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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Growing fan base for soccer will get bigger as Northwest Arkansas gets professional team

by Greg Harton | July 30, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

A few days back on family vacation to the "Emerald Coast" beaches of the Florida panhandle, the last thing on my mind was soccer.

In fact, I'd made it a point to be sure very little was on my mind beyond rubbing my feet in the sand and making sure I avoided sunburn. Mother Nature had even delivered a week of mild weather and none of the rip tides that had been making headlines and headaches for several weeks.

My two boys -- well, now young men -- did have soccer on their minds, which meant I soon would.

That evening, in far-away Fort Lauderdale, 36-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi would step onto a pitch to play his first minutes as a member of Inter Miami. To put Messi's career into perspective, one might say he's the Tom Brady of soccer.

As I sat on the beach, my sons began their own, different kind of pitch: Since we already get Apple TV, it's just $40 to add the remainder of the Major League Soccer season, they said. Perhaps reflecting on their ol' dad's extraordinarily limited knowledge of soccer -- primarily watching them in Fayetteville's recreational soccer program all those years ago -- they offered to pay $20 each to cover the fee.

That evening, we all watched the closing seconds of Inter Miami's match against Mexico's Cruz Azul. The teams were tied. Messi's defenders got too aggressive, giving him a chance to make a penalty kick. It was in thrilling storybook fashion the man hailed by many as the GOAT (greatest of all time) kicked the ball in a curving arc into the top left corner of the net. And the crowd went wild, in the stadium and in a condo hundreds of miles away.

My only other soccer experience came in 2018. Sheryl and I had long wanted to take our boys overseas, to expose them to the world beyond the beach and our beloved Arkansas. We were in Paris on July 15, 2018, a date soccer fans in France no doubt recall. The French team beat Croatia in Russia to win the World Cup, unleashing a fill-the-streets nationwide celebration in France unlike I've every witnessed. I'll never forget my kids cheering alongside French citizens in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Elysees.

That about covers my soccer experiences, perhaps reflecting my age. Undoubtedly, younger generations of Americans have embraced the game and its player-driven personality. So many of them got some of their first competitive moments on teams coached by moms and dads who had to look up how the game is played.

It seems the tide is turning, though, and Northwest Arkansas will apparently be leading the way for soccer in Arkansas. USL Arkansas recently announced its plans to build a 5,000-seat stadium in Rogers, where a men's team and women's team will start competing in 2026.

The fan base for these teams already exist in the region, no doubt. Once they start playing, the enthusiasm for the game and these Northwest Arkansas teams will grow exponentially. Television soccer analyst Devon Kerr (hear my interview with him in the Know the News podcast at interestingly suggested last week that 5,000 seats may not be enough even to start with. The ownership group, by the way, says the stadium will be expandable if it should turn out Kerr is right.

The next three years will be intriguing as the soccer club discerns, with help from the community, what to call the teams and what their colors will be.

And, yes, a few people have floated the name "Thunder Chickens," which also had some popularity as a possibility for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

I'm no soccer experts, but I do have a thought on that suggestion: Let's not.

Print Headline: Soccer set to dribble into NWA


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