A Writer's Room of Requirement

A home for the many random insights that cross my mind from time to time.

Archive for the tag “Red Army”

Blinded on the Road to Brazil: My Conversion to Soccer

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I stood shoulder to shoulder with forty of my favorite soccer fans.  The Red Army, the supporters’ group of the Richmond Kickers, our local professional soccer club, had taken over the beer garden just behind the goal at Sports Backers Stadium.  On the field, Richmond played upstart RVA FC in the US Open cup.  The coach and owner of the crosstown team had incensed the Kickers’ fans with negative comments about the team’s history and fan base.  From behind the goal, the Red Army aimed to defend ourselves.  We chanted and sang from whistle to whistle, abusing the coach  – “We don’t hate your players… But your coach is a dick!” – and one particular defender who happened to make a negative challenge too close to our watchful eyes.  We offered constant encouragement to the Kickers and lost our minds every time they scored.  And score they did.  On the field, the Kickers cooly demonstrated the gulf in talent between the tier three USL Pro and the tier four, amateur NPSL.  The Kickers cruised to a 6-1 road victory and claimed the inaugural Richmond Derby in emphatic fashion.

The match, especially the riotous fan support, stands out as one of my better moments as a sports fan.  I love the sense of community and enthusiasm of a well-organized supporters group.  But how did I get here?  I ridiculed soccer players in high school.  How did I become one of the more dedicated soccer fans in one of America’s most soccer crazed cities?

I spent my childhood in an Appalachian corner of America’s Rust Belt.  We only had two sports that meant anything.  I played football and baseball as soon as I learned to run and joined their respective little leagues as soon as I reached the minimum age.  We played basketball in the backyard as a hobby, but we never took it seriously.  Hockey represented a strange oddity from the frozen north.  In that environment, soccer felt completely foreign, almost invasively so.  I doubt I knew the sport existed before I read about Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones in Sports Illustrated for Kids at nine-years-old.  In cloistered West Virginia, foreignness often gets equated with evil, whether intended or not.  I made no exception for soccer.

While I moved to Virginia for middle school and high school, I found different reasons for disparaging the beautiful game.  Unconsciously,  it came to represent the class difference between my family the majority of my community.  Around the world, soccer has a much more populist appeal.  You only need a round ball and a few yards of space to play.  In the States the game has become strangely associated with “soccer moms,” white, upper-middle class suburbanites, a segment especially prone to ignoring the socio-economic issues of American society.  For them soccer became the sanitized alternative to the violent sports and people of the four major American sports.

Brookville High School sat in a community dominated by soccer moms.  I came from the lower middle class.  My grandfathers both worked in steel mills.  My family never had a lot, but we valued education, we worked hard, and we had our pride.  In the advanced courses, the upper middle class surrounded me.  Unlike West Virginia, I became the underprivileged minority.  I resented my classmates for how easy they had it and how little they appreciated what they had.  I resented their united families; my parents’ divorce had preceded the move to Virginia.  I hated their safe conservatism, their cookie cutter homes and businesses.  It reeked of avoiding life.  They had so much to lose, so they risked nothing. And they played soccer.  For me, supporting their passtime equated a traitorous support for the contradictions of American society.

So I ridiculed soccer for not being football.  I criticized soccer for lacking aggression.  Real men hit each other.  Obviously, soccer players were weaker than football players or they would play the true American sport.  Truly, I criticized the upper-middle class for playing it safe in their towers and not engaging the rest of us on our level.  They had their money and their health, but we were the true survivors.  I made these assumptions, but I had one little gap in my understanding of soccer.  I had never watched the game.

The month I graduated from high school, the soccer nations united to play the 2002 World Cup from Korea and Japan.  I don’t remember how it happened, why I turned on the TV to that particular channel at that particular time.  I have always loved having ESPN and other random sports on in the background.  Regardless, I suddenly found myself watching two random countries, countries I had no interest in, countries that have absolutely zero impact on my life in the states, kick a ball back and forth at 2 AM.

