New on SocTakes: Supporting Local Soccer: My trip to Little Rock

Little Rock Rangers

Image credit: John Lenard/Soc Takes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — My third “Supporting Local Soccer” adventure takes me on the farthest trip yet: 338 miles and roughly five hours northeast from Dallas to Little Rock. I’m here to check out the Little Rock Rangers’ season-ending doubleheader.

This trip technically began back in November 2017. I was sitting around in Inkscape, as I typically spend my free time, and I ended up with an idea for a soccer flag for the Little Rock Rangers. On the ninth of that month, I tweeted that flag design and tagged both the team and the supporters’ group, the Red Watch. We kept talking via Twitter, which eventually led to Red Watch founder Ryan inviting me to Little Rock to catch a game. The game in question is actually two games, a season ending double-header. The WPSL side is set to play Oklahoma City FC, while the men’s team is taking on Tulsa Athletic. With the schedule arranged, it’s time for me to plan my trip.

This is by far the farthest I’ve ever traveled explicitly for a soccer game. It’s 345 miles from my house in North Texas to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. That’s a five-hour and 15-minute drive. My plan is to leave Saturday morning, grab something to eat along the way, stop at the hotel to unpack and unwind before the game, then head to the stadium. After the game, I plan to crash at the hotel and drive home in the morning.

Saturday morning comes and I’m packed for my trip. I’m traveling light; only taking a basic change of clothing, my computer, and the necessary cables and chargers that usually stay inside my bag. I’m not planning to spend a lot of time at the hotel beyond sleeping. I get in the car around 8 a.m. and start heading east. I’ve made this drive from Dallas to Little Rock at least a dozen times before, so I’m pretty comfortable with the route. Basically, just drive southeast until I hit I-30, then drive until I’m in downtown Little Rock. It always amuses me when my GPS app shows something like “continue on I-30 E for 290 miles”.

My first stop of the morning is in Rockwall, which is about 45 minutes into the trip. I stop for breakfast and fuel, and sit to watch the morning’s World Cup action. On the morning in question, Sweden and England are playing. I sit for around a half hour to eat and relax before getting back in the car and back on the highway.

From there, I don’t stop again until I’m in Little Rock at my hotel. I check in, unpack a bit and watch the remainder of Russia vs. Croatia. I text Ryan and ask about any pregame activities. He informs me that there’s nothing planned for today, but that there’s an excellent restaurant down the street from the stadium that I should try. The place is called “Big Orange Burger,” and the chicken sandwich I order is wonderful. From there, I drive the half mile to the stadium.

The Rangers play at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, a venue I’ve actually been to several times before for college football. It’s the second-largest stadium in the state, seating a whopping 54,120. Ryan has arranged press credentials for me for the day, giving me access to the entire facility. I meet a friend from Reddit, Ben, and we head into the stands. This stadium really is massive. It was renovated not long ago, and it definitely feels like a Division I college football venue. Maybe it’s the stadium, maybe it’s the team itself, but my initial impression walking in is that this feels professional.

If there is a criticism to make of War Memorial Stadium, it’s that the markings on the field indicate the primary purpose. There’s a football gridiron, thick white lines, bold “ARKANSAS” lettering in the end zones and all. The soccer markings are done in yellow, and look weather-worn and somewhat faded. They’re not the easiest to see. On that point, though, there may be some good news in the near future for the Rangers. There have been rumors saying that the stadium will undergo additional renovations with soccer as a focus, and the Little Rock Rangers would be considered a primary tenant.

The first game of the day is the WPSL game between Little Rock and Oklahoma City FC. Oklahoma City is a veteran of the league and one of the strongest teams in the Central Region. Little Rock isn’t. Quite simply, they just don’t have the same depth, and their roster is much younger and less experienced. It shows. OKC scores in the eighth minute. And then again in the 19th. And then again in the 25th. Little Rock is able to maintain that 3-0 scoreline through to halftime, but four minutes into the second half, OKC scores a fourth. A minute later, they score a fifth. The next 26 minutes see Little Rock looking its best, and they have a few threatening moments on the other end. That is, until OKC scores a sixth on the counter in the 76th minute. It’s a bit back and forth for the final fifteen minutes, but Little Rock only has one good shot that’s saved.

After the first game, I get up to wander around, check out the press box and investigate the various concession and merchandise booths in the stadium. I pick up a scarf and Ben buys me a beer from a local brewery. It’s a Bluewing blueberry wheat ale from Flyway. I’m not normally much for beer, but this is objectively not bad. For the second game, Ben and I join Ryan and the rest of the Red Watch to get the full local supporters’ experience. Ryan picks up a flagpole off the ground to show me. It’s my flag. I’ve seen the pictures on Twitter, but there’s something really surreal and incredible about seeing one of my creations made real. I grab an obligatory selfie with the flag, and legitimately consider signing it for a moment.

The Red Watch has a dozen or so members here tonight for the game. Ryan hands everyone present some streamers and a red Enola Gaye smoke grenade. This is my first time holding such a device and I can’t hide my excitement. Ryan also hands me a Red Watch scarf and it has that inky, new-scarf smell. The Red Watch is full of interesting and delightful characters, and we instantly hit it off. I’m surprised to find myself surprised at how tied in they all are to lower-division American soccer. It’s wonderful.

