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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
Memphis' professional soccer team is only just getting established. But there's already a fervent group of supporters in place.
During Monday's press conference at AutoZone Park that officially announced the team, members of the American Outlaws entered with scarves aloft while chanting to the tune of "Let It Be" by The Beatles.
"Nine-oh-one, 9-0-1, 9-0-1, 9-0-1. We're better than the 6-1-5, 9-0-1, 9-0-1."
The reference, of course, is to Nashville, which was awarded a Major League Soccer franchise last month. And although Memphis' team will compete in the second-tier United Soccer League, the enthusiasm is already at top division levels.
"We hate Nashville," said supporter Matt Healy, whose blue-and-grey club scarf was nicely accented by a Lucha Libre wrestling mask.
"Soccer is taking over. The Memphis Rogues were a big thing here back in the 1970s, but it's night and day from what it was. More and more of the middle, upper class people, their kids ain't playing football anymore. They're afraid of head injuries.
"And what are they doing? They're playing soccer instead."
Officials of the team — which doesn't yet have a nickname — will be looking to tap into that market when play begins in March 2019. Games will be played at AutoZone Park, which will be re-configured for soccer.
"When I first visited AutoZone Park before purchasing the Redbirds, I immediately recognized the potential for it to be home to more than one professional sports team," club owner Peter Freund said. "We will build an entirely separate organization focused on providing an authentic soccer experience, similar to what Yankee Stadium, home to the New York City Football Club, has been able to achieve at the MLS level."
Memphis Redbirds team president Craig Unger added, "AutoZone Park is a big part of the fabric of the city and is the setting for so many memories for people each year. And now we are going to be able to invite even more people to experience the excitement.
"The stadium will now be buzzing every weekend from March through (October)."
The USL will have 34 teams for the 2018 season, with each team playing 34 matches over the course of a 31-week regular season. The league is divided into Eastern and Western conferences with scheduling focused on regional proximity.
Memphis will join with Austin and Birmingham and will compete with teams within a 500-mile radius of one another including St. Louis FC and Louisville City FC, which won the USL Cup in 2017.
The hope is that new rivalries will be formed, which will help attract fans to the games.
Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard — who was on hand for the press conference — knows all about rivalries and thinks Memphis and Memphis soccer fans will adapt well to the new league.
"Soccer is special and unique to sports because it encapsulates passion, fans, team, community ... no other sport does that," Howard said. "With all due respect. I'm an American sports fan ... but in no other sport does the fan base and the community take ownership the way it does in soccer."
Reach John Varlas at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnvarlas
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