I found the sport enthralling.  I loved the constant action.  I never had to wait thirty seconds for another brief play, another solitary pitch, or another set of boring free throws.  The game ran at the speed of modern life.  And contrary to the criticisms often leveled against soccer, I enjoyed the low scores.  It made every goal vitally important.  One moment meant the difference between agony and glory.  Combined with the constant action, that singular moment could come at any time.  I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation of that match defining goal.  These world class players also dispelled my notion of a softer athlete.  They threw their bodies at crosses with no regard for head or limb.  They didn’t need pads to get physical.  They embodied the essence of athleticism as they ran the length of the pitch over and over for a solid ninety minutes.  As I graduated from my suburban high school, I also graduated from the connection between soccer and the American soccer mom.

My new fascination with soccer would lie dormant for the next six or seven years except for the brief interruption of the 2006 World Cup.  During that time, I attended Virginia Tech where I earned my degree in fan support.  Hokies have an extreme dedication to our football team.  Like beleaguered Liverpool fans, over the last twenty-five years the team has flirted with a national championship only to see it slip from our fingers each time.  It only makes us fiercer in our determination to prove ourselves.  Every home game in the fall, whether Saturday afternoon or Thursday night, you could find me studying with the rest of the student section in the feared North End Zone.  I took courses on “Yelling the Entire Time the Defense is on the Field,” “Jangling Your Keys During Third and Fourth Down Stops,” and “Encouraging the Offense to ‘Stick It In.'”  With a collection of talented colleagues I completed my thesis on “How to Paint Your Body Maroon and Orange, Even in the Rain in November.”  We earned honors such as Rivals’ #1 Home Field Advantage in College Football and brief spots on ESPN and an EA Sports video game.  I graduated Cum Laude in more ways than one.

While at Tech, I often used the McComas Gym to stay in shape for my military service.  The gym sat in the same complex that held the soccer field where the men’s and women’s soccer teams competed.  To enter or exit the gym, I often had to walk right past a match.  The sport still intrigued me in so many ways.  Men’s or women’s, I found myself stopping to watch five-, ten-, fifteen-minute stretches of the matches.  I often had other priorities, but I couldn’t turn away from the great action.  In the fall of 2008 during my senior year, I finally sat through an entire live match with a couple of friends as the men’s team faced off against an ACC foe.

The live match planted a seed in my head, “Why was I waiting four years to enjoy soccer again?”  The following spring, only two weeks after I graduated from Tech, I cheered on Barcelona as they vanquished Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final.  At that moment, I knew I had to find a professional team.  It would bridge the gap between the World Cup every four years, the business end of the European soccer season fell during the fallow period for American football, and with my departure from Blacksburg, I would need to find another fan base as maniacal about their team as college football fans in the south.  Only soccer would do.

I just had to pick a team.  I didn’t have the advantages of a growing up with a local club or an evangelist to show me the way to his or her team’s gospel.  So, I did my research.  If I had no local team, I decided I wanted to watch soccer at the highest level – no second rate league would do.  This quickly ruled out MLS.  Also, as a typically monolingual American, I wanted a club I could support fully in a language I understood.  This quickly led me to the English Premier League.  I explored the clubs the best way I knew how, the internet and an old copy of FIFA for the X-box 360.  I found a great article by my favorite columnist, Bill Simmons, as he walked a similar path three years prior.  I sought a team that could win, that would finish every season in the top half of the table without fear of relegation.  I needed a team that could compete with Manchester United.  Above all, I went into my fandom knowing I hated the Red Devils.  If I joined them, I would feel like another bandwagon fan.  I despised the way their championship run smacked of purchased titles.  It reminded me too much of the New York Yankees and their Evil Empire.

Four teams made it to FIFA playing stage: Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Everton.  The first three made it on their reputation as part of the “Big Four,” the teams that routinely competed for English silverware.  Everton made it on the strength of America’s best soccer export, national team goalie Tim Howard.  I took turns playing with each of the four so I could get to know their players and style.  Chelsea fell away first as I learned of their quick rise behind Roman Abramovich’s deep pockets.  Arsenal followed soon after.  I enjoyed their fluid offense, but they had a reputation for choking in the big moments.  They seemed to lack the requisite toughness I expect from my chosen teams.  My choice became a Merseyside Derby.

