By David Rogers. BOONE, N.C. — Credit COVID-19 for being the disrupter that led two men to find each other and give Sasquatch life — a life that Jason O’Keefe and Michael Hitchcock suggest has taken on a life of its own.
Enthusiastic community support and a passionate fan base that extends well beyond the natural borders of the High Country helped propel Appalachian FC on and off the field the past two startup seasons. With an NPSL division title in 2022, including “Coach of the Year” honors for head mentor Dale Parker, and a first round win this year in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, some might call it an improbable beginning.
It has resulted in a new reality: the Sasquatch-led crew has a target on their collective backs. Those opponents vanquished, perhaps even embarrassed previously by the upstart club of 2021 and 2022 are gunning for payback. For Appalachian FC, what is their encore performance in 2023 going to be?
Appalachian FC plays its first home game of the 2023 season on May 13, 7 p.m., at Ted Mackeroll Soccer Stadium on the western outskirts of Boone. In the May 6 season opener, Appalachian FC tied the Georgia Storm, 1-1, in a tight battle played on the campus of the University of West Georgia (Carrollton, Ga.).
With a core group of returning players, Appalachian FC management assembled a carefully constructed, 34-man roster for the 2023 season. The list is dominated by American-born athletes, but the international flavor is certainly there: England, Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands, Argentina, Scotland, France, South Africa and Barbados. A total of 15 players, almost half the roster, have international origins. They grew up with a ball at their feet and have the skill to prove it.
Many of the players on the roster currently play for college teams or are recently graduated. There is a sprinkling of large school, NCAA Division I athletes, like from NC State, Old Dominion, Liberty, UNC-Greensboro, Memphis and Appalachian State, but there are a great many schools not known for their gridiron football exploits that have high level “futbol” reputations, including Lander, Mars Hill, Chowan, Lees-McRae, Shawnee, Harding, Oberlin, Emory & Henry, and Evansville.
Reinforcing the club’s ties to the local community, Appalachian FC’s roster also includes players who grew up in the High Country, played at Watauga High School, and went away to college but are returning this year to compete for the fans of Squatchy and Co. Others have strong local or regional ties, perhaps having relocated to the area. Tucker Chasteen, Matthew Taubman, Kevin Arguello, Kevin Rios, Thomas McComb, Jair Alvarez, and Jordan Kinder are among those.
What is unique about NPSL-level soccer: many, if not most of the athletes are rising stars competing with ambitions of playing at the next level. Some have already been to the highest professional levels and are looking to get back there by showing what they can do in NPSL. It all makes for fun, high quality soccer and delightful entertainment.
What is unique about Appalachian FC: a lot of those rising stars love what is happening in the High Country where the crowds of 1,000-plus are much more exciting to play for than the 100 or so in other locations. It is culture, community, and fun.
Appalachian FC was born in 2021, after the pandemic prompted Appalachian State’s athletics department to make severe cutbacks in its sports offerings given the uncertainty that dominated any ideas about the future of college sports at the time. A highly successful and popular men’s soccer program was one of the sports cut by the university.
Could something beautiful rise from the ashes?
“Appalachian FC was created out of a negative, really, for the community,” said Jason O’Keefe, former App State men’s soccer coach and now a consultant with Youth.College.Pro Management, based in Denver, North Carolina. “There were a lot of people affected adversely by the pandemic, but it came down to this area being left without an outlet for high level men’s soccer. I have known ‘Hitch’ (Michael Hitchcock, Playbook Management International) for quite awhile and when I first discussed our situation, he almost immediately asked what I thought about forming an NPSL (National Premier Soccer League) club.”
While O’Keefe had to do a lot of research before getting his arms around the idea of an NPSL team in Boone, things came together. O’Keefe warmed up to the idea and Hitchcock brought an extensive background and skillset in “right-size” soccer club development and administration. He has been a senior executive with Major League Soccer. He has built soccer stadium. He owns other soccer teams in the USA and elsewhere around the world.
The first season, 2021, Hitchcock and O’Keefe built the team around a core group of former App State men’s soccer players.
