At around 5:30 p.m. yesterday, a handful of soccer fans milled around Molly Malone’s in the Highlands. By 6:30, the place was standing room only, filled with scarf-wearing, pint-clutching Louisville Coopers.
Why? Because professional soccer might be coming to Louisville as early as 2015, and a group of 1,000-plus local soccer enthusiasts – who have dubbed themselves the Louisville Coopers, named after bourbon barrel makers – are champing at the bit.
Owners of Orlando City Soccer Club, a United Soccer Leagues (USL) team from Florida, yesterday met with potential investors as well as Mayor Greg Fischer to discuss moving the team here before attending a reception at the Irish pub that felt more like a rally.
According to Phil Rawlins, a co-owner of Orlando City, the discussion with the mayor went well, saying Fischer was “very supportive.”
Rawlins is an English IT entrepreneur and board member of the English Premier League’s Stoke City FC. Other owners include Flavio Da Silva, a Brazilian businessman, and John Bonner, a British businessman and venture capitalist, who also was in attendance last night.
“I think it’s a great marketplace,” Rawlins said of Louisville in an interview prior to the event. “It’s a great demographic. It’s a good size. There’s a lot of youth soccer here, too.”
Wayne Estopinal, owner of TEG Architects and part owner of Mockingbird Valley Soccer Club here in Louisville, also is part owner of Orlando City and a longtime business partner of Rollins and his group. When Orlando City won its bid for a Major League Soccer team, which begins play in 2015, it was a natural choice to move the USL club to Louisville.
The current intent would be for the yet-to-be-named team to play at Slugger Field, which has a capacity of just over 13,000, and would provide about 10,000 seats when configured for a soccer match. The pitch would run parallel to the first base line.
“Unfortunately for the opposing goal keeper,” Estopinal told the packed room, “the visiting goal would be under the beer garden.”
Rawlins, upon taking the stage, was handed a blue and yellow Louisville Coopers scarf, which he donned before continuing. He emphasized that much of the initiative to move the USL team to Louisville is in the discussion stages.
“This will not be a fast process,” he said. “It won’t happen by next week. We will work diligently and get answers as fast as we can.”
Still, Rawlins said, the goal is to begin play in 2015 – a statement which drew huge applause from the eager Coopers and other attendees. The plan is for the Louisville team to be a minor league-style affiliate to the Orlando MLS team, much as the Louisville Bats are to the Cincinnati Reds.
“Let’s give young players something to aspire to,” he said. “Let’s give them a role model – give them something to play for.”
At one point, Rawlins guaranteed there would be an MLS relationship with the Louisville club, if indeed it becomes a reality, a statement which also drew loud applause.
One fan in attendance asked, “What would the road blocks be to moving the team here tonight?”
“Tonight?” Rawlins said. “Um, that I’ve only had one beer?”
This drew laughter, and Rawlins continued, “It’s really a case of just working through the details. There aren’t any big road blocks.”
Mayor Fischer, in response to a Facebook post by a soccer fan, said:
I … look forward to seeing what all the pieces are to make pro soccer happen in the ’Ville. Let’s see what we all learn and go from there. I think you know that I am a sports enthusiast, but we need to understand the financial implications from all these deals. … We need to understand the demand from both the hardcore and casual potential ticket buyers.
Fischer also pointed out that an important step in the process has already been achieved – the fan support is in place.
Taylor Sorrels is one of four people who sat down in a coffee shop last September and decided to do something about bringing professional soccer to Louisville; this was the birth of the Louisville Coopers. By the time an official launch event took place in December, the number had grown to 400. By the time yesterday’s event began, it was pushing toward 1,050.
“These are the guys you might find at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday at a local bar watching a Premier League match,” he said, “[or] people gathered at Los Aztecas watching Liga MX games on Sunday afternoons, as well as folks involved in youth soccer in Louisville and elsewhere in Kentucky.”
One thing most agree upon is that there is a zeal to soccer fandom that is unparalleled worldwide. For example, the Coopers had set up a merch table in Molly Malone’s and were quickly selling T-shirts and scarves – for a team that doesn’t even exist yet. That’s passion.
Coopers marketing and PR representative John Fish attended the USA vs. Mexico U.S. Cup qualifying match last year, and described it as, “Unrealistically insane. It was the best live event I have ever been to in my entire life.”
“I think there is a passion that exists in soccer,” added Daniel Bright, who attended that match with Fish, “that isn’t there in other sports.”
Estinopal even hinted that an MLS team could be a possibility for the future; Orlando City played three seasons before an MLS franchise was granted.
“I think we’ll prove ourselves,” Estinopal told the throng. “We’ll prove that this market will support this team. … Let’s be a hell of a USL team, and then we’re moving on.”