I let the situation sit for a week or two, but despite my love for “Timmay!” I increasingly couldn’t fathom ever rooting against Liverpool.  It felt too much like home.  Whether for the Cincinnati Reds or the San Francisco 49ers, I have always had a peculiar habit of rooting for teams in red.  Like my 49ers, Liverpool had a long and rich history – they dominated European football in the late-seventies and eighties – but they hadn’t won the league title in two decades.  I got the benefit of tradition without riding a recent championship.  I felt comfortable with the culture of the city.  Liverpool rises up on the English coast, a dirty conglomeration of steel mills, Irish immigrants, and great music.  It brought me back to my rust belt roots.  Best of all, Liverpool and Manchester United fuel arguably England’s greatest rivalry.  During certain periods, the rivalry between the two has meant more than their own local derbies.  Liverpool remain the rebel alliance to Manchester United’s evil empire.  I sealed the decision when I moved to Richmond, VA, shortly thereafter to pursue grad school.  It turns out that Penny Lane Pub, the longtime purveyor of all visual needs EPL in the Richmond area, was founded by a Liverpool immigrant and fan.  Every Saturday, the EPL’s home bar in the RVA filled with fellow Reds.

Richmond provided another great soccer surprise.  The Kickers had called Richmond home since the days before MLS, a rarity considering the history of American soccer.  During that time, the Kickers had demonstrated a fair amount of success, winning four regular season titles and two playoff championships in seventeen seasons throughout the lower divisions of American soccer.  Most impressively, the Kickers had claimed the prestigious US Open Cup in the final tournament before the start of the MLS.  Not long after arriving in town, my brother-in-law invited me to my first match at City Stadium.  I went to the last four or five home matches of the season as the Kickers made a fabulous run to their second USL Championship in four years.  Even as a relatively new fan, I felt overcome with joy as I watched the team clinch on our home field.  They had me.  I’ve bought season tickets every year since.

In many respects, my interest in the Kickers exceeds my interest in Liverpool.  I feel a sense of ownership over my local team.  They represent me and the city I love.  For instance, despite our very beneficial relationship with DC United, I still find it difficult to support the MLS side.  I always remember those heartbreaking losses to DCU in the US Open Cup these last two seasons.  Both times, the Kickers played admirably in City Stadium, pushing Untied to extra time in 2012 and penalty kicks in 2013.  I can’t quite forgive DC for taking that from us.  I hold grudges against random fan bases like Wilmington, just because I happened to sit behind an obnoxious visitor in an opening round playoff loss two years ago.  My Kickers fandom has memory.  Joining the Red Army when RP Kirtland suggested it on behalf of the Kickers late last summer just felt like the next natural step.

This Saturday, I will once again stand in Section O with the Red Army and cheer on our Kickers.  I have learned a few things about my conversion to soccer and I want to share the gospel with others.  When trying to grow American soccer, don’t rush it.  People need time to dispel their old prejudices.  Let the sport speak for itself.  We admire a truly beautiful game that dazzles and excites, whether watching the highest levels from a pub or joining the throng in support of our local professional and college teams.  Above all, keep an open heart.  Through our attitude towards the sport and those outside our supporter’s group, we can either draw new fans in or we can push them away.  I would prefer to have everyone in the Red Army.

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The Richmond Kickers – USL Pro Regular Season Champions

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The Richmond Kickers clenched the 2013 Regular Season Title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs Wednesday night with a 2-0 win over Orlando City.  Despite entering the match as the two-time defending regular season champions of USL Pro and sporting the league’s most prolific offense, Orlando City had no answer for Richmond’s league-leading defense in front of the boisterous crowd of City Stadium.  With another shutout, the Kickers have only allowed 23 goals in 25 matches.

Richmond played its most complete match of the season.  The offense appeared crisp in the first half, sending attempt after attempt into the box.  The Orlando City goalie managed to repulse a few early attacks, before succumbing to the pressure.  Kickers’ all-time leading scorer, Matthew Delicate poked in a loose ball in the 24th minute and added a rocket strike off a perfect cross in the 27th. The Kickers wouldn’t need more than that.

After signing late and recovering from a groin injury earlier in the season, Delicate has regained much of his old form.  He carries the confidence and momentum of four goals in the last two matches into the playoffs.

