Hello everyone, and welcome back after a lengthy absence to American Pyramid!
Today's interview is a first for me. It's with Unity FC, a women's team out of Florida. So far in over 3 years of interviews, I've never been able to get an interview done with a women's team. Plenty of false starts, but this one is finished! I hope you guys enjoy reading about a different side of soccer in the States.
2019 Florida Classic Champions
Tell me a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Unity FC.
I'm Mark Ford, the owner of Unity FC, a team in the UPSL women’s division, based in Deltona, Florida which is east Central Florida. I have been involved with local club and high school soccer for years and became increasingly frustrated with families paying thousands of dollars for a club and getting little return. I formed Unity FC in 2018 primarily to give girls who have either been unable economically, or have simply been passed by or overlooked, an opportunity to continue to play high level soccer while pursuing collegiate and professional opportunities. We had two girls last season continue on to college and we have a camp in January where I fully expect 4-5 to sign collegiate offers. We are anti-pay to play, we provide everything for the girls. Uniforms, travel, whatever they need, we cover it, no differently than if it was a NWSL team.
We try to keep the team U23 primarily, but we do have 3-4 players who are late 20's, early 30's that are great mentors and role models for the younger girls. With all that said, we welcome anyone from 16 years and up.
What's the origin story behind Unity FC? How did all of this come together?
We, like many, had two daughters playing “elite” club soccer and were dissatisfied with not only the soccer but the lack of involvement off the field (seeking out college opportunities, etc) so I decided that after wasting seven years of money in club soccer that I would rather invest that money in girls who were getting passed by as ours were. We had the opportunity to invest in a UWS provisional team that was not going to make it through the season, Cosmos FC. We guided them through and as soon as the season ended changed the name to Unity FC, licensed and registered as an official entity.
Basically every girl on our team has been passed over or told they aren’t good enough which is ludicrous. Our results speak for the girls ability. The only team to beat us is Orlando Kicks, which is really Montverde Academy, a 24-7 soccer school national powerhouse. Jody Brown (A Jamaican national) did us in! We in fact are the only team to score on them in UWS. So 13-3-1 not too bad.
But as stated previously that is all secondary to find these girls colleges or at the very least provide stability and guidance for them. Most are single parent homes, economics are tough. We’ve made an impact by providing them with a safe haven, a team that they know will take care of them and help them. (Not just with soccer but with jobs, anything we can do)
Another area we are a bit different is we will play everywhere and anywhere. We are in the Florida Classic Jan 18-21 and are renting a house for the weekend so the girls can be together and be “one team” all weekend and limit travel and expense or dangers on the road (Florida is a tough drive). Gets them a bit of experience for what college or professional life is like. And we foot the bill for everything. I am the owner, and my dad William Ford is the co-owner and believes very much in what we are doing. Having Sqwincher and Ambroidery of Deltona on board is very big as well.
So that is the x’s and o’s of the beginning so to speak. From another personal standpoint I love the women’s game. Ut is more technical and generally played with more heart and determination. I want to see the playing field leveled a bit see with more professional opportunities in the USA because the NWSL is not a viable option. 9 Teams and half the players are foreign, and little community involvement (at least in Orlando, it may be different elsewhere) so something needs to change. Hopefully our alliance with UPSL will result in a positive impact and more clubs such as ours will rise up, and who knows! 5-10 years from now maybe there is a viable pro league.
You are the first women's team I've interviewed for AP. Now that you've been in it for awhile, how would you explain the state of women's soccer leagues in the US to an outsider, like myself?
The leagues outside the US are growing at a level that is not happening here, and that is alarming. The United States has long been thought of as at the forefront of equality and gender equality yet seems to be lagging behind the rest of the world right now in the women’s game. Obviously not at the USWNT level, they are still a force, but look at the Women’s Premier League in England drawing nearly 50k for the final, and Manchester United have finally fielded a ladies side. The Australian league is well supported, most European countries now have a women’s league. What is even more impressive, such as in England, they also have reserve leagues or B leagues. The growth has been very impressive. I think an issue here besides the lack of teams or well organized leagues is that young women are leaving the game after school or club because the “professional” teams and environments don’t exist, there need to be more opportunities. It’s a whole complex issue. It’s easy to say more teams, fix that, fix this, but the revenues, the investment, isn't there.
The “pyramid” of US women’s would be NWSL tier 1, UWS and WPSL tier 2. From our experience UWS is a stronger league from top to bottom and has some dynamic teams like the Houston Aces, and the teams in Michigan are very strong. I believe UWS has 40 teams, the WPSL around 100. I’m not sure of the exact number of players that go from those leagues to the NWSL, but it is only a handful each year. Maybe 5 or so I believe. So on the surface it would seem to counteract or go against my statement or opinion that there is not enough opportunities, but if only a handful of players are moving up than is it a real opportunity? And the issue isn’t talent; our team has players good enough and the top teams in UWS and WPSL do as well. You say to yourself “why aren’t these girls playing in NWSL?” I don’t know why, and that’s what we are trying to figure out.
