela. He previously played at Tyler (Texas) Junior College and William Carey and now works on the Coast.
“For me, I’m 37 about to turn 38, so I’m one of the oldest kids in this. It feels good to be 38 and still play,” he said. “I’ve played in NPSL and all that. I’ve played above already so for me it’s just keep myself in shape and keep playing until I can’t.”
Growing the sport
Biloxi City FC took the 1-0 lead in the 65th minute. Michael Cooper unleashed a long-range shot from the left side that the keeper couldn’t catch up to. Shreveport Rafters FC drew even during the stoppage time. Shortly after fans began yelling for time to be called, the visitors tied the game during a scramble in front of the net. The unlucky stoppage-time goal drew the ire from the home fans, but capped an otherwise exciting home debut.
The Blackjacks hope the strong start leads to more.
Berry said if the team can make it through its first year, it will go a long way toward validating the team.
“We don’t have a lot of soccer down here. We don’t have a team in close proximity that we can go watch or play with,” Harrison said. “The closest thing we have is a Sunday league. The fact we finally have our own team here on the Coast, I think that helps a lot. A lot of these guys have been looking and waiting for a team to play for and now we finally have it.”
Biloxi City FC returns to Yankie Stadium on Dec. 3 against Boca FC Knights for a 3 p.m. start and will host the L.A. Fire on Dec. 11 before visiting Cajun Soccer Club in Lafayette, Louisiana, on Dec. 17. For a full schedule and more information, visit BiloxiCityFutbolClub.com.
Dec. 3 vs. Boca FC Knights, 3 p.m.
Dec. 11 vs. LA Fire, 3 p.m.
Dec. 17 at Cajun Soccer Club