Welcome back to the Pyramid readers! Today I have the pleasure of sharing with you my interview with Jonathan Wardlaw of the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club. They're a brand new team in the great state of Arkansas, and will begin playing in the National Premier Soccer League in 2016. This was a really fun interview, Jonathan has a solid background in soccer at multiple levels from childhood on up, and he's building something awesome down in Little Rock. A quick FYI, LR is the abbreviation for Little Rock used several times throughout the article. Interview is after the break!
American Pyramid: Tell me a little bit about yourself Jonathan. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club.
Jonathan Wardlaw: I’m a business owner along with my wife in Little Rock, AR. We have a hearing service business where we travel the state and perform hearing evaluations on special needs kids in day treatment centers. I’m also a coach with the AR Rush Soccer Club where my two sons play. I grew up playing soccer in LR and played through high school. I had a chance to play college but honestly was just kind of burned out on the playing at that time and decided to stay in state and go to the University of AR. I still currently play 3 nights a week in a men's league. I’m the President of the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club. I will handle day to day operations and I will not have a coaching role.
AP: You almost went to the college level? Who was recruiting you?
JW: I was going to go to Westminster College in Fulton, MO. From what I can remember they didn’t offer athletic scholarships at the time, but they had general scholarships that could be applied for various reasons. I was offered an opportunity to try out for the team and if I made it one of those scholarships would be offered. It was a weird deal. I went and toured the school and I just didn’t feel it was right at the time. Part of me now wishes I had gone to play though...
AP: Understandable. What position did you, or I guess you could say, still play, at?
JW: I’m 40 so I played a while back and the coaches here were still picking up the game. I was relatively fast and very left footed, therefore the coaches always stuck me on the left wing. Nowadays I will play anywhere, but I prefer to play either in the mid or up top.
AP: My dad actually made my brother learn how to use his left foot when he played so he'd be a better player. He wound up on the left all the time after that. Back on topic, when did you first get interested in soccer in general and owning a soccer team in particular? I mean, was there a certain event that got you into the sport, or have you always been into soccer?
JW: I’ve always been passionate about the sport, but really become more interested in the development of our young players since my sons started playing. I’m just not happy with how the game is being played at the younger developmental ages. I believe that tournament play, in the south at least, is a detriment to the sport at the U9-U12 ages with the "kick and run” play by many of the bigger/faster/stronger teams. I believe building this NPSL team may help the younger kids, coaches, and parents understand that at the older ages that this kick and run style is not successful on a larger field.
AP: Gotcha. Since you're not a fan of kick and rush, is there any particular style of play you hope to be able to implement with Rangers?
JW: Well if there’s the opportunity to slot a ball through to space behind the defense, then go get your goal by all means! I’m just not a fan of teaching kids that style of play, and most of the tournament teams, relying on that one bigger, faster, stronger kid to single handedly score 6 goals a game. I want our kids to be technical and comfortable on the ball so that they have the confidence to play out of the back and go backwards with the ball.
AP: Makes sense. From the outside, Little Rock doesn't look like a soccer city. What attracted you to Little Rock over other cities in Arkansas, like, say, Bentonville or Fayeteville?
JW: Well your first sentence to this question is the exact reason why I want a team here. We aren’t a soccer city, or state for that matter, and I want to change that. We keep losing kids to other sports and I think one of the factors is that there isn’t any sort of adult role model for them to relate or look up to here locally other than coaches. All that being said, if the Rangers are successful, I would love to be involved in a team in Northwest Arkansas as well. We have tons of family and friends up there and it would be an awesome rivalry.
AP: How does the local community seem to be responding to the idea of having a soccer team in town?
JW: So far so good! I’m picking up sponsors and raising funds now. Obviously the local youth clubs and adult leagues are all in. War Memorial Stadium management is very supportive and allowing me quite a bit of leeway in what I want to do for the game time atmosphere in order to attract many different ages of fans. I can’t thank the stadium management enough.
AP: Tell me a little bit about the league you're joining, the National Premier Soccer League. What kind of advantages does it have over other leagues that you looked at?