2018 Orange County Mayors Cup Champions
As you said, the women's game in the US has seemed to be at the global forefront. Why has the league game here not only slowed in terms of opportunity, but fragmented so badly?
If UWS and WPSL could come together with a similar plan and vision that would be a positive step. Right now they are two competing entities that are pretty similar in approach. I don’t think NWSL is going to change their approach but UWS, WPSL, and now UPSL could become a pyramid that may generate some cohesion. Right now I think it’s too fragmented
Obviously money plays a role as well. We are in the game for the girls and their betterment and advancement. At this point we are running at an economic loss but we knew that going into higher level soccer, and it is money well spent. There are many who think they will get rich in soccer. That is the complete wrong reason to become involved in soccer at the development level and may be a cause of some of the dysfunction.
You touched on something right there I want to dig into. People thinking they'll get rich in soccer. Why are people thinking that, especially at the amateur level? Most large clubs in Europe aren't even making money.
I would like to think that most people don’t get into the sport to be profiteers, obviously some do but that is a different issue. Drive around anywhere in America on a weekend and you will see fields full of kids and adults playing soccer and large crowds so if you are on the “outside” of the game so to speak you see that and think “there is money to be made here.” We had over a decade of being involved with clubs and high school soccer and were pretty familiar with what was needed to field a team properly. The uninitiated don’t factor in the costs of balls, field rental, referee fees, league fees, travel, uniforms, insurance, etc. So the 'hidden costs,' so to speak are where people lose their way.
That’s how we became involved in higher level soccer. The team we took on was unprepared, we were able to step in and in a few weeks put everything in place, but only because A) we had the finances and understood it would be a financial loser initially and B) we had the experience and knowledge of what was needed. Our advice would be do your homework, have a person or staff that has years of soccer experience and know how, and the most important thing is know what the expenses are. Have a budget and keep your expectations realistic.
Ask questions of those who are successful, and foremost be involved in your league or group you play in. Work together, a collective is much stronger than an individual. Look, when we go on the field we want to beat you and win, but when the game is over we will talk with the other team and see how they are doing, ask if we can help with anything.
My final thoughts on this isn’t possible for everybody. Regardless of what level you have to work on the team everyday. Scout players, work on your social media, schedules, sponsors, community involvement. We are blessed that we have people that can do that. If not, then owning a soccer team probably isn’t the best idea.
Another thought on that ,and it is tied into teams failing, is something that probably isn’t given much thought and it pertains to my strong collective stance. We have a great team. If we beat everybody and have no competition the league or group fails, others become discouraged and give up. So sometimes you have to pump the brakes, so to speak, during a game. It does no good to overwhelm your opposition so completely that they are discouraged. We play ten months a year anywhere and anybody outside of our league. We would rather lose a game 2-1 against a great team than put 12 goals on somebody. Look at some of the results of UPSL, UWS, and WPSL games and you will see those scores. So the economic failure can happen because of the obvious reasons of finance and being inexperienced, but also not thinking collectively.
So when teams are running up the score, especially at the amateur level in a closed league, that's causing certain teams to just pack it in, rather than try and get better?
They do. Then the league credibility is hurt due to forfeits and no shows which hurts the good teams, because when you travel two hours for a game that is a forfeit, it leaves the players disillusioned.
Of course it does. Other than reigning in your players, do you think there are any other solutions?
The top teams can’t monopolize the player resources. Say our roster is fairly set, and we see players or know players who could help another team. Try and get them connected! That helps both the player, because they are playing, and the club that is in need. We want everyone playing which fits into the “collective” concept. When we started the Orlando Kicks and Montverde Academy were extremely helpful. To be honest it was intimidating reaching out to them for advice, but they were very gracious and helpful. Professional.
Not a bad idea, otherwise you've got a bunch of teams acting liking the big clubs in the world game, signing the best talent to stick them on the bench so their competition can't potentially use them. What league are you guys going to be playing in this season?
We will be in the UPSL Women’s Pro Premier Florida Division for league play.
How is the Florida Division looking for the 2019 season?
UPSL is planning 12 teams. 6 in the south and 6 in the north. We expect, based on the UPSL's success with the men’s game in Florida, that growth will continue on the women’s side. We look forward to competing against our familiar foes coming over from the UWS as well as building new rivalries and relationships with the “new” franchises.
I expect our team to be strong, but there is a tremendous amount of talent in Florida so I would expect everyone to be competitive. That ultimately benefits everyone.
Midfielder Dayne Ford and keeper Jessie Rivera with the 2019 Florida Classic Trophy
Other than the weather, what makes Florida such a hotbed for amateur soccer teams?
There are many high profile college programs. Florida State and Florida being obvious ones, but the D2, D3, and NAIA schools are quite good so younger players have many options and schools to aspire to play at. The clubs and academies are numerous, helping to develop players. The soccer “culture” is vast here as well. That keeps players playing and seeking out clubs after they graduate or finish college. We are playing in the Florida Classic in a few weeks, and they have age groups all the way up to 70 years old and have in total around 300 teams coming, they are from all across the country, but the majority are from Florida which is remarkable.