“COVID-19 forced everything to come to an end so suddenly,” O’Keefe recalled. “As players and coaches and even fans, we didn’t get to have a ‘last practice,’ a ‘last match’ or even a ‘last meal’ together. So there was a lot of pent-up interest among the men’s team for coming back and playing high level soccer in the High Country.”
In the second year, 2022, the roster was built not so much around the former App State players, but around a nucleus of players returning from the entire 2021 roster, and adding to that nucleus.
“For 2023, we have had to simultaneously build two rosters. One was special for the U.S. Open Cup tournament’s first round in March and the other was for this NPSL season,” explained O’Keefe. “There isn’t as much overlap between the two as you might hope.”
Scraping together high level players who are fit enough to compete against even lower level professional teams in the U.S. Open Cup is a challenge, to be sure. Appalachian FC did well enough in that task that they defeated a highly competitive North Carolina Fusion side in the first round. Two weeks later, they lost to Charlotte FC in Matthews, N.C., a professional team that is in the middle of its regular season and paying healthy salaries to its players for their fitness, skills, and athletic ability. This week, Charlotte advanced to the Round of 32 (fourth round) after a 1-0 victory over Orlando City Soccer Club, a Major League Soccer franchise.
In constructing the Appalachian FC roster for the 2023 regular season, management is careful to stay true to organization values. In a Zoom call with Michael Hitchcock from his headquarters in Dallas, Texas, the Playbook Management International principal emphasized that at the NPSL level of soccer in the United States, there has to be a great emphasis on making it part of the community.
Appalachian FC has built its brand in the marketplace around the legendary “Bigfoot” character, AKA “Sasquatch.”
One of the very first steps in club development was getting local community partners involved, not just attracting sponsors but also leveraging what they knew to be a growing, passionate fanbase of soccer enthusiasts in the High Country.
“App State men’s soccer may have been the foundation,” said O’Keefe, “because we were getting over 1,000 people in the stands for some games before we were shut down.”
Hitchcock added, “And then you have the very successful High Country United programs for youth and adult soccer, as well as Watauga Parks and Recreation leagues. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world and we can see evidence of that, at least in part, by how robust the community-based programs are here.”
Another important step in club development has been being very intentional about growing the club’s brand.
“We took Sasquatch and emblazoned his caricature in gold on baseball caps and other apparel and merchandise items,” said Hitchcock of his mythical character. “Of course, people in the local community are drawn to Sasquatch and so many, young and old, have become members of our SquatchGuard, the large group of fans that before our matches march from Booneshine, down through the woods to the road leading to the stadium, and on to the grandstands. They are chanting, drumming, making all kinds of noise and having fun. This is one of the most successful community development efforts around soccer of all the teams in the NPSL.”
But there is more to the brand than inciting local community passion.
“We may well be in a relatively small market with limitations on actual spectator development,” said Hitchcock, “but there are people now all over the world buying and wearing these caps and shirts bearing the Appalachian FC and Sasquatch logo. Merchandise sales are expanding our actual market well beyond the High Country. For instance, there were some 17,000 viewers streaming our recent game against the Carolina Fusion in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup.”
That market appeal is not lost on the players, either, nor on the team managers in their efforts aimed at roster development.
Head coach Dale Parker told High Country Sports in a March interview that guys want to come play here in the summer because of the relatively cool weather compared to other locations off the mountain. Hitchcock and O’Keefe added that they also want to come because of the community and fan support, which was clearly evident by the number of Appalachian FC fans that made the 2-hour trek to Mathews in early April, for the second round of the U.S. Open Cup. Appalachian FC had nearly as many supporters as the host, Charlotte FC.
Saturday night for the first home game of the 2023 season, against Apotheos FC, is sure to be special. Seven days later, May 20, Squatchy & Co. will welcome the Georgia Storm for a rematch. If you see smoke curling over the horizon and hear drums on those days, don’t think the local Native Americans are preparing to go on the warpath. More than likely it is just Squatchy getting his young men revved up to play.