Keath Kaufmann leads members of the Causeway Rebellion into the stadium for an AFC Mobile match on May 11.
Photo | Lagniappe
The drum beats on a dreary Saturday sounded like thunder, although the storms had passed hours before. The yellow smoke began to rise, like artificial sunshine, and as members of the Causeway Rebellion took their seats at Archbishop Lipscomb Stadium, the chants started.
Whether it’s the fans beating drums and wearing war paint, or the maroon and gold flags emblazoned with the AFC Mobile Azaleas crest flying, a very loyal group of soccer faithful follow the team and bring an added dose of excitement to the games of the 3-year-old Gulf Coast Premier League (GCPL) side.
“We’re the Causeway Rebellion,” co-founder Keath Kaufmann said. “We tried to think of an original name, something that represented the area, something that could be fun to play with in the soccer community. And it really all started because a lot of the guys on the board here are good friends of mine. I heard we were getting a team, and the heart and soul of every team comes from the supporters’ club.”
The local supporters’ group is as energetic as you’ll see and mimics those known to American television audiences for boisterous behavior at the highest levels of professional soccer.
“It’s probably as good as could be replicated with the resources,” Causeway Rebellion member Michael Linder said over the new chants being taught to the faithful. “It is designed to be something everybody here can relate to. If I could get to the core of it, that’s it. We want kind of a European experience, but for the South.”
Kaufmann described the group as made up of die-hard fans who might take things a bit more seriously than a casual fan on a match day.
“When you’re with the supporters’ group, it’s typically people who are a little more than your fair-weather fans,” he said. “We’re yelling a little bit more. We’re a little more involved in the match.”
The group can get a whole stadium of fans into the action, Linder said.
“That’s the thing: I’ve seen 20 of us get a stadium of 1,000 going,” he said. “Not to toot our own horn, but we make the gameday experience awesome.”
Linder, Kaufmann and other members of the group met for pre-game festivities at Lucky Irish Pub & Grill on May 4 to talk about life, their favorite European sides and to go over chants for an upcoming pre-season, or friendly, match against Baton Rouge Soccer Club.
While a small group of fans makes it to the bar on a regular basis, when it’s not raining in the late spring and summer, members of the group meet in the stadium’s parking lot for a more traditional tailgate experience.
“We always set up a tailgate in the parking lot before the game, where we’ll have cornhole boards and music. Everyone will hang out there and then Lucky also helps us out,” Kaufmann said. “They provide drink specials and food specials for us.”
Support for the local team seems to be strong. AFC Mobile has shattered previous GCPL attendance records in its three years of existence. On average, 800 to 1,000 fans will fill the seats for a Saturday evening match. As members of the Causeway Rebellion will tell you, only a small percentage of the attendance comes from them. Even in the beginning, Kaufmann said team owners were surprised by the turnout.
Specifically, Kaufmann remembers a conversation he had with a team board member before the first home match. He said the supporters’ group could bring in 50 to 75 fans, but that was it.
“Next thing you know they’re texting me, ‘Oh my God are these your people?’ I’m saying, ‘No, we’re still here at the bar,’” he said. “We showed up with over 500 people that first match.”
The popularity is not lost on the players either, who are not paid and use the GCPL season as a tune-up to the college soccer season. For many of the players, Kaufmann said, AFC Mobile outdraws their college games.
“I was able to talk to a couple of the new kids last week and they’re looking forward to playing in front of more than 100 people because at some of these colleges they’re playing at, that’s all they’re getting,” he said. “They’re like, if there are 200 people there, that’d be fun for us.”
The reaction from the players helps energize the supporters, which in turn helps make the team better at acquiring talent, Kaufmann said.
“We want to support them and we want them to know they’re welcome here and we want them to represent our city and they want to represent our city,” he said. We’re building that reputation where now kids are learning about AFC Mobile because they hear about the fans, and we’re bringing in a new level of talent that is bringing our squad up.”
Local popularity of soccer
Every one of the AFC Mobile die-hards has his or her own theory for why the sport has seen a surge of popularity in a part of the country where a “pitch” is called a “field” and the term “football” usually only refers to the one with an offensive line.
Kaufmann attributes at least some of the sport’s popularity here to the founding of a branch of U.S. soccer fans called American Outlaws. Headquartered out of O’Daly’s Irish Pub downtown, the 88th incarnation of the rowdy supporters group brought soccer fans to the same place at the same time.
“That really started getting people’s interest in it and then the World Cup [in Brazil] happens,” he said. “We’ve got people down there … just absolute scenes. The U.S. scores, drinks fly everywhere, people throw their arms in the air, people dance on tables. It was a blast.”