The weather is a big factor with conditioning. People from the north tend to say we are soft, but play a full 90 minutes plus in 110 degree real feel, make it through that and you can make it through anything!
Humidity is brutal, especially when it's like 80% or higher! You've said a couple of times that you want to be a team for players that are more less being ignored by the current system. How are you going about finding those players?
Scouting. We go to high school, club, and rec league games. We aren’t going to the superpower A vs. superpower B games. Start at the bottom of the standings and work our way up. I’ll even stop if I see a group of people kicking a ball around. Our soccer director will talk with girls post-game and find out where their interest level is, such as do they have college offers, do they want to play college soccer? Most times the answer is yes to soccer and we have no offers or don't even know how to go about it. We get out in the community, go to the rural areas, go to the inner city. We try to break the mold, be approachable because we can’t find or see everyone. It’s impossible. So I hope that players or their parents will come to us knowing we will give them an opportunity. I have sent numerous emails to clubs or colleges on players behalf and been ignored. They can’t be bothered. So in a sense the “system” itself creates the overlooked player. You call me or email me and I will return it ASAP.
As a postscript or sidebar to all of this: Today we had our first ever Collegiate showcase, where the girls were the sole focus of a college coach, not the traditional mob scene of a 200 player ID camp cash grab that clubs partake in. Eight of our girls were offered the opportunity to play college soccer. That is truly remarkable and validates our mission and what we are doing. Winning games and tournaments is all well and good, but as I’ve stated numerous times throughout our interview, it’s people first and that is what is most important. What a blessed day.
That's awesome to hear! How do these players responded when you talk to them and offer them a chance to play for a team that can get them into college?
Initially there is a bit of skepticism, but we are a family. It’s a very unique team so we usually have our captains get with them and relay their experience with the team to try and reassure them that we will follow through and do all we can to help them achieve their goals. Honestly our players are the best advocates we have. New players are welcomed like they’ve been with us forever. Our coach is also a very passionate advocate of the players. It’s a very positive structure, no pressure or egos.
I think we are gaining momentum, colleges are becoming responsive to us and I am very optimistic that it will continue to grow. There is no greater reward than seeing a young person light up when they get a college offer especially when they may have been told previously that weren’t good enough. Honestly they do the work, we provide the vehicle. They're the drivers, so to speak.
I don’t know if it relates to your question, but this is an example of the nature of the team. We bring in a new striker and have a striker who scored 9 goals in the last five games and she’s the first one to say welcome aboard, we are so happy to have you on the team. Speaks to their character, they want to see other girls get that opportunity as well.
Wow. Sounds like you guys are building a great culture around the team as a whole. What, if anything, have you done to help foster this kind of mindset around your club?
The foremost thing is being consistent and not altering our approach. We are open and honest with the players and who we deal with. We ask the player before we bring them aboard “are you ok with the one team approach?” If not than we aren’t the right fit. And going back to the not running up the score and trying to develop players the girls know that they will all get to play at some point. All we ask is 100 percent effort and they do. For our recent college day we invited the local high school players to come out even though they aren’t on our team. We are trying to get our message out in the community that we are here for everyone. I also have to add that our sponsor Sqwincher has been very helpful. They use our players in advertising, post them on social media, makes them feel special. I think that at our level Tier 2 or 3 women’s soccer, however you want to rate it, it’s pretty rare to have a “national” sponsor that is that engaged and is behind what we are trying to accomplish.
Midfielder Dayne Ford
Let's start wrapping this up with some short questions. What's your favorite team(s) to watch for fun and why?
North Carolina Courage of NWSL. They play amazing soccer, pressure the whole field and seem to have the one team concept as everyone seems to contribute. On the men’s side Manchester United for the tradition and spectacle of it all.
Thank you for honoring us as the first women’s team to be covered by APB we sincerely appreciate it. And the fact we can finish the interview up after capturing a Florida State Championship today is amazing! Hopefully that proves the point I’ve tried to make...give these girls a chance...thanks again!
Not a problem! Two questions left. In five years, where do you want to see Unity FC?
Initially I would have said playing NWSL or whatever the top league in America is, but after the experiences of the last year and all the people we’ve met and girls we’ve helped, I'd like to just keep being who we are. Playing ten months a year, traveling across the country, spreading our message and hopefully impacting as many people as we can. I like who we are, and being who we chose to be.
I know we probably will never alter the soccer landscape and achieve a true level playing field, one not based on who you know or who you pay, but to date we’ve helped nine girls get the opportunity to go to college. If the number is 45 players going to colleges or the completely unimaginable scenario that an Alexa Torres, or a Harlie Ford play professionally?
What more could be better? Nothing.
Perfect. Where can people find out more about you and about the team online?
Mark, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it.
Click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. If you enjoy my content, spread the word by sharing these interviews on social media, telling friends about the blog, keeping up with me on Twitter and Facebook, those kinds of things. The goal is maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid, and I can't do that without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.