JW: The NPSL is mainly geared towards the college player in that the season runs from May to August. It allows the players to stay fit over summer break. The league is growing fast and places teams in divisions within reasonable traveling distances.
AP: Was there something in particular that drew you to joining the NPSL?
JW: It just made the most sense with all of the above mentioned and it’s low entry cost.
AP: Do they have a long term vision for their league and your teams role in that future?
JW: They are just trying to spread the game nationwide and allow a low financial entry point for smaller market teams like us.
AP: Very nice. How excited are you at the prospect of trying to qualify for the US Open Cup? I'm pretty sure that there hasn't been a team from Arkansas in the Cup before.
JW: We are super excited! I feel sure our fans would roll out and travel well for something like that. As far as I know there has only been one other minor league/semipro team here and it was back in the 90’s. I’m not sure of their success, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t compete in the Open Cup or we would have heard about it.
AP: So Rangers has the chance to become a real trend setter in Arkansas then. Is there anything you're really hoping to accomplish in your first year as team? Or I guess you could say, what do you believe needs to happen for the first season to be considered a success?
JW: I’d like to win some games and at least be competitive in whichever division we are assigned to, and put our state on the map in regards to the sport. At this point I’m not too concerned about winning division titles or accolades. I’d just simply like to win some and focus on a fun atmosphere to get people to our games. One of my goals is to also be able to fund local underprivileged youth soccer scholarships to clubs of their choice. I believe that is another thing keeping the sport from growing in our area. It is just so expensive to play competitively and many just can’t afford it. I hope to change that.
AP: Why should the average soccer fan care about a team in Little Rock?
JW: Little Rock is a pretty cool town, a lot of people just aren’t familiar with it. We really are similar to Chattanooga, TN, in both size and geography, although there is a little more urban sprawl in LR. I’ve taken notice of Chattanooga FC's NPSL success and hope to emulate it here some day. We have plenty of good restaurants and the craft beer scene is relatively large for a city our size. I plan on having local beer at our games. Hopefully we can attract some visiting teams’ fans and they will enjoy our city.
AP: Can you cast a vision for me? Where do you see Little Rock Rangers in 5 years?
JW: Hopefully it’s a household name here in Central Arkansas and you are writing articles about how we are breaking attendance records in NPSL. I have no future plans for an Academy or anything like that, but I hope we have some role in the youth development here, especially in offering scholarships to local clubs for kids whose families need help.
AP: Alright, time for some Bonus Questions: Who's your pick to win the MLS Cup this year?
JW: Sporting KC.
AP: Nice MLS Cup pick. Sporting KC is actually my favorite team, and I live in Kansas City. Good way to get yourself in my good graces.
JW: I didn’t realize you were in KC. That's funny.
AP: What’s your favorite book, regardless of genre?
JW: I wish I could impress by saying some off the wall intellectual book, but I’m pretty boring. I normally just read books on the best seller list. I read more for entertainment than knowledge right now. It’s kind of my escape from all the craziness in life.
AP: Who’s your favorite current soccer player?
JW: He might be a little crazy, but I really enjoy watching Luis Suarez. I love his work ethic.
AP: Suarez is more then a little crazy, but I'll give you the work ethic part. Do you have a favorite soccer book, movie or podcast?
JW: I don’t have a favorite book, movie or podcast, but I did enjoy the reality series "Being Liverpool” a few years ago. I think it could be cool to start doing shows like that here in the US on lower tier teams like us. It could show the struggles we go through with sponsorships, forming teams, etc.
AP: Where can people find out more about yourself and the team?
JW: We are on all social media as LR Rangers. Our website is littlerockrangers.com
AP: Thanks for your time Jonathan. Don't forget to go check out littlerockrangers.com to stay up to date on the team, and check out some of the sweet merchandise they've got and place some orders. And of course, like and share their Facebook page.
Thanks for reading everybody! Feel free to comment with any questions you've got below, share the article and like American Pyramid's official Facebook page. Until next time.