The wingers also impressed in the first half.  Brian Ownby and Nate Robinson made numerous runs down the flanks and placed a bevy of opportunities into the box.  Orlando City had no answer for the two men.  To keep Orlando further off balance, Head Coach Leigh Colishaw gave Ownby and Robinson the freedom to switch flanks often, providing new looks and chances in the process.

The defense stepped forward in the second half as Richmond tried to preserve its lead and Orlando furiously threw everything they had at goal.  Andrew Dykstra stoned any attempt on goal, seemingly possessed by a vengeful goalie spirit.  He made save after save and drew the continued admiration of the home crowd.  I can’t imagine a hotter goalie than the DC United loan as the playoffs approach.

Dykstra had help.  All league center back William Yomby shut down any number of Orlando City attacks into the box.  He remained unbeatable from start to finish.  He anchors a back line that has landed among the league elite for the last few years.  Team leader and defensive midfielder Michael Callahan also got in on the action.  He blocked a sure goal from point blank range to secure the clean sheet.

Orlando City did have one sure chance.  After a certain dive in the box – at least from the point of view of the nearby Red Army – the referee awarded Orlando City a penalty kick.  However, the taker skied his attempt over the bar drawing shouts of “Ball don’t lie” and chants of “You let the whole team down” from the Kickers’ supporters.

The Red Army made significant strides in the four days between the Orlando City match and the Dayton match.  Their numbers swelled and the fans looked particularly dapper in the free Red Army t-shirts provided by the Kickers’ organization.  The chants felt more cohesive and louder.  The Red Army has begun to find a few favorite chants that it can fall back on during the lulls.  The Kickers appear to have a real supporters group.  Coaches, fans, and players alike appreciate their contribution.  The most telling indicator of the Red Army’s growing popularity: fans moved to the section during the course of the match.  I noticed a father with his two sons, all sporting vuvuzelas, and a pair of twenty-something men drawn to raucous Section O.

Unfortunately, the Red Army has come under scrutiny following allegations of racial abuse.  Orlando City Reserve Kevin Ellis complained to Colishaw following halftime, accusing the Red Army of insulting his race and his mother.  The Red Army denies any such discrimination.

I sat about seven or eight rows back from the Red Army supporters in question during the altercation.  At City Stadium, the fans sit right on top of the players.  Ellis and a reserve goalie passed a ball back and forth on the field in hopes of inclusion into the match during the second half.  They stood maybe ten yards from the wall where the fans sat.

The Red Army fans began heckling the two players.  I could not hear what they said.  However, a short time later Ellis shouted at the fans, threatening a physical attack, potentially murder.  I found his retort classless and reprehensible.  Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Ellis is not completely innocent.

Following Ellis’s outburst, the entire Red Army took up the task of heckling Ellis, but they only commented on his reserve status, indicating that he would start if he had any talent.  Not knowing the racial aspect to the story, I simply assumed the supporters group had managed to get under the skin of a hotheaded player.

After halftime, following Ellis’s accusation, Richmond Kickers intern and Red Army liaison RP Kirtland came down to the section and passionately declared that the Kickers would not tolerate any form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or discrimination of any kind.  I fully support this stance from the Kickers front office.  We want to import the passion of the European football fan, but we can leave their ignorant phobias on the other side of the pond.

In the nature of full disclosure, I did hear one obviously drunk fan in the Red Army try to start a “Monkey” chant during the Dayton game the Saturday prior to the Orlando match.  European fans have used the chant as an insult towards players of African descent.  This is unacceptable.  However, his chant quickly died out when no one else in the red army would support it.   Strangely enough, this same fan tried to start a “F*** Chick-Fil-A for hatin’ on the gays” chant during halftime of the Dayton match in response to the mascot soccer game.

Despite the actions of this one fan, I heard zero instances of discrimination, racial or otherwise, at any time during the Orlando match in question.

The actions of a few fans do not represent the Red Army as a whole.  While discussing the situation with another Kickers season pass holder, she suggested that the personalities most likely attracted to shouting and chanting at football matches, those outgoing early adopters of a more energetic fan culture, likely also have a tendency towards obnoxiousness, a lack of filter between brain and mouth.  As the supporters group grows these fans get drowned out by the more respectful, but no less energetic, desires of the whole.  A larger, more structured Red Army will pull these wayward soldiers into line.