This second game is a bit of a big deal. Little Rock is looking to secure a home playoff game for the first time in club history, and all they need to do tonight is win. Tulsa Athletic, meanwhile, has a chance to spoil the party and force the Rangers to travel to Oklahoma for the first round of the playoffs. The two clubs sit level on points with identical 6-3-0 records, just below FC Wichita.

I’m informed by the Red Watch members that this is definitely a rivalry. Tulsa and Little Rock have been playing each other since Little Rock joined the NPSL in 2016, and Little Rock has never won. The previous encounter between the two was a particularly ugly affair: Tulsa won at home 6-1. That blowout actually stands as the worst loss ever suffered by the Rangers. Tonight, they’re definitely out for revenge.

From kickoff, it’s chippy. Both teams have received a yellow card by the 20th minute. Every challenge is rough and physical. This is undeniably a rivalry, and every player knows it. The Red Watch responds by going nuts, making noise, banging drums and singing loud enough to get half the stadium involved. There might only be a dozen of them, but it’s absolutely plenty to feel like a party.

The crowd at large is definitely not bad, and there must be at least 2,000 people in the stands. I’m comparing this mentally to the game I attended in Fort Worth, and while it’s a tough call to say which crowd is larger, I’m giving the advantage to Little Rock. I shouldn’t be surprised given what I already knew about the club, but any team that manages to get that many people to an amateur soccer game in Arkansas is doing so many things right.

Back to the game. It’s now late in the first half and Little Rock is still out for blood. Somehow, this game is still scoreless, thanks in no small part to minor heroics from Tulsa’s goalkeeper. The first half ends without much additional faffery, and I use the halftime break to socialize with my fellow soccer crazies.

The second half begins with much of the same ongoing stalemate that marked the first. Both sides have their moments, but nothing particularly dramatic happens for the first 20 minutes of the second half. In the 65th minute, yellow cards are handed out to Little Rock’s Daishi Uekuri and Tulsa’s Adam Habib. These work a fair bit to calm both sides down for 10 minutes or so. The ball goes out for an Athletics corner in the 79th minute. After a minor skirmish in the box, Little Rock’s keeper makes a save, punts the ball 70 yards down the field and right to a charging Alex Guadron. He shakes three defenders, takes a shot from 12 yards out and scores.

Everyone goes nuts. Smoke grenades, drumming, streamers, screaming. The entire team comes over to celebrate right in front of the supporters. The kickoff is taken, and the Little Rock players push forward immediately. Tulsa is forced to bunker and counter for the first minute or so. And then, Adam Habib gets a second yellow for a clumsy challenge along the sideline. Little Rock now has a goal and man advantage, and 10 minutes to keep the lead. Easy.

From then on, Little Rock is clearly in full control of the game. Tulsa looks tired and they’re having a hard time keeping up while shorthanded. It only takes Little Rock nine minutes to score a second, and it’s a gorgeous chip from 10 yards out. This time, Tulsa’s ‘keeper actually gets a hand on it, but it slips through his arms into the net. Cue a second round of celebratory chaos.

One of the team staffers on the sideline walks over to the supporters and starts discussing something I never expected. We’re going onto the field. All of us. We watch the final few minutes of stoppage time from field level. It feels like an eternity. The final whistle blows and we storm the field. I run out to midfield, then drop back, pull my phone out and start recording. This is such a surreal experience. I’m high-fiving players and shaking hands. Everyone is standing and cheering.

Security gives us five minutes to celebrate before retrieving us from the field. I take a few minutes to chat with my new Arkansan soccer friends before heading out of the stadium and back to my hotel. What a night. I take a half hour or so to document my thoughts before heading to bed.

The next day, I wake up reasonably early, make a quick vlog about my trip and hit the road. It’s a nice, uneventful drive home.

The following Wednesday, Little Rock hosts its first home playoff game in club history, a rematch against Tulsa. The home side wins 1-0 with the lone goal coming in the 90th minute. Little Rock moves on to the Heartland Conference Final, where they face a dominant FC Wichita team. Little Rock manages to hold Wichita scoreless for 90 minutes, holds strong as the match goes to extra time and forces a penalty shootout. Andres Ochoa misses the third penalty for Wichita. Little Rock doesn’t miss any. The Rangers move on to the South Region semifinals, traveling all the way to Texas to play the Laredo Heat. The game is tied 1-1 after 90. Little Rock’s Donald Benamna, the hero from the first playoff game, scores in the 115th to send the Rangers to the South Region finals. Their opponent? Miami FC 2.

The game in Miami isn’t much of a fair matchup, given what Miami FC did to the rest of the NASL in 2017. Little Rock’s playoff journey ends with a 3-0 loss far away from home, but it’s still their best season ever. And my friend Ben, who I invited to the game? He caught the local soccer bug hard, and is now well integrated with both the Red Watch and the Rangers team.

Thanks for reading the third installment in “Supporting Local Soccer.” I hope you enjoyed this piece as much as I enjoyed my trip. If you have a unique local soccer experience you’d like to share, reach out to me on Twitter. If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, check them out here and here.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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