"We have over 250,000 people spread across a number of cities"
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Hello again everyone, thanks for your patience in waiting for new interviews while I was gone. I am now rested and rejuvenated after my vacation, and ready to get back into the thick of things!
After receiving a message from one of the guys at AFC Mobile, recommending I interview Biloxi City, I managed to arrange this surprising chat with Luke Berry. He's very passionate, very realistic, and pulls no punches about the closed nature of American soccer. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what you do at Biloxi City FC.
My names Luke Berry and i'm the Vice President of Biloxi City FC. I'm originally from Bristol, England and moved over here approximately two years ago. I've been playing soccer since I could walk and still do now (I'm 26). I take care of almost everything at Biloxi City FC (the joys of amatuer/minor league soccer!)) but receive a lot of support and help from a handful of volunteers and board members.
Do you have any particular memory that's stands out for you as the 'aha!' moment, when you knew soccer was something you were all in on?
Well it had been talked about by a number of people after I first got here but it was me and few other soccer-minded people that finally said 'we need a team that the players here on the MS Gulf Coast can play for which will give them a platform to play serious competitive soccer'. From that point it all snowballed very quickly. That first conversation happened around March 2016 and by May 14th 2016 we had our tryouts, website, logo, social media presence, training etc. all in flow ready for us to start our summer off-season. We played our first every game against Louisiana Fire on May 14th in New Orleans and drew 2-2. Since then we have learnt more than you can imagine and continue to learn as we aim to grow this club to be a real soccer force in the US.
You guys have managed to build a talented, competitive squad really fast. How did you do that? Is there just that much talent in Mississippi that no one pays attention to?
To put it bluntly, yes. When I moved here 2 years ago I was amazed at the quality of some players here on the coast that were just playing pickup or in the local Sunday league. I was aware of a previous attempt at forming an elite amateur/minor league team called "Mississippi Storm" but that ended a few years before I had even arrived here. After seeing the volume of quality players we decided to start Biloxi City FC. We were able to start off so well because we knew the players we wanted to be involved from the get go and we knew the quality that they had to offer.
The key with South Mississippi is that we have over 250,000 people spread across a number of cities; from Bay Saint Louis to Pascagoula. That number often surprises people as they don't realise quite how many people live down here.
I'm surprised by it too. Do you see the potential for there to be even more teams in southern Mississippi, like Gulfport, Pascagoula and Bay St Louis?
Is there potential for that in the future? Sure. Would it be wise right now? Probably not. There are probably enough good players in the area for there to be two teams but we're now in a position where we have teams near enough for us to have rivals but not too close that would start to steal supporters. I would love for there to be another team on the coast in the future but it's hard enough gaining support for one team, let alone two. We started out '#OneCoast' initiative about 1 year ago which was created to illustrate that we are a team for the coast, rather than a team just for Biloxi. We actually play our home games in Gulfport now and we're looking at potentially playing next seasons games in different locations all along the MS Gulf Coast. A lot of idea's up the air but we really want the team to be for the MS Gulf Coast rather than just one city.
One of the things I hear a lot is that without promotion and relegation, there is no real incentive for people to invest in lower league soccer. So I'm curious. Why do this? Why do Biloxi City FC, with no guarantees that you'll ever get investment or grow bigger?
Very good question and I think it's probably the same answer for every team at this level which is purely for the love of the game, as corny as that sounds. I love soccer and to do what I do you would have to. Biloxi City FC has done nothing but cost me time and money but I still love it. We started Biloxi City FC with no cash injection, not even from the board level let alone an investor/sponsor. The first cash we brought in was from tryouts, then we started to get small sponsors on board and in our first season we had to charge players a registration fee. That got us up and running and from there we've gained more attention and a bigger following which has given us the opportunity to find bigger sponsors.
I'm still optimistic that one day the US will have an open pyramid because it seems the only logical way for US soccer to become what it could be. The top tier of US soccer should be one of the best leagues in the world given the resources at their disposal, yet it's not. People might blame the other sports but I think that's irrelevant. The team I support back home is Bristol City, a team in the 2nd division of English football (soccer). I've watched them be relegated and I've watched them be promoted. There is no feeling in the world like watching your team clinch that goal to go up to the next division or contrasting, that goal to stay up in the current division. If US soccer wants to be what it could be, it needs the excitement of pro/rel.
