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With the rising popularity of soccer around Kentucky, it was only a matter of time until the talent around the state would be showcased at the national level.
That time is now.
The River City Rovers are the first team in the state to join the Premier Development League, a subcomponent of the United Soccer League.
The PDL is similar to minor league baseball in that it gives players the opportunity to climb the ladder to professional levels.
It seems that some are taking full advantage. In February, Rovers’ players Dustin Downey and Ryan Smith were offered contracts to play for FK Velez Mostar, a Bosnian-based soccer club.
The Rovers, who are based in Louisville and play their home games at Centurion Soccer Stadium at Christian Academy, are composed of players from all over the nation.
The players, who are also on college or club teams, are unpaid, allowing them to retain NCAA eligibility.
Gaining players is one thing, but Mary Nieto, the Rovers’ owner, said that the hardest part of starting this organization is the lack of sponsorship.
“It’s a tough time in the economy to get a company to put the logo on our shirts and shorts,” Nieto said. “You want to be able to prove to people that they’re going to get a return on their investment. Loyalty will come, and you’re trying to explain that to them.”
That’s not including their current struggles with bus sponsorship to take them to their next destination on their busy schedule.
“Locating a good field that had everything we needed was also a small problem,” Nieto said. “There was a little bit of insecurity from people in charge of letting us use the fields, on if the fans were going to be rambunctious. Once we got that figured out though now, we’ve been looking for a bus sponsor because we’re still paying full price for bus companies.”
With 68 PDL teams scattered all across the U.S. and Canada, the competition is ferocious. But any skepticism of a new team, both sponsors and soccer clubs alike, can be resolved by winning, and that’s exactly what the Rovers are doing. And Nieto said, that’s exactly what’s bringing the crowds back week after week.
“Last season we had a great first season,” Nieto said. “There was a perception teams were going to run over us. They didn’t realize how good we were going to be. This season though, these players are playing well together, they’re passing, and inching their way forward, and you can see the team gel. They’re really working as a unit, and that’s fun to see.”
After a resounding 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire PDL last Thursday, the Rovers currently sit in second place in the competitive Great Lakes Division. In only their second year, the Rovers have only lost one game all year out of seven, and remain undefeated at home.
The Rovers’ plans are coming to fruition. Along with building a team, they also have a National Premier League youth academy that helps develop young talent, so that soccer players can perform at the collegiate level, then perhaps land a spot right back with the River City PDL team.
Nieto says that the Rovers organization works closely with the professional indoor soccer team in Louisville, the Lightning, on a regular basis to see what’s working and what’s not.
With the players performing at such a high level, plans for the near future are more of the same.
“We want to win the Great Lakes Division,” Nieto said. “It would be wonderful because it would put Kentucky on the map. One of our goals as owners was to make sure this is a good experience for the players, so they want to come back. That includes everything from travel, nice buses, etc. It’s all about them, and that’s what we want to emphasize.”
Story by Adam Warner
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