Following the match, Kevin Ellis tweeted about the incident, but deleted the tweets soon after.  One tweet was saved on a Red Army message board:

@Kev_Ellis4: Richmond your fans are trash sayin racial comments and talkin about my mom who died 2 years ago is as low as you can get #congrats @USLPRO

Kickers fans responded to what they perceived as false allegations.

@rvagooner: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO I didn’t hear anything racist. I saw you come over to a fan, point your finger in his face and say “I’ll f**ck you up!”

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO 1) Don’t assume we know your personal history. We don’t. Mom jokes are an easy (if unoriginal) way to get at players.

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO 2) What was racist? We did speak down to you because you were a sub rather than a starter, but nothing was about race.

@britinva: @Kev_Ellis4 @USLPRO That said, sorry the Mom comments caused you pain. And whatever you heard as racist certainly wasn’t intended that way.

I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  The Red Army likely poked a nerve, innocently and without any intent to discriminate, that made Ellis feel particularly uncomfortable given his race and family history.  He lashed out in response.  I hope that Ellis, the Red Army, and the USL can reach a peaceful resolution without soiling the reputation of any and avoid any such repeats of this incident in the future.

Last saturday, Richmond drew 1-1 at Pittsburgh to conclude the regular season.  The Richmond Kickers host the Dayton Dutch Lions this Saturday, August 24th, at 7 PM in City Stadium to begin their journey in the 2013 USL Pro Playoffs.

 

The Growing Pains of a Changing Fan Culture

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I have followed sports since boyhood, but I became a true fan while attending Virginia Tech.  I grew up in the North End Zone of Lane Stadium, encouraging our offense to “Stick it In”, painting myself in maroon and orange on November night games, and yelling at the top of my lungs on every defensive play.  I loved the excitement, passion, and camaraderie of every home game.  Through that place and spirit, I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  I felt truly alive when throwing myself unabashedly into Hokie football.

I fell in love with soccer shortly after graduation because I saw the similarities between the two fan bases.  No other fan group throws itself so wholeheartedly into their sport.  No other group has such a devotion for their team that it borders on religion.  Southeast college football and world football are two brothers separated by an ocean.

My best friend Eric, another Hokie grad, and I attended the Richmond Kickers thrilling 5-2 win over the Dayton Dutch Lions on Saturday night.  Brian Ownby and Matthew Delicate both recorded braces and Richmond came one step closer to securing the regular season title for the first time since 2007.

For the first time, Eric and I sat with Richmond’s official fan group, the Red Army.  We stood for entire halves, we cheered at the top of our lungs, and we sang along with many of the chants the Red Army suggested.  At moments it almost felt like a return to those salad days at Tech.

That said, the Red Army still has plenty or room to grow.  Most obviously, we just need numbers.  We need more than thirty or so fans scattered throughout Section O if we hope to excite the rest of the fans at City Stadium.  To do that we must dispense with the elitism that has become the calling card of the American soccer fan.  The hardcore fan in this country grows the sport with their enthusiasm and chants from behind the goalie at US home games, but then they turn around and scoff at any new fans that join as a result of their demonstration.  I have hardly played a game of organized soccer outside of gym class.  I mocked the varsity team at my high school until my conversion during the 2002 World Cup.  I have only followed Richmond and Liverpool since 2009.  I still have much to learn about the sport and its history, but this does not make my passion for the Kickers any less powerful and real.

On the more local level, we have to quit attacking the “soccer moms” and their families.  During our extended discussions, my wife has made me aware of the vitriol the Red Army showed at Monday’s meeting toward the bread and butter of Richmond’s fan base, the soccer family.  She has a more reserved variety of fandom and she wants to make sure that City Stadium remains a family friendly place.  To accomplish our mission as the Red Army, we must heed her advice.  We must encourage and coax the families to stand chant and cheer, we cannot accuse and berate.  I believe these families and children would enjoy chanting and waving flags, but perhaps we can compromise on less family friendly tools such as smoke and flares.  Above all, we must create chants that are clean, simple, and fun.

