Photos by Seth Laubinger
The Association Football Club of Mobile (AFC Mobile) first fielded a men’s soccer team in 2017. For three seasons, they provided thrills to local fans as a member of the Gulf Coast Premier League (GCPL).
A decision was then made to transition to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) for the 2020 campaign. NPSL is one of the largest men’s soccer leagues in the U.S., with almost 100 teams competing in 14 regional conferences.
Those plans were put on hold as NPSL canceled last summer’s games in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The wait, though, is finally over.
AFC Mobile — affectionately known by its dedicated fan base as the Azaleas — will open the season this Saturday in Hattiesburg against the Southern States SC Stars. After another road trip May 8 to face the New Orleans Jesters, AFC Mobile will open the home schedule May 15 against Port City FC of Gulfport.
“At that time, we had a lot of momentum going,” AFC Mobile head coach Steve Wieczorek said, looking back to 2020. “To learn the season was not happening was a hit.”
However, the organization took the time to expand its programs to the community.
“The break allowed us to start our youth academy,” Wieczorek said. “A year away from the senior team turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It turned out to be really positive for the club.”
Wieczorek, who left his position as Spring Hill College’s soccer coach in March to focus full-time on AFC Mobile, said he and his players are ready to return to action.
“There is a build-up of anticipation,” he said. “We had a few resign from our 2019 team, but a lot stayed onboard. Now we have added a few more players for this season.
“In that regard, we will hit the ground running with a full year of preparation.”
Azalea fans will be happy to see Chisom Ogbonna — the team’s all-time leading scorer with 20 goals in 18 games — back on the roster. The forward will once again serve as team captain, an honor he first received for the lost 2020 campaign.
“He is a very influential player who has been with us since the GCPL days,” Wieczorek said. “He has the right level of maturity and experience to be our captain.”
Another strength for the club is at goalkeeper.
“We have Will Blake, a McGill-Toolen graduate who plays for Florida Gulf Coast University, back on the roster,” Wieczorek said. “We can also call on Barou Ndaw, who played for me at Spring Hill, and Salvador Plaza, who plays at Montevallo.”
The coach, who holds a doctorate degree in sports management from Troy University, said AFC Mobile has a lot of depth at the defender position.
“We have Zubair Taylor and Vlad Margolin returning,” Wieczorek said. “We also added Stanley Joseph and Andrew Rhoda. We have a lot of collegiate players who see action in the Gulf South Conference. We also have two good young players from our U-19 roster who will be joining us in Ryan Green and Salia Carr.”
One new player Wieczorek said fans should watch for is Blake Palmquist.
“He is an NCAA Division 2 player from Montana,” the coach said. “He is very exciting and very athletic. I can’t wait to work with him.”
Other midfielders coming back are Arad Lev Ari, Mike Conneh and Eddie Dakwa. Another former Spring Hill player is Iba Ndaw.
“We want to make sure to identify the top talent in Mobile,” Wieczorek said. “It was also important to retain the majority of players we brought in from outside the city. Both groups raise our profile and attract the highest level of players from across the U.S.”
Joining the NPSL
Wieczorek, who will have Brent Grube from Mary G. Montgomery and Ruben Risco from UMS-Wright helping him coach, said playing in the NPSL will be an exhilarating change.
“The NPSL is the highest amateur league in the country,” he said. “This is a really big step for Mobile. I am proud and excited for the opportunity.”
While some teams will be familiar to Azalea fans, others will provide new rivalries. Joining the Magnolias in the NPSL’s Gulf Coast Conference will be Florida Roots FC of Panama City, Jacksonville Armada FC, New Orleans Jesters, Pensacola FC, Port City FC, Southern States SC and Tallahassee SC.
“Because of our U-19 team last fall, we got to see Southern States and the Jesters in action,” Wieczorek said. “This gives us an insight into how their senior team will play.
“I think we will have a highly competitive and exciting season. All the teams I coach approach the games in a fast-break style. We will certainly be in contention. We just have to do it on the field.”
Home games will again be played at the Archbishop Lipscomb Stadium (3610 Michael Blvd. in Mobile). Games at The Lip will begin at 7 p.m. AFC Mobile officials said capacity will be limited this season.
Four different season pass packages are available for purchase. These include:
Package A: Features an AFC Mobile-branded silicone wristband that entitles you to admission to all home matches and exclusive events;
Package B: Gains admission to every AFC Mobile home match, including home playoffs, along with your choice of a 2021 season scarf or a 2021 season T-shirt. These designs are produced by Mobile-based artists and will be revealed prior to the season;
Package C: Gains admission to all of AFC Mobile’s home matches, along with a 2021 scarf and a 2021 season shirt;
Package D: Gains admission to all AFC Mobile home matches, including playoffs hosted by the Azaleas, along with AFC Mobile’s first-ever custom home jersey, designed by local artists and produced by Hummel.
To purchase tickets or to learn more about the Azaleas, visit afcmobile.net or call 251-272-9507.
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