I've also heard the argument 'pro/rel won't work here because there is too much money involved, a club like Chatanooga couldn't survive in the MLS'. Bournemouth has a population half of the MS Gulf Coast. They also have a stadium which has a maximum capacity of just over 11,000. They finished 9th in the EPL this season. The only thing stopping pro/rel from happening in the US is the MLS, in my opinion.
I like that population comparison between Bournemouth and the MS Gulf Coast. Hopefully soon we will see some kind of an open pyramid, even if it is only in the lower levels. Since you guys are entering your second season of competition in the Gulf Coast Premier League, what are two or three things you've learned about what it takes to be successful in league play, on and off the field?
I believe at this level one of the most important things that you need is community support. We struggled immensely with that initially and we've now started to grow our sponsors list to a point that we feel we're sustainable. Buffalo Wild Wings has been a great sponsors of our since the get go and were one of the first to jump on board without hesitation, we're extremely grateful to them for their continued support and having an organisation that large involved really helps add credibility to the club. At this level off the field is arguably more important than on the field given that there is no pro/rel. However, the thing we've learnt most with regards to on the field is that you need to have a committed team. At this level you're unable to pay players so all the players need to buy into the idea that we're promoting. We have a 22 man roster this season and we encourage all of them to promote our games, fundraisers etc. as they are 22 voices that can help us spread the word. We try to reward the players by offering them the opportunity to play at this level plus a few perks as and when we can. The players were rewarded last week by playing in front of nearly 1,000 people against AFC Mobile which as a player is really exciting.
How difficult, or is it difficult, I should say, to get players to buy into the team vision and really go all in?
Sometimes, it depends on each player and each team. We've been incredibly fortunate the most of our players in that they are really getting behind the idea this season. Most of these guys have played college level and a lot of them were on full rides at those places so they're not used to soccer costing them anything. We have worked really hard this season to avoid pushing the cost onto the players by gaining funding from other places. Ultimately we'd love to be able to reward the players for their commitment and hard work but we're not quite there yet. We will be soon, but not just yet.
For us, our biggest asset is loyalty and we're lucky that our head coach, Sinisa Vukadin, has coached these guys since they were children and they are committed to him rather than the club which works for us as we have a great head coach who is extremely passionate about this club (just see the game against AFC Mobile!) and has really bought into the idea
Looks like you guys have a little bit of a rivalry going with AFC Mobile now. What was that game like? I know it got a little crazy on the field, but from your perspective, playing a local rival, in front of that people, what was that moment like?
The rivalry we've started with AFC Mobile has been fantastic and there is a lot of respect between our two teams, especially on a board level. However, the great thing about our rivalry is that is raw and natural. This was not put on for show, these are two teams who desperately want to get one up on the other for bragging rights and this all formed naturally. The atmosphere at that game in Mobile was incredible and was one of the most dramatic derby games I've ever witnessed. It had everything from coach ejections, red cards, penalties, injuries and a last minute winner from the away team with 9 men! And to top it off, the goal that won it is a goal of the season contender.
With this animosity already built in, I'm curious about where it comes from. Is there an already established rivalry between Biloxi and Mobile? What's going on down there that's lead to such heat so early?
That's a good question and I really don't know. I mean, the history is that we have a number of Mobile boys in our team and we managed to keep hold of them this season which obviously added fuel to the fire but there was already a kind of rivalry and I think it's just due to our close proximity. I think you also have the Mississippi/Alabama rivalry so that is probably the foundation of it.
Do you think that having a rival so close will help grow local interest in Biloxi City? Hard to not be interested in something that heated once you hear about it.
Absolutely, games like that are what creates fans. Bragging rights is what you're winning and in some sense that invisible prize is more valuable than winning silverware. If you look all around the world in various sports there is no better feeling than beating your arch rival. Celtic vs Rangers, Madrid vs Barcelona, Tottenham vs Arsenal, the list goes on. All great teams have a rival so we see it as a great asset to have found ours
May the bad blood bring fans to the gate. Now, how would you describe Biloxi to an outsider? What's the town about, what does the soccer scene look like, those kind of things?
