KEENE, Texas — My first Supporting Local Soccer post on visiting the Fort Worth Vaqueros went over really, really well, and in the aftermath, several teams reached out to me to visit one of their games.
One of these teams was Keene FC, a first-year UPSL team based in the city of Keene, which is tiny. The population is just 6,293 and the city itself comprises just 2.8 square miles. Keene High School, my current destination, has 323 students enrolled, making it roughly one-tenth the size of my alma mater. It takes me roughly an hour and fifteen minutes to drive the 65 miles from my house north of Dallas to the stadium. This is my first-ever visit to Keene, and almost certainly the furthest south I’ve been in the metroplex.
Keene FC plays at the Keene High School stadium, one of the more interesting high school venues I’ve seen in Texas. Keene actually doesn’t have a high school football program — incredibly rare in Texas — and the stadium is primarily used for soccer. The field is all grass, and surrounded by a black running track. The stadium sits roughly 400 feet north of Highway 67.
The first thing that strikes me as unusual walking into the stadium is the layout. Rather than walking through an entrance aligned midfield, Keene’s stadium has the entrance at the west end of the stadium along the goal line. I walk in past the combined field house/weight room/locker room/office building to the ticket window. After introducing myself as “the guy from Soc Takes,” the woman at the ticket window allows me into the stadium. The stadium looks clean and very new. A banner reading “#ProRelForUSA” along with the Keene FC logo greets me from the fence along the entryway.
As I walk in, I meet Matt Kahla, co-founder and co-owner. He’s the one that invited me tonight. He gives me a quick rundown of the team and the typical match-day experience. One thing he notes in particular is that the city of Keene is predominantly Seventh Day Adventist. This is why the team’s home games are almost exclusively played on Sunday afternoons, as Seventh Day Adventists observe the Sabbath from Friday evening through Saturday evening. Matt informs me that, as today is Father’s Day, the crowd is likely going to be lighter than usual.
The field itself sits at the bottom of a staircase which begins at the field house building. The single grandstand sits along the north sideline. It’s a typical metal bleacher grandstand, roughly 130 feet long and 16 rows deep. That gives it a capacity of roughly 2,000, just about perfect for a UPSL team. The view from the grandstand is spectacular. There’s a hill along the south sideline setting the field apart from the highway, and nothing but forest in the background. Rural Texas at its finest.
Tonight is their ’80s night, where they’re pumping ’80s music through the PA system. I find myself lipsynching along to some of the songs playing as I wander around taking pictures. Unusually, the path to the grandstand takes me on the running track itself. I don’t think I’ve stood on a high school running track since my marching band days.
As I watch the players walk to the field for pregame warmups, someone catches my eye. Is that… is that Michel? Sure enough, FC Dallas alum Michel is playing for the visiting Dallas Elite FC. Interesting! Last I knew, he was playing for Miami FC. He was also captain of Rayo OKC in 2016, and famously scored his first MLS goal directly off a corner kick in Seattle. I make a note to check the rosters of both teams for any other MLS veterans later.
I eventually settle in at the top of the grandstand. The pregame ceremony begins with the usual ceremonies along with the playing of the national anthem over the PA. Keene’s jerseys are delightfully colorful, and I immediately want one. The visiting Dallas Elite FC is basically the same team as Dallas City FC from the NPSL but with different management.
By kickoff, a few dozen fans have trickled in. I notice that the clock on the scoreboard didn’t start at kickoff, and only begins counting down after roughly five minutes have elapsed. With the stands so close to the action, I can hear the players on both sides whinging at the referee. One thing I notice is that the team doesn’t have anyone along the sideline fetching balls, and a few end up clearing the fence behind the grandstand.
It’s warm and windy today. I watch a bird trying to take flight against the wind, and the bird appears to hover in place mid-air for a minute or so. This is pretty much ideal soccer weather. It’s comfortable. My one regret is not bringing a stadium seat for the metal bleachers.
Dallas Elite is up 1-0 at halftime. It’s been a pretty back-and-forth game, and the Elite goalkeeper is the primary reason Keene FC isn’t on the board yet. This has been some very entertaining soccer. In my notes, I write that “stadium feels like the American equivalent of small English village stadiums.” I walk back to the field house building to check out the concession stand. There’s a nice variety of standard stadium fare, reasonable prices, and they actually accept plastic. Bonus points for that. I buy a bottle of water to top up my filter bottle.
I strike up a conversation with Matt and general manager Cody Long. We talk about the league, the season so far for the team, and I ask them how things have gone relative to their expectations. Matt says he’s been incredibly pleased with the reaction of Keene ISD superintendent Ricky Stephens. Stephens was immediately on board with the team, and offered up the stadium in the first meeting. The club has already found a number of prominent local sponsors as well as a cryptocurrency, Dimecoin. I make a note to check out their website later, and find that they’re actually the sort of cryptocoin I can get behind, focusing on the viability of smaller transactions and continual usage of the coin instead of speculation and investment like many others.
I ask them about their thoughts on the UPSL, and mirroring the sentiments I heard from Dustin with OKC 1889, express just how pleased they are to be part of the league. We continue talking about promotion and relegation, as UPSL actually has implemented it in a few conferences. Matt says that, one added benefit of pro/rel is that it essentially eliminates blowout games. Teams that keep losing 5-0, 6-0 get bumped down, while teams that win those blowout games get to move up and take on more suitable opponents. It’s an argument I hadn’t heard before, and it’s one of the most convincing arguments I’ve heard for the system.
Cody tells me that the team had to suddenly switch head coaches right as the season was about to begin, as the previously hired head coach got an offer he couldn’t refuse elsewhere. The team has thus spent the first chunk of its season getting comfortable with the new coach. That coach is actually out of town for this particular game, so his assistant is along the sideline.
In the second half, Dallas scores again, eliciting groans from Matt and Cody. Cody picks up his phone and actually calls the assistant coach to make a substitution. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like this, and I can’t hide my amusement. Keene draws a penalty late in the first half and buries it. That’s the last goal of the evening, final score 1-2.
As the players and fans walk the running track to the exit, I realize that maybe a dozen or so people there are traveling Dallas Elite supporters, primarily friends, family and significant others. I finish up my conversation with Matt and Cody and head to the exit.
This was my first experience watching the UPSL, a league I have been publicly skeptical of previously. Having now spoken with three different participating teams, my attitude has changed. I get it. It’s not really a “national league” as much as a collection of hyperregional leagues across the country, allowing teams that can’t afford NPSL or PDL a chance to move into a more serious organization. While I still have some issues with some of the league’s management, everyone I know involved in it is incredibly pleased to be there. This has led me to begin the outline for a “UPSL Explained” piece.
In the weeks since I attended the match, the summer UPSL season has ended for this conference. Keene finishes in fifth place, while Dallas takes second. Following the season, MLS veteran Jose Burciaga, Jr. has joined Keene FC as part owner and general manager. He was a long time fixture of the Kansas City Wizards from 2001 to 2007. He has already begun preparations for the upcoming UPSL fall season, which is expected to run from August into December.
For a first-year team, Keene FC is doing a lot of things right. They’re working to integrate with the local community, including respecting the Adventist sabbath, and their social media is nearly an even split between club matters and local community news. If they can find a way to get the local student body interested in the team, they’ll have a solid fan base moving forward. There’s a lot of promise here.
I hope you enjoyed this second installment of Supporting Local Soccer. Coming soon are my return to Fort Worth, my trip to Little Rock to check out the Rangers and my visit to Texas United FC in Grand Prairie. As always, thanks for reading, and if you have a unique soccer experience that you’d like me to check out, always feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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