It’s a blisteringly hot and humid Saturday night, but a crowd of nearly 1000 people have still come out for an evening of raucous excitement. The relatively small yet enthusiastic group spreads out over the seats on the west side of the stadium to watch local semi-pro soccer team Little Rock Rangers face off against the LA Krewe football club from Lafayette, Louisiana.
The Rangers are just 4-5-4 going into the match, a rough season that has seen attendance drop from early season highs of 1,500 per game. But those fans who remain are ardent die-hards who have supported the Rangers as they grew and developed over the six years following their debut in 2016.
Marching through the crowd on their way to the sidelines are three members of The Red Wave. The passionate group of fans wear kilts (the Rangers have a Scottish theme) and bang drums throughout the game. One member plays bagpipes and another sings loud rock songs like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” off-key through a bullhorn.
Whenever the Rangers score a goal, the Red Wave unleashes huge plumes of red smoke into the air. At halftime, dozens of young kids get to run around the field, kicking balls as hard as they can with the fantasy of making goals.
How has this Saturday sensation managed to fly under the radar of nearly all Little Rock residents? And in a city that has always overlooked soccer, how did the Rangers manage to get this far?
“I grew up here and played here, and both of us are in our mid-forties,” said Rangers President John Wardlaw, referring to himself and Vice President Jason Rector. “Back when we were growing up and playing, soccer was basically an alt sport, like skateboarding.”
“This wasn’t mainstream at all,” added Rector, “But we just continued to play all the way through our youth.”
The idea for the team came to Wardlaw in 2014, when his oldest son started to play in the city’s U10 league – a designation for players who are 10 years old. As Wardlaw traveled the state taking his son to tournaments, he saw that soccer games still failed to draw large crowds and decided to help make it go mainstream.
Wardlaw and Rector assembled a group of 16 original founding members who collectively formed the team with money and sponsorships. The Rangers started playing in the all-amateur National Premier Soccer League, before moving up to its current status as a United Soccer League 2 team in 2020.
One surprising aspect of the team is that all of the players are unpaid, even those who come to play from 14 countries as far as Italy and Trinidad and Tobago. The reason that no players can be paid stems from the fact that some players are on college teams outside the summer and would lose their college-playing eligibility if money exchanged hands with any player on their teams.
“That’s part of being considered semi-pro,” explained Rector. “The goal for us, and most professional soccer teams, is to break even – from the top to the very bottom teams. And that’s about what we do.
“There’s a couple of seasons where we may have $20,000 left in the bank,” he added. “But then there’s also some seasons like this one, where we’ll likely be $20,000-30,000 in the hole at the end of the year.”
Because of those dicey financial stakes, both Wardlaw and Rector must maintain an incredible level of devotion to keep the team going. Both are unpaid and juggle full-time jobs, with the games played on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during which they dash throughout the stadium attending to all manner of situations.
In keeping with their sacrifice, the team also features a volunteer statistician, as well as a volunteer stadium announcer, game-streaming commentators and a pair of teen interns who maintain the team’s social media presence. Their contributions are invaluable since the team has received no traditional media exposure in local magazines or TV news stations.
Down on the field, the team’s unpaid game photographer races about on the sidelines, taking incredible action shots of the players. The fact that everyone is a volunteer speaks to the devotion the Rangers rely upon. They have to make it all work financially on an average of $7,000-$15,000 in ticket sales at $10 per ticket.
The team plays 14 games a season, with seven at home and seven on the road. To keep travel costs down, the team owns its own bus and out-of-town hotels are paid for by host opposing teams. For home games, the Rangers receive a hefty discount on lodging by teaming with the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock.
In addition to maintaining the main semi-pro team, the Rangers also oversee many tiers of youth soccer, as 300 players from ages 1 to 17 play in their Baby Bucks and Bucks programs. You read right: The Baby Bucks take players at 1-year and start by teaching them how to walk and run with a ball, right after they learn to ambulate themselves.
The Rangers have a goal of making it to a higher-tiered, fully professional league, but like much else they contend with, it’s a complicated process.
“Higher leagues do want us, but the War Memorial field is too narrow to play professionally, so we either would have to have renovations done here or we need to find another place to play,” explained Wardlaw. “Another hurdle that affects moving just one tier up from where we currently are is that we have to have an owner with at least a 35% stake and $10 million cash.”
While Wardlaw and Rector handle such financial concerns, the players focus on playing for their love of the game and the sheer desire to have careers at the professional level. Toronto native Spencer Barber and Trinidad and Tobago’s Kai Phillip sat down in the locker room to address their own paths to hoped-for glory.
“When I first came to America, I was playing in an amateur league called United Premier Soccer League,” said Barber. “Other guys on the team I was playing with told me Little Rock had a well-run team at the next level up, so I asked for a tryout and made the cut.
“It’s very competitive here, and as soon as you step into your first training session, you’ll realize the intensity is a lot. “It’s a lot more consistently intense, because everyone is looking for a spot on the team.”
Phillip, meanwhile, just finished playing two years of junior college games, and will join an NCAA Division 1 team this fall when he starts playing at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
“It’s nice in Little Rock because I’ve made friends with so many of the fans and they support us no matter what kind of season we have,” said Phillip. “But it is hard to be away from family and friends back home. It’s sometimes hard adjusting to a new place, and the weather’s a little bit different here. The pressure to make it to the next level is the biggest challenge for me.”
Another standout player is Callum Thompson, a 16-year-old wunderkind from North Little Rock, who is two years younger than anyone else on the team. But his outstanding skills on his Bucks teams were noticed early, and he aced his tryout for the team, and is now a regular member of the starting lineup.
“The hardest part for me is adjusting to how fast the game is played at the adult level – it’s just a whole different experience,” explained Thompson. “And maintaining the workout schedule five days a week for 90 minutes a day is very difficult to fit in with classes and homework, but I made it work starting in April, and I’m going to keep making it happen.”
The July 16 game with the Krewe had, in typical soccer fashion, no scoring for nearly the entire first half. When the LA Krewe landed the first goal, the fans booed, but the second half was explosive by soccer standards: The Rangers scored two goals to notch their fifth win of the season as the crowd went wild and red smoke billowed into the night sky.
“Everything about playing here has been fantastic,” said Thompson. “Even though we haven’t had the greatest season, the fans are still backing us and have been there for us, and the feeling from that is great.