We started our #OneCoast initiative late last year as although our name is Biloxi City FC, we're very much focused on being the team for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Mississippi Gulf Coast includes a number of cities ranging from Bay Saint Louis in the west all the way to Pascagoula in the east. We actually play our games out of Gulfport this season which is Biloxi's neighbor and we will be looking to playing next season's preseason games at different locations across the MS Gulf Coast. The area has had an incredibly strong youth soccer presence for years with a number of successful high schools (St Stanislaus, Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Gulfport etc.) and they also have the incredibly popular and well supported Gulf Coast United select soccer club. With regards to adult soccer, we're sort of heading into the unknown as there has not been much here in the past. We had the Mississippi Storm a few years ago that played a couple of seasons in the NPSL but folded soon after and we tried to find out what went wrong with them and make sure we did not make the same mistakes. We're starting small and looking to grow sustain-ably so that we don't end up losing ourselves financially. Support is growing after each game and we just need the community to continue to follow us
Do you feel your #OneCoast initiative has been helpful for generating interest?
Yes and no, we're still a new club and there are a lot of people that haven't heard of us. I think the #OneCoast will be important as we go forward as the population in this area is so spread out
What kind of challenges and opportunities does playing in an area with a population that spread out present to you?
I wouldn't say it provides any particular opportunities, but it does present challenges that's for sure! This season we moved our home stadium to Gulfport in order to remain as central to the population as possible. Our home stadium is about 30 minutes from Bay Saint Louis in the west and 30 minutes from Ocean Springs in the East which gives us the best chance at drawing the maximum support. Another challenge we face is getting the word out to such a large area. The MS Gulf Coast is a hot bed for events and we simply don't have enough time or hands to get out to all of them and spread the word about the club. We rely heavily on social media and any news coverage that we can get to help us get our name out there
How hard is it to get news coverage at this level of the pyramid?
It seems to vary; AFC Mobile have managed to get tremendous coverage from various local news outlets. On the other side we have been trying constantly to get our local news channels involved but as of yet the main station for the Mississippi Gulf Coast is yet to mention our name despite our harassment! I think it depends on a lot on the area that you're in. We're having to fight the casino's, baseball and other tourist related businesses for coverage and this area seems to have a lot going on which makes it more difficult for us to get in the loop.
I see. Competing with more established entertainment for news coverage would be difficult. Maybe time to get a casino to sponsor the team? Anyway, ready to move into some shorter questions to start wrapping this up?
We've approached casino's but unfortunately, they are the easy target for many of the non-profit organisations so they tend to already be maxed out when it comes to donations. Absolutely, fire away.
What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
I'm a Bristol City fan as I'm originally from there so it'd be them and the Championship.
Nice. Who are your favorite players, one past, one present?
Growing up, my idol was David Beckham. The way that we was able to change a game in an instant with one of his long range passes made him such an exciting player to watch. I also loved watching Paul Scholes, a player that actually wasn't fully appreciated until he retired in my opinion.
You get to meet one person from soccer, period in history doesn't matter. Who is it and why?
Interesting question, I'd probably go for George Best. Supposedly the greatest footballer in English league history, I'd would love to have seen him play.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to readers?
I don't have any specific books or podcasts but I would recommend The Class of '92 (not sure if that was a book before it was a movie?) or 'The Damned United' (another movie).
Both of those are really good. Where can people find more about you and Biloxi City online?
Last question. What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non league team, like Biloxi City FC?
Grassroots soccer is what all soccer leagues across the world are built upon. This is the foundation which allows the higher leagues to prosper. It gives our local community a team that is accessible and not thousands of miles away in another country. Most soccer fans over here have an EPL/La Liga team that they support and follow week in, week out. We are obviously not comparing ourselves to European giants but local soccer is there for the community that it finds itself in and that $50 on a jersey for a team that you may never even see in person would be a lot better spent helping your local non-profit grassroots team. We feel for grassroots soccer to prosper in this country pro/rel is essential which is why we are continuing to work with a number of clubs to continue to shout this message to the powers that be. Once that happens I think it will offer a huge boost to soccer all over the country, especially the lower levels as they find themselves with a chance to climb up the ladder.