The inaugural game for Memphis 901 FC was Saturday, and I had the opportunity to watch a little bit of history being made in Tennessee on a clear, gorgeous evening in downtown Memphis. Nothing was going to spoil the party that was the debut game for Memphis 901 FC. Well, nothing except the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Memphis 901 FC was founded on January 8, 2018 and is co-owned by a group including Peter Freund, Craig Unger, and former USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard (a long-time Memphis resident). Nobody was really sure how well soccer would work in Memphis because it had been tried several times before with limited success. The Memphis Rogues played in the old NASL for three years before they were sold and moved to Calgary. In 2016, Memphis City FC started play in the NPSL, but in two seasons never made much in the way of headlines. But the USL was willing to take a chance on Memphis. And if the home opener is a sign of things to come, it was a smart decision.
Before Memphis 901 FC even kicked a ball, there was a test run as on September 1, 2018 (901 Day in Memphis) when AutoZone Park played host to an exhibition. Tim Howard, being a co-owner of the team, was a driving factor behind it as his current club team, the Colorado Rapids of MLS, played the Tulsa Roughnecks of the USL. It was a smashing success as the 10,000 seat baseball stadium (AutoZone Park is home to the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) was almost full to the brim with 8,957 fans who saw the Rapids win a 3-2 thriller.
Over the months, the roster was pieced together starting with the coaching staff. Tim Mulqueen was named manager in August of 2018. Mulqueen has been an assistant coach at a variety of clubs and levels in American soccer, having served as a goalkeeper coach for the old New York/New Jersey MetroStars in MLS (now the New York Red Bulls) as well as the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City). He was also the goalkeeping coach for the US U-23 team during 2004 Olympic qualification and at the 2008 Olympics. Mulqueen is credited by Tim Howard for launching his playing career as it was Mulqueen who waived training fees so that Howard could train from the age of 12. Mulqueen also scored a coup of sorts with the hire of his primary assistant: Ben Pirmann of Detroit City FC, who posted a 49-17-17 (W-L-D) record in his time at the club.
The personnel on the field is quite varied. Jeff Caldwell and Abdi Mohamed were both signed from New York City in MLS. Leston Paul, Triston Hodge, and Ewan Grandison were all signed from clubs in Trinidad & Tobago. A total of nine players were signed from other USL clubs. There was even a player signed straight out of college as Morgan Hackworth came to Memphis from the University of Akron. The fascinating thing about Hackworh is that he is the son of John Hackworth, former coach of the Philadelphia Union in MLS and currently the coach of Louisville City, the two time defending USL champions and potential big rival for Memphis.
Not only were moves made on the bench and on the field, but also in the broadcast booth and on the merchandising fronts. Many fans rejoiced as a staple in the Memphis media was recently brought on board. Pete Pranica has been calling Memphis Grizzlies games on FOX Sports South since 2004, and the announcement of his addition to the organization sent waves of excitement among sports fans in town. In the booth with him is JJ Greer, former USL player and son of legendary local sports anchor Jarvis Greer (who used to do commentary for the Rogues back in the day). The club also struck a deal with the CW30 to broadcast all home games. In regards to merchandise, the team’s home jerseys were released this week with the name of Terminix across the front with a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patch on the back and a Silky O’Sullivan’s patch on the sleeve.
The supporters group for the team is called the Bluff City Mafia. They currently have 154 members, and Scotty Smith expects there to be more. “It’s not bad for a basketball city,” Smith, the host of the 901 Soccer Podcast, said. “We’re starting to make some noise both literally and figuratively in this town. And we feel like people are starting to wake up to soccer in Memphis.” The night before the game, a number of the supporters gathered at the Brass Door, the home of the Bluff City Mafia as well as the American Outlaws. Song sheets were passed around, scarves were handed out and the schedule for the next day was relayed to everybody. The stage was set for Memphis to finally make some waves in the soccer world.
The debut of Memphis 901 FC got off to an inauspicious beginning however. The gates opened at 4:30 for a 6:00 kickoff but the lines to get in were quite long and were moving a little slower than a snail’s pace. I personally got in line at 5:27 but did not get into the stadium until 6:04 just as the game was kicking off. On the field, things weren’t much better as Memphis conceded a penalty that Sebastian Guenzatti promptly dispatched and found themselves down 1-0 in just the 3rd minute. Memphis really only threatened once the rest of the first half and went into the break still down 1-0. The second half was better from Memphis as they created one or two more chances but they never really tested John McCarthy in the Tampa Bay goal as the Rowdies got out of town with the three points and a 1-0 win.
The result may not have gone the way the players or the fans wanted but there is now no denying that Memphis can support soccer and support it well. The crowd for this game was an impressive 8,062, and they brought the noise. Several of the stadium workers remarked about how loud it was (there are several sections of the stadium with a small roof overhead, which probably helps to hold in the noise) The tricky thing now for the team is to start winning because as the old saying in the city goes, “Memphis will always support a winner.” All the pieces seem to be in place for Memphis to succeed. Opening night didn’t go their way but there is a lot of hope and belief that this time around, soccer is here to stay in Memphis.