Painting Little Rock Yellow: The UPSL Expands in Arkansas

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There has been tremendous growth for soccer in Arkansas within the last five years. Prior to 2016, soccer in Arkansas went from youth to adult recreation leagues. Collegiate athletes went out of state to stay fit during offseason, most youth lost interest in the game all together and rowdy passionate supporter groups were unheard of. That is, until, the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) expanded into Little Rock in 2016 and, a year later, saw another expansion into Northwest Arkansas. Earlier this summer it was announced that Little Rock would be getting a second semi-professional soccer club, Arkansas Wolves FC, this time with an expansion of the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).

SHARING THE CITY

With the multiple soccer levels in the U.S. it is not uncommon to see a city with different clubs in different leagues. For instance, Denton, Texas has the Denton Diablos (NPSL) and FC Denton (UPSL), Milwaukee, Wisconsin has the Milwaukee Torrent (NPSL) and Bavarian SC (UPSL). Larger cities like St. Louis, Missouri has clubs in the USL (Saint Louis FC), UPSL (St. Louis Maritas), NPSL (Stl Club Atletico) and was just awarded a Major League Soccer expansion. In each of these cities there was always the first club - the one that captured the city’s support first, the one with the first established fanbase and supporter group. The club(s) that followed had to establish themselves within the community and build their own place in the city. For Sean Paul Jones, Owner of Arkansas Wolves FC, he wants the soccer community of Little Rock to know he is not stepping on what the Rangers have accomplished since their launch and wants the city to join him in continuing the growth and development of Arkansas soccer.

“We are not trying to replace the Rangers or divide the city between fanbases. We love and support what the Rangers have done and are continuing to do,” Jones said. “We are simply adding to the great work that not just the Rangers, but all the clubs around Arkansas, have put in over the years.”

With the Rangers playing in the NPSL and Wolves FC playing in the UPSL, the clubs will not be in direct competition with each other as there are quite a few differences between the two leagues. For starters the UPSL and NPSL play in different seasons. The NPSL typically plays its regular season May – July with playoffs following, whereas, the UPSL has both a Fall and a Spring season. What does this mean for Little Rock? Year-Round Soccer.

“This can and will only benefit soccer in Arkansas,” Jones said. “As a coach, we were always encouraging our youth players to watch more soccer and become immersed in it as much as possible.”

Jones added that bringing in more high-level soccer for the youth players to watch, learn from, support and having players serve as role models is “absolutely crucial to their development and the growth of soccer not only in Arkansas but in the U.S.”

BUILT ON PASSION

Wolves FC was built from the pure passion of the game that filled Jones at a very young age. Jones, originally from South Africa, has been a significant influence in Central Arkansas through his impact on soccer development with several local clubs.

Jones will also be a player for the club as he anticipates contributing both on and off the pitch. Starting the game at the young age of four, Jones developed his playing career to the D1 level with a top club in Johannesburg. Jones was later chosen along with three other players to travel to England where he trained with both Ipswich Town and Manchester City before following his family to the United States.

“I have always had this intense desire burning within me to teach and grow the game, just as much as I love playing the game,” Jones said.

In addition to Arkansas’s youth having another club to support, several players of Wolves FC have already had a direct influence on them through personal connections.

“Some of us are also coaches for local clubs here so I think its pretty cool for them [the youth] to be able to see what we can do on the pitch and show them the opportunities they too can have,” Dylan Perdue, Wolves Goalkeeper, said.

UPSL vs NPSL

The decision to join the UPSL was an obvious choice for Jones as Little Rock already had an NPSL club. Jones was also drawn to the Promotion and Relegation (Pro/Rel) System that the UPSL has, which was very familiar to him from playing overseas. This is where the top 3 clubs in the Second Division get promoted to the First Division and the bottom 3 clubs in the First Division get relegated to the Second Division. This is another criterion that sets the UPSL and NPSL apart.

Although the Wolves qualified for Division I, the club has chosen collectively to begin their inaugural season in Division II and earn their way to the First Division through promotion.

“The decision to start in DII was to build a deeper connection within the city as we earn our promotion with our supporters, making the achievement much more personal,” Jones said.

Now that the goal has been set to finish top of the table and get promoted to the First Division there is a lot of hunger and excitement surrounding the rest of the players.

“With being a new club, we need to prove ourselves to the city, our conference and the league,” Perdue said. “I know the UPSL has some tough teams that will give us great competition and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”

“From the first day we [the club] set our No. 1 goal of winning Promotion into the First Division,” Regis Mawire, Wolves Midfielder, added. “We know our purpose as a team and are committed to showing up ready to work and get better each training to prepare for a successful season.”

ROCK TOWN DERBY

Although the Wolves and Rangers are not direct competitors, with playing different seasons and leagues, the real likelihood of a Little Rock Derby would typically only be feasible in a friendly. However, even that appears slim due to majority of Rangers’ players returning to their collegiate teams during the Fall – which is when the Wolves begin their season. Regarding the Spring season, as the Rangers prepare to rebuild their squad for the coming NPSL season, the Wolves would be right in the thick of the UPSL’s dual season structure.

Although it appears a friendly is not probable, as of now - until the conditions are right for both clubs, the two could still possibly face off in the U.S. Open Cup as the UPSL can earn qualifications into the tournament along with the NPSL.

Rangers qualified for the 2019 U.S. Open Cup after their success in the 2018 season. The qualification alone was a huge achievement for the city of Little Rock which held a more massive impact once they [the Rangers] earned home field advantage, however, the Rangers fell in the first round with a loss to the NTX Rayados on penalties.

A head to head with the Wolves and the Rangers in the U.S. Open Cup would be a tremendous achievement that would have the city of Little Rock buzzing once more. Although this scenario too, would need the right conditions and even a bit of luck to make this a realty, however, it sure makes for a fun discussion to dream about.

THE INAUGURAL PREVIEW

The Wolves will begin their inaugural season in September as they compete in the North Red River Division II of the Central Conference. With a total of 12 matches, the club will play 6 home matches this Fall in Little Rock at Scott Field, which has the capacity to hold 4,000 fans.

“Finding a venue like this was imperative to us,” Jones said. “Scott Field is a perfect fit as it is centrally located within the city and convenient for our supporters. We are incredibly thankful to the administrators and athletic department of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) for allowing us to use their complex.”

Also in the North Red River Division II is Tulsa Athletic’s U20 squad, Tyler FC, Dallas City FC and FF Premier. Tulsa, Tyler and Dallas also have squads in the NPSL.

- Nichole Singleton