We also need a better way to translate those cheers and traditions to the masses.  At Tech, the upperclassmen and Alumni already knew the chants by heart.  A few freshmen stumbling though them in the early part of the season didn’t detract from the overall effect.  We had time to learn on the job.  In this situation, the Red Army must try to teach the rest of City Stadium when we do not fully know ourselves.  Though seemingly antiquated now, it quickly becomes obvious why schools found cheerleaders necessary in the early years of college football.  Now I certainly don’t believe the Kickers need cheerleaders, skirts and all, but we need a way to dispense information.  A few ideas come to mind.  Someone could create songs during the week and post the lyrics or videos of their performance on the Kickers website and Facebook prior to matches.  We could have Kickeroo (not my favorite part of Kickers’ games) or the Red Army lead the crowd in cheering practice in the half hour prior to the match or during halftime.  The Kickers could even devote a small corner of the roster sheet handed out at the gate to a “Chant of the Week.”

Even with that, for the Red Army to work cohesively with the rest of the Richmond fan base, we need the true Kickers fans to stand up.  We owe many thanks to the DC United and US Soccer fans that have taken the lead in organizing and inspiring the Red Army, but I seek people that, like myself, are Kickers fans first.  Honestly, I hate DC United.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Dykstra and the other loans, but I want nothing more than to defeat United.  I am sick of losing to them in extra time or PKs in the Open Cup.  I am sick of the big brother attitude they take towards us.  I am from Richmond.  That makes me a Kickers fan first.

But more than just removing divided loyalties, a sense of true fandom brings about a degree of accountability.  In any fan group you have a few miscreants, but Eric noted how we felt a certain responsibility as Virginia Tech fans.  Even with copious amounts of alcohol, we kept our bearing because we represented our university and the town of Blacksburg.  True Richmond fans can drink until they’re feisty, cheer loudly, and create a great atmosphere for everyone without venturing into obnoxiousness.

I do not seek to over-criticize the small steps that the Red Army has taken.  I witnessed one of my coolest moments as a Kickers fan Saturday night.  After the final whistle blew, the entire team came over to our small section and offered applause and an extended hand.  They cheered us for a job well done as we continued to serenade them to the last.  That moment defines fan interaction, the brief second when the team and the fans become truly one.

The River City Red Army

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I first became a serious soccer fan in the spring of 2009.  Almost immediately afterward, I moved to Richmond and fell in love with the local USL team (think Double A or Triple A of American soccer), the Richmond Kickers.  Over the course of their 21-year existence, the Kickers have taken five league titles and they won the US Open Cup in 1995.  I watched them win their fifth championship my first September in Richmond.  Despite my own personal elation, the meaning of the victory did not seem to translate to the rest of the crowd.  No cheers in the stands for hours, no dancing in the streets: they simply smiled and went home.  It felt a little deflating.

Hopefully, that fan culture will soon receive the shot in the arm it so desperately needs.  Tonight, I attended a meeting of the River City Red Army, the official supporters group of the Richmond Kickers.  We met at Gus’ Bar and Grill on Broad Street to discuss how we might improve the atmosphere at City Stadium.  The Kickers sent representatives (interns, but still) to show that we have their full support.  Earlier this year, the club began selling beer at games for the first time in an attempt to draw the twenty-something crowd that makes up the lifeblood of the new, emerging Richmond.  Now they want the help of the diehard Kickers fans to create an attractive stadium spirit.

The Kickers have given us the keys to the kingdom.  They have given section O entirely to the River City Red Army.  They also promised to give the Red Army free tickets to all of the remaining home games including the first home playoff game and the others that will hopefully follow.  They have printed up shirts with that beautiful logo you see at the top of the post – a combination of the Kickers Crest and the city flag of Richmond.  The Kickers representative also seemed “99% sure” that the Red Army could establish a tailgating presence before the match in a designated area as soon as this Saturday.

In return, we the Richmond Kickers fans must show our support and do our duty to inspire the rest of the crowd.  We must cheer for our boys and maybe even heckle the refs and the opponents a little.  We must create, learn, and recite chants and songs that can filter through the whole crowd.  We must inspire the Kickers to greater heights, so that the product on the field and the morale in the stands draw as much excitement and attention as any bouncy castle, food truck, or special promotion.

The first place Kickers return to Richmond this Saturday, August 10th.  They face the Dayton Dutch Lions in City Stadium at 7 PM.  The Red Army wants You!

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