Stockade FC 2017 wrapup: A year to build on

Stockade FC’s Ernie Mitchell makes a challenge to a TSF Academy player during a match at Dietz last month. (photo by Nicole Terpening)

No one involved in Kingston Stockade FC seems eager to let go of the 2017 season. Though their impressive sophomore run ended with a 6-3 loss nearly two weeks ago on artificial turf in northern New Jersey, the echoes of traveling supporters chanting well after the final whistle are still as fresh as they were that night.

Which is why coaches, players, fans and club officials are treating what remains of the National Premier Soccer League’s playoffs as a place mark. At some point after the league-champ is crowned, the NPSL will award bids to the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and there’s a chance Stockade FC will be selected.

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The Open Cup gives teams across the wide breadth of professional and semi-pro soccer across the country an opportunity to play their way through a lengthy knockout bracket, including those in top-tier Major League Soccer. At present, only eight NPSL teams are guaranteed a shot, the only eight remaining as of last week’s regional finals. These include Detroit City FC, first-year Elm City Express and Clarkstown SC Eagles, which after beating Stockade in the regional semifinals on July 22 earned their third straight bid.

How the rest of it shakes out is unclear. For the still-ongoing 2017 Open Cup, the NPSL awarded a total of 18 bids. If that number holds true, Stockade FC could be among them. That certainly seems to be the opinion of TheCup.us, a popular website devoted to coverage of the Open Cup. In a story published on July 30 ranking the top 30 NPSL teams, Kingston placed 12th. That’s not a guarantee, but it does at least confirm the club is in the conversation, even if Chairman Dennis Crowley and General Manager Randy Kim don’t want to get overly excited about the possibility.

Even the team’s post-playoffs e-mail blast was cagey, sandwiching a parenthetical mention in the second half of a paragraph most of the way down the page. But they want it. Everyone who works for the team, volunteers for the team, plays for the team, supports the team wants the chance to play at least one more game on top of all their others next year. The wait may feel interminable, but it also gives everyone an artificial buffer on closing out 2017, a season of surpassed expectations, consistent and impassioned soccer, and truly magical moments. Waiting means basking in those moments awhile longer, and why not?

Last week, the Kingston Times dissected the regional semifinal loss to Clarkstown, a 6-3 result that on paper fails to tell the full scope of what really happened on the steamy suburban soccer pitch at Drew University in Madison, N.J. For the handful of Eagles fans drowned out by nearly 300 drumming, chanting and singing Stockade supporters, it must have been infuriating — is a win really a win if you can’t spoil someone else’s experience by gloating about it?

“I haven’t experienced stuff like that before,” said Crowley, still overwhelmed by the sense of community surrounding his team a week after the match. “You know the players, you know a lot of the fans, and you know how meaningful it is to everyone. I remember feeling angry when [Clarkstown’s Christopher Katona] was taunting the drummers, thinking, ‘This guy is making fun of us? This is the best thing that’s going on in lower-level soccer in the Northeast, and this guy is taunting it?’ And then Pedro [Espindola] is right in his face. That’s important. That means a lot.”

Espindola, a first-year Stockade forward who like other college soccer players joined the club after a season-opening loss to Hartford City FC in early May, quickly became a fan favorite, rushing to the sidelines after one of his many artful goals to celebrate with the kids who hang on Kingston’s every maneuver. Espindola scored the first two Kingston goals in the regional semifinal before their seasoned opponent found their rhythm in the second half. When the momentum turned to taunting, he’d had enough, stepping between Katona’s antics and the Stockade-heavy stands and telling his opponent in no uncertain terms that he needed to knock it off.

“They backed me up the whole season,” said Espindola after the match, the crowd still chanting in the stands. “They sang my name and gave me so much love. It’s the least I could do. I will not stand someone pointing at them and trying to make fun of them, because I have so much passion for this team and for the fans and for the community itself that it’s not going to happen in front of me.”

For Crowley and Kim, the totally spontaneous outpouring of emotion from the supporters encapsulated the symbiotic relationship that connects everyone who wants to see this team succeed: Even when Stockade FC doesn’t win, they still win.