Some local fans, like Dustin Wilson, brought their love of the game with them from soccer hotbeds. Wilson played soccer as a kid and later would watch Major League Soccer matches in Seattle. He moved to Mobile during the ice storm about five years ago and found a group on the internet was braving the storm by watching soccer at O’Daly’s.
“There were five or six of us there,” he said. “I had found my people.”
Transplants aren’t the reason for the increased popularity of the sport in Mobile, though, Linder said. It has more to do with the growing popularity of the sport throughout the country and the increased eagerness of television networks to pay top dollar to cover European matches.
Causeway Rebellion member Dustin Wilson plays a snare drum while entering the stadium for an AFC Mobile match on May 11.
“If I’m going to get up on Saturday morning, I’m going to watch top-level European soccer,” he said. “Twenty years ago that was not an option.”
Soccer at the youth level has gotten more competitive as well, spurred by an increase in the sport, Mobile United FC President Wayne Etheridge said.
“One of the things that has changed is soccer has become more affordable,” he said. “It used to be a very expensive proposition.”
Early on only one youth soccer club existed in Mobile and prices for participation were high, Etheridge said. Smaller groups came along and added some competition.
“We try to be as affordable as we can be,” he said. “We’re not for profit.”
The lower rates to participate led to increased access, which in turn, made the sport more popular locally, Etherridge said.
Development of clubs along the Eastern Shore, as well as Catholic and other private school participation, have helped the sport soar to new heights in recent years, he said.
Jamey Ward, a Causeway Rebellion member and youth soccer referee, said he has noticed a surge in popularity for the sport in recent years.
“Again, you know, in Mobile there seems to be a big culture with it and it was one of those things that a lot of people that are outside of the soccer world didn’t really understand,” he said. “They didn’t realize it was as big as it was.”
County soccer complex
Soccer enthusiasts are excited about the prospect of playing on a tournament-quality pitch once the county’s proposed complex is constructed. With a total price tag estimated at around $20 million, Commission President Connie Hudson has previously said the complex will be completed in phases as funding is made available.
The county has announced a Friday, May 17 groundbreaking on the facility near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 65. In addition, the county received a small grant from the U.S. Soccer Federation to help defray the cost of construction.
For Ward, the complex is long overdue and will allow even better access to soccer for the youth in Mobile.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “So, what I think is going to happen with Mobile is they’re finally going to realize the potential, in a sense, of what they’ve been missing out on.”
Currently for tournaments, everyone travels to Foley or Fairhope, but that will change with the construction of championship fields in Mobile, Ward said. That means the city will begin reaping economic benefits.
“I think the city is going to see the pluses of that as well because, you know, when people come down for those tournaments they’re spending money on food, hotels, all that stuff,” Ward said. “And again, not that I mind going to other places, but it’s nice to have that locally verses somewhere else.”
More on AFC Mobile
Mitchell Kahailey, a spokesman for team ownership, said the local team sprung up organically after a group of friends from Mobile and Baldwin counties found out a team they followed regularly in Pensacola, outside of the GCPL, folded during the middle of a season.
“That left a bunch of players stranded in Pensacola without a place to go,” he wrote in a text message. “So we decided to try and figure out what we could do to help the team.”
After years of meetings, the opportunity to add a Mobile team to the GCPL presented itself, Kahailey wrote.
“I think we all knew that the fan support was there, but we didn’t expect it to be as apparent right away,” he said. “I would have been happy with 100 at the first game, but we had 800. It has only grown since.”
Nicknamed the Wanderers at first and later the Azaleas, Kaufmann said, Mobile AFC began with a nine-member board, including: Kahailey, Abram Chamberlain, Sean Landry, Michael Lynch, Dan McMillan, Zach Taylor, Patrick Dungan, Jeff Garl and J.T. Clark.
As for the future in the team’s current digs, Kahailey wrote that the board is open to a team-specific facility, but added that playing at the Archdiocese-owned stadium has been a key to success.
“We love the gameday experience we have been able to create at ‘The Lip,’” Kahailey wrote. “Our relationship with McGill-Toolen [Catholic High School] and the Archdiocese of Mobile has been wonderful.”
The Azaleas started the season on Saturday, May 11 with a 2-2 draw against a GCPL team from Tallahassee, Florida. The team is currently tied atop the latest five-team GCPL Eastern Conference standings, along with Pensacola FC, Rangers FC on the Eastern Shore and Tallahassee SC. Mobile’s next match is against Hattiesburg (Mississippi) FC.
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