By Special Contributor Jon Singer
OKLAHOMA CITY — As the summer of 2013 comes to an end, more and more Oklahomans are becoming excited for football season, except it’s not the kind of football that many Oklahomans are accustomed to. Here in the States, we call it soccer.
After Oklahoma City’s first season in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League there has been a lot of buzz about soccer in the state. Oklahoma City FC [Football Club], or Oklahoma City’s soccer team, competed in the PDL for the first time this summer. They played in the Mid-South Division of the Southern Conference, finishing third with an 8-2-4 record.
Most of the team members are between the ages 18-23. With a 26-man roster, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma contributed 13 total players and coaches. In fact, USAO’s head coach Jimmy Hampton also led the Oklahoma City FC this season.
Along with Hampton, USAO assistant Tony Orsi helped coach the league. USAO coaches Alexis Vizarelis and Tommy Hubbard and several current USAO starters were among athletes on the roster.
Hampton said this first season will have implications to the state for years to come.
“We hope the PDL is the first step in bringing professional soccer to our community and having a successful year only solidified the fact that we can compete at the next level,” Hampton said. “Any time you can get the best talent together to represent the city and sport, it allows our youth to aspire to greater things.”
Former USAO starter Niall Crick, a two-time NAIA All-American, three-time All-Conference winner and twice a Scholar Athlete at USAO, highlights the popularity Oklahoma City FC received this season.
“We averaged 2,000 fans per game this year as a first year program, which ranked in the top 10 across the country,” Crick said. “The majority of those fans were young kids and it will only help to grow their interest in soccer.”
Hampton said his experience coaching top athletes at USAO helped him transition to the PDL.
“Dealing with senior level athletes from all over the world on a daily basis at USAO really prepared me to do the same thing at FC OKC,” Hampton said. “They are similar types of young men and players from all over, but USAO provided me with the experience to manage these types of players.”
Crick found himself playing alongside former teammates during his summer in the PDL.
“USAO is without a doubt a national powerhouse in the NAIA conference and now with our players proving they can compete at the next level with NCAA Division I players, this should stop all doubts about our worthiness,” Crick said. “The PDL is traditionally dominated by NCAA Division I players and for us to be able to compete and beat most other sides we faced with a squad filled with mainly NAIA players was proof that there isn’t much difference in the two conferences.”
Crick, who is originally from Leith, Scotland, also was quick to point out how important it is for him to represent USAO while playing for Oklahoma City FC.
“I love USAO, it has become my home away from home so I always try to represent it as best I can wherever I go,” said Crick, who currently serves as an admissions counselor for the college.
Being the coach of both squads, Hampton understands just how vital it is for him to represent not only USAO and Oklahoma City FC, but also the entire community.
“In every avenue I work in the soccer community, it is very important how I represent USAO,” Hampton said. “USAO is a top university in the academic and athletic venue, and we hold ourselves to the highest standard to continue to meet the expectations set by President John Feaver and the faculty … Our involvement with FC OKC as USAO staff only brings positive publicity and recognition to USAO.”
Crick said making a difference to the soccer community in Oklahoma has been so important to him personally.
“I was one of the players who helped build this thing,” he said. “Soon, very soon, there will be a professional soccer team in Oklahoma City and even if I’m not involved, I will still always know that I helped to bring it here in a small way.”
Hampton also mentioned his favorite aspect of being the coach of the team was the fact that he helped plant the seed.
“Being a small part of hopefully bringing pro soccer to our community is amazing,” Hampton said.
And not unsurprising in a state that loves sports, the PDL was well received by the community.
“The fans are passionate, loyal and always supportive of your efforts. I have never experienced a true soccer fan base,” Crick said. “OKC is in such a great position right now to put itself as a hotbed for soccer. With the Thunder being the only current professional organization, the fans are ready to support soccer.”
“If it happens the way it should, then the youth of OKC will be more engaged in the game but more importantly will have ample opportunity to watch and to work with professionals,” he added.
After a successful first year, Hampton and Crick are adamantly optimistic about Oklahoma City FC and the sport of soccer in the community and state.
“It will give our youth the chance to see soccer at the highest level up close and hopefully inspire them to reach those levels,” Hampton said. “It will give our collegiate players a chance to continue their careers after college.”