Is Augusta ready for some futbol?
Atlanta lawyer Alec Papadakis and local businessman Brad Usry think so. They begin the quest to prove it when Augusta's newest sports franchise debuts tonight in New Orleans.
The FireBall United, of the United Soccer League's Premier Development League, face the Shell Shockers on the road. On June 5, the FireBall make their home debut against the Carolina Dynamo at 5 p.m. at Patriots Park.
Why should we care? Because this endeavor has the chance of becoming an important foundation in the community - much more so than any previous sports franchise in the CSRA other than the Masters Tournament.
It starts with a simple mission.
"The most important thing is for us to prove ourselves that we are worthy of the attention of the local people," said Papadakis, the team president.
When it comes to selling soccer in America, that's no easy task. A sport the rest of the world embraces is merely a niche attraction in the United States. We tend to play it as kids and discard it as adults. Our disposable income is spent elsewhere.
But Papadakis, a former player for the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Chiefs, has a vision that involves extending that youthful fascination by providing opportunities beyond the summer recreation leagues and high school pitches. It's a vision that might mean more collegiate scholarships for local soccer players and more national exposure. It's a vision that could be a real boon for the region and pay dividends for years to come.
"I believe that Augusta has the potential of becoming a place where soccer becomes an important part of the youth athletics," Papadakis said. "It's the right environment to become a national player in youth soccer."
That is why of all the local franchise endeavors, this has the potential to be the most worthy. The reason is that it has the potential to become a real part of the community - and not just something to break the monotony of a summer evening.
The FireBall is just the start of a broad-based USL infusion that could transform the future of youth soccer and provide genuine opportunities for local players to develop and prosper.
To that end, Papadakis hopes to bring two more USL entities to Augusta as soon as next year - the W-League and the Super Y. The W-League is the women's counterpart to the PDL. The Super Y is a national league for boys and girls ages 13 through 19 and serves as an Olympic team development program. With all that can come foundation grants to help build a soccer-specific facility and attract national coaches for clinics and camps.
"This is the opening of the door slightly for a few more things," Papadakis said. "Put all those things together, and slowly but surely we can establish ourselves in Augusta for some nice programs that can really benefit the youth of Augusta. It takes a village to do something, and will take a lot of effort from a lot of people."
Convincing Augustans of soccer's merits will take more effort than is required of the city's minor-league diversions - baseball's GreenJackets and hockey's Lynx. The FireBall are something else entirely. It will not have Two-fer Tuesdays, Thirsty Thursdays or frequent fisticuffs to entice the local populace to its alcohol-free games in Columbia County.
The foundation it hopes to build upon is family and future.
"Soccer fans are the most passionate fans and there are more youth soccer players than any other sport because it runs both genders," said Usry, the team's general manager, whose primary occupation is running Fat Man's Forest. "That youth is the real foundation of our fan base."
Papadakis, Usry and FireBall coach Massoud Roushandel certainly have vested interests in this inaugural team. All of them have sons playing. Justin Papadakis is a goalie from Duke. Havird Usry is a defenseman from Clemson via Richmond Academy. Ryan Roushandel is a midfielder at Clemson.
They will join Wake Forest signee Cline Beam of Richmond Academy and 16 other unpaid young collegians on the FireBall roster. The core of Augusta's team comes from a club team in Atlanta that won national championships the past two years.
"This team is loaded with terrific players," Papadakis said. "These were probably the most heavily recruited kids in the country about a year ago."
The FireBall United got such a late start that it's not eligible to contend for any championships this summer in the 54-team international league. But that doesn't mean it isn't playing for something.
"It's a chance to establish some roots," Papadakis said
How those roots grow is up to the community. The FireBall will bring in portable bleachers that seat 1,200 to Patriots Park for the home games. How full those stands get is anybody's guess. With season tickets costing $20 for six games or $5 at the gate, they're not asking for much.
Papadakis isn't worried about numbers. He's worried about making the right first impression.
"We are going to have to prove ourselves as part of the community and play quality soccer," he said. "If we can accomplish those goals I think people will come."
Is Augusta ready for some futbol? For its own good, the answer needs to be yes.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.