“I didn’t expect that at the end,” Crowley said. “I was thinking, ‘It’s lousy that everyone has to drive home after this loss.’ But the fact that we all stayed there and cheered everybody on and frustrated the other fans into leaving first, there’s something really organically beautiful about that. I haven’t experienced that type of thing before.”

Kim said by any measure, Stockade FC’s second season was a success.

“Entering this season there were obviously some stated goals, and making the playoffs was one,” he said. “To be in a position where we won the conference, won a playoff match, and then stand a chance of making the US Open Cup, those are huge achievements. Once you take stock of everything that’s been achieved in your sophomore year, it’s pretty impressive. And it sets the bar high for next season.”

Team officials have often spoken of the importance of reaching the community, the success of which is measured by tangibles — attendance at home and on the road, merchandise sales — and intangibles — smiles on the faces of kids when they get a photo signed, the roar of the crowd — and how they’d like to try and build upon that relationship each season. But on May 6, 10 minutes into a rainy first half of the opening game at Dietz with Stockade down 2-0 to Hartford, Crowley admitted he looked at an attendance of fewer than 500 and wasn’t sure they’d managed to do that.

“Someone gave me a piece of advice in the off-season, a guy who runs another club somewhere, and he said, ‘You know, the second season is the hardest. I know you’re coming off a huge success, but you should be prepared to be humbled for the second season,’” Crowley said. “And I’d had that in the back of my head since he said it to me. When we had that first match and the rain came and we lost, I remember thinking, ‘Maybe that guy was right, maybe this is going to be harder.’”

But then Kingston got good. Very good. Over their next nine games, they went 7-1-1, building up enough distance between themselves and their Atlantic White Conference opponents that two losses to close out the regular season still left them atop the table, owners of a first-round bye, and eventually a first-ever playoff victory with a 2-1 revenge win over Hartford on July 15. By the end of the season, the club was pushing the limits of Dietz Stadium’s 1,500-capacity.

“The difference between the first game and the last game is the team is doing well, and I think we as an organization did a better job of telling the story about the team existing in a conference, in a region in a much bigger league,” Crowley said. “When you say it’s Kingston competing against the country, that’s a cool story to tell.”

Crowley added that some fans seemed surprised by even having a second season, because even with the club’s clear popularity in 2016, local semi-pro sports aren’t guaranteed in Kingston or anywhere else. Except that Crowley, Kim, and everyone involved up and down the team’s hierarchy has an unquenchable belief that Stockade FC is here to stay.

“We heard this a lot in our first season: ‘You’re another group of folks trying to do a semi-pro team in Kingston. This has been tried a bunch of times and it doesn’t work,’” Crowley said. “I haven’t seen the instances that didn’t work, so we came into it thinking, ‘This has to work. It will definitely work. We’ll find a way to make it work.’ And I think it takes a season for people to see and believe that. I remember someone said to me at the end of the first season, ‘Wait, you guys are going to come back next year?’ ‘Of course we’re going to come back. Why would we not come back next year? We’re going to do this forever.’”

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Kim said that much of the club’s success is down to the many people who make the Stockade machine hum.

“The work done by all our volunteers to ensure every match day, every detail is addressed and covered with a degree of professionalism I think many pro sports franchises would be envious of,” he said. “Part of it speaks to the fact that people enjoy something that’s authentic. That’s the one thing when we entered into this, working with guys like [player personnel staff] Dan and Nick Hoffay, and obviously Coach [David] Lindholm, from top to bottom we try and treat this like a proper football club, from player introductions to having an awesome crest to the chants we’re doing. This is real, and you can pick up on that vibe as soon as you step into the stadium. We always felt like that if we do something that is about the soccer experience that we’ve experienced as fans, people are going to enjoy that.”

Kingston Stockade FC is made up of high-profile team officials, local players who have become stars to the team’s supporters, coaches and game day staff, volunteers, ball boys and girls and a growing number of fans. The success of all those moving parts working together was seen on the road against Clarkstown, where at times nearly 300 Stockade supporters made it seem louder than when Dietz Stadium has five times as many fans doing the same thing. Stockