Asheville City players celebrate a goal in front of the South Slope Blues. Photo courtesy Asheville City SC.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Asheville is a city best known for craft breweries, beautiful surroundings, a vibrant arts scene and the famous Biltmore Estate. But since its founding in 2016, Asheville City SC has also become a vital part of what makes the community unique.
One of League Two’s newest clubs, Asheville City will bring incredible fan support and civic engagement to the league next season. The club’s “Just Play” initiative is a perfect example of its commitment to give back to the city it calls home.
The initiative seeks to expand access to local soccer by eliminating traditional barriers to participation. The club donates soccer balls to young players in need and gives Asheville’s underserved population the opportunity to learn the game from players and coaches both at local community centers and at Memorial Stadium.
“The Just Play initiative has helped bond the community and the team together,” said Asheville City Head Coach Mick Giordano. “Our players and coaches reach out to the community and spend quality time with young children and teenagers, which helps create a love and passion for football that has changed so many lives. This is truly the heartbeat of Asheville City.”
“Each week we tend to have a number of players volunteer for different initiatives,” added Jamie Smith, a defender from Birmingham, England. “Sometimes there are hospital visits and other times it's to help coach kids. It's all about making those efforts off the field to build a community, so that we all support each other and continue to make ACSC what it is and what it stands for.”
The club's Just Play initiative involves its players with the community. Photo courtesy Asheville City SC
The club also organizes the Asheville City Academy, which promotes the growth of U15-to-U19 players from the area at no cost to the players or their families. In addition to removing American soccer’s often-cited “pay-to-play” bogeyman, the academy helps develop local talent in the hope of creating future homegrown players for the club’s first team.
The work Asheville City does to give back to its community is far from a one-way street. The club has developed an ultra-loyal fanbase which supports it vigorously, none more so than the South Slope Blues.
The Blues are a supporters group founded by Gregory Cooper and Josh Fisk, who used their connections with the American Outlaws' Asheville chapter to get the group up and running before the club’s inaugural season.
The South Slope Blues. Photo courtesy Asheville City SC
“As soon as we got word that there was potential of a soccer team in Asheville, we jumped at the opportunity to start a supporters group,” said Cooper. “We knew there would be a huge response because Asheville is a hot-bed for soccer, and we wanted to try to provide a game-day community for the already existing soccer culture.”
After four seasons, it’s tough to think of a better supporters group at this level of American soccer than the Blues.
“The support from our community is beyond words. Come to any game and you’ll feel an infectious energy,” said Giordano. “We wouldn't be where we are today if it wasn't for our South Slope Blues. The crowd plays a big role in our team, and the energy on the field. This club is a family, and the Blues are a huge part of that family. Every fan will be needed as we enter into the challenging League Two schedule next May.”
“The South Slope Blues were like family to me, always asking how I was doing and asking about my life outside of the team,” said Kyle McCurley, a midfielder from Wake Forest. “Off the pitch is where they really showed how special they are.
“Whenever I saw supporters out in the city, they would always be sure to check up on myself and the team — making sure we were always ready for the next matchup and giving us confidence.”
It’s easy to assume that such rabid fan support comes naturally in Asheville, and to a certain degree it does. But a key part of what makes the marriage between club and supporters so successful is the open dialogue between the two, which is actively fostered by both sides.
“We keep an open dialogue year-round with the ownership and try to have public meetings at Hi-Wire [a local brewery, which is also the club’s kit sponsor] with them a couple times a year so that both parties can hear each others opinions,” said Cooper. “Because of the club's transparency, we have been able to work together, solve problems, and grow respectively.”
Communities and clubs function most effectively when they come to see themselves as reflections of each other. That has absolutely been the case in Asheville, where the club has made it clear they exist in large part to serve the surrounding area.
The environment around the team is built on inclusivity. Last season, one home match was “Pride Night,” and the Blues set off rainbow smoke flares. Another match was “Sensory Friendly Night.” All these initiatives and more are infused with the local flavor of Asheville.
“When you come to a home game, you'll drink local beer, eat local food, hear local musicians, and cheer on local players,” said Cooper.
Aside from the club’s tremendous growth off the pitch, it has been equally impressive in its on-field performance. Some of USL League One’s top players over the course of its inaugural season were Asheville City alumni: Lansing Ignite FC’s Elma N’for was an Asheville product, as were Cameron Saul and Dominic Boland, key pieces in Greenville Triumph SC’s run to the League One Final.
The South Slope Blues send off rainbow smoke flares during an Asheville City SC women's game on the club's Pride Night. Photo courtesy Asheville City SC.
“The number one goal for myself and our staff is to put the boys in a professional environment every single day they spend with us during the summer,” said Giordano. “If we can help them prepare for the intensity, sharpness, and character needed to be a consistent pro day in and day out, then our hope is the boys will be ready for the professional level when their moment comes.”
The club and its fans are confident that Giordano is the right man to accomplish those goals as they embark on their first League Two campaign. On October 25, Asheville City announced it had signed Giordano to a multi-year contract extension through 2021, a deal which also makes him the Sporting Director for the club’s men’s side. It certainly warrants mentioning that Asheville City’s women’s side does equally incredible work in the community and on the pitch competing in the WPSL.
“I have been extremely blessed in my short coaching career to be around some of the best coaches in the college game,” said Giordano, who also coaches at UNC-Asheville. “Ultimately, I'd love to progress full time into the professional ranks... Coaching in League Two certainly helps get me one step closer to that goal. It will provide me with new challenges and new tools to grow within the league and it will be wonderful to develop my own coaching education.
“In the meantime, my main focus is helping ACSC continue to grow and find success. My goal is to have each of our players that play for Asheville City be prepared enough to make it to the next level while finding professional contracts.”
Participants in the "Just Play" initiative. Photo courtesy Asheville City SC.
Ahead of the move to League Two, there’s plenty of buzz about the club’s next evolution. Aside from a step up in the level of competition on the pitch, the club will have added visibility to showcase what they have worked so hard to build.
“Personally, I'm excited to see the impact it will have,” said Cooper of the league switch. “Having USL in the club's corner is a huge asset. As a fan, being able to play big teams that have actual traveling fan bases is great for game day atmosphere. I've talked to many of our players and they're convinced that this will only make ACSC an even more attractive club.”
“The club’s move to League Two is a huge move for us,” said McCurley. “I’m expecting big things in League Two, and I know the rest of the team, the club, and the City of Asheville are too. This is an incredible step and opportunity for us to compete at the highest amateur level out there.”
“It is an exciting time for the club and the community heading into League Two,” said Giordano. “Having played PDL during my college years, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to lead the club into a new era. The move into such a well-known league will be great for us to continue to attract top players from around the country as we push for immediate success.”
With everything going on at the club, Asheville City’s players, coaches, supporters, and community seem primed and ready to strive for that success from the moment the opening whistle blows at Memorial Stadium in 2020.