Home Field Advantage

The Richmond Kickers have won national soccer titles, but the team’s real goals remain local, says Head Coach Leigh Cowlishaw.

Somebody keeps moving the goalposts for minor league soccer teams like the Richmond Kickers. The Kickers went to the United Soccer Leagues (USL) Division Two championship game in 2010, but when the 2011 season kicks off on April 2nd the team will be competing in the re-organized and re-branded USL PRO. In the past two decades the league has also been known as the USISL and the USL A-League.

Kickers Director of Soccer and Head Coach Leigh Cowlishaw is optimistic about the latest change, calling USL PRO a “financially viable model that, long term, is set up to be a lot more stable than in the past.” Cowlishaw was born in Burton upon Trent, England but has been a Richmond resident since crossing the Atlantic to play for the University of Richmond in 1989. He’s kept his Burtonian accent, but is fully fluent in American soccer lingo, as you would expect from a man who has been involved with the Richmond Kickers ever since their inaugural 1993 season. Cowlishaw was part of the US Open Cup winning team of 1995, and has been head coach since 1999.

That past instability Cowlishaw refers to means more than just the variously acronymed competitions the Kickers have competed in. It’s also about rival organizations failing to make ends meet. There’s a particularly dramatic example to be found just two hours east of the Kickers on Interstate 64, where the Virginia Beach Mariners franchise was terminated by United Soccer Leagues in 2006 and dissolved in 2007 after discovering their supposedly wealthy owner—who had big plans for the team—was actually bankrupt.

So what keeps the Kickers on target while other organizations have careened so spectacularly out of bounds? Cowlishaw says the Kickers made a conscious decision to become more than just a professional sports team. “The reality was with the crowds that were coming to the games it wasn’t going to work long term with that being the core business,” he says. So the Kickers decided to invest in the Richmond and Central Virginia community through youth soccer and charitable works.

“Where that really started making a difference was in the late 1990s when we had a strategic meeting–many, many meetings, over the space of several months–where we recognized that the community really appreciated these professional players being in town and playing, but also helping with programming, instructions and youth soccer camps. There was huge demand for that and so we took that model and created, in my mind, a hybrid of the old European model of a soccer club, with a pro team all the way down to youth teams, but also took in the very important positives of a conventional traditional US youth soccer club.”

And it’s worked. Cowlishaw estimates that “somewhere between seven and eight thousand” youth soccer players will be involved with the Richmond Kickers organization in 2011. The result is an unconventional but successful setup where the Richmond Kickers parent company is the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club.

That may seem backwards to fans of bigger European soccer clubs, where the pro team is the big moneymaker. But it’s really a two-way relationship with the Richmond Kickers pro team providing legitimacy and resources to the Youth Soccer Club, and the Youth Soccer Club ensuring the financial stability of the pro team. Former Kickers striker Rob Ukrop is President of the Youth Soccer Club, and explains that “we [the Youth Soccer Club] have made a significant commitment to raise the dollars through sponsorships and charitable gifts to keep our pro team here in Richmond. Obviously, our youth players benefit from the ability to be coached by a professional player, and it provides the opportunity for our pro players to find a life outside of playing. Many of our best players through the years have settled in Richmond because of the off-field opportunities and they fall in love with our region, which I believe is a great place to live.”

Crucially, the Kickers aren’t all about milking money from the youth soccer program. They’re also interested in shaping young lives. “We are committed to developing young people both on and off the field,” Ukrop explains. “Soccer is a perfect vehicle to teach life skills, providing real time life lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship, respect and dealing with adversity as well as success. While we have our share of top level players with World Cup aspirations, we have more kids who dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, innovators, etcetera, who at some point, we hope settle down in Richmond.” Ukrop expects that the instructions youth players receive from the Kickers will benefit not just his soccer club, but Central Virginia as a whole. “We trust that these players will be the next generation of role models who give back to our community, and maybe even coach a Richmond Kickers youth team.”

Ukrop is serious about the Kickers giving back to the community. “We take pride in our commitment to non-profits like the Police Athletic League, Boys and Girls Clubs, and small youth clubs where we provide soccer-based clinics for their kids. With a great core of youth players since 2000, we have been able to help teach our youth players how to interact with the next generation of players, passing on the skills they have developed. We take great pride in seeing the interaction between our elite travel players as they work with kids being introduced to soccer for the first time.”

The majority of the Kickers professional players seem committed to the same goals, in deed as well as in word, but perhaps none more so than Henry Kalungi. The 23-year-old defender from Kampala, Uganda stands an imposing 6’2”, and describes his playing style as “very physical and very strong on the ball … I like to knock the opponents around on the field!” But Kalungi is much more charitable off the field, and seems particularly enthused about his time spent volunteering with the Richmond Police Athletic League, which Ukrop introduced him to. “I thought it would be a pleasure to be part of it and help the kids learn a few things,” says Kalungi. “The PAL goes to neighborhoods of Richmond and provide soccer skills and soccer equipment to the kids that love to play soccer.”

Kalungi has also been known to offer impromptu coaching sessions around the city. “Some times during my free time I go to the various fields in Richmond and just coach the kids that are there on the fields for free that like playing soccer.” So if a generation of physical defenders emerges from Richmond in the next decade, we’ll know why.

Most impressively, Kalungi has been able to use his success with the Kickers to give back to his hometown of Kampala as Director and Co-Founder of the Uganda Youth Soccer Academy (UYSA). “It’s not a profit making or commercialized kind of academy,” he explains. “It’s about helping the kids. So we find kids on the streets or some of them hear about the academy and just turn up. We have a field where the kids come and we teach them life skills and how to play soccer and how to survive without learning bad behaviors and risk their lives.”

Kalungi had always wanted to start something like the UYSA, but was finally able to put his plan in action after moving to the United States, and has received invaluable help from the Kickers. “Ever since I was a little kid, I always had this idea in my heart of helping the other kids that are less fortunate,” he remembers. “There are a lot of kids that live on the streets who dream of having a good life. Some of them are forced onto the streets because of natural disasters or the civil war in northern Uganda, some of them lose their parents at an early age and some of them are born on the streets and left there with no help. Four years ago when I came to America I brought up the idea to my big brother in Uganda, Ivan Kakembo, to start an academy. I was in school then at Winthrop University and couldn’t do anything to help, and so Ivan kept the academy running in Uganda. So this last time before I went back I approached a lot of friends and the Richmond Kickers and we collected a lot of stuff. I talked to a lot of people who worked tirelessly to help collect stuff –like Rita Ellis [of Keller Williams Realty] and her family who drove to various venues to collect stuff and [Kickers teammate] Luke Vercollone who approached a lot of friends and other friends who contributed in different ways.”

It’s this sort of involvement with the Richmond community, even for programs that are happening some 7,000 miles away on an entirely different continent, which Cowlishaw says defines the Richmond Kickers. “Any time there’s a cause that we can get behind we’re going to try and do whatever we can,” he says. “That’s a big part of the goal of the club. It’s more than a club. It’s the backing of the community, and it’s not just about soccer, it’s not just about sports.” This focus should ensure that the Kickers continue to thrive, no matter how many times the league they compete in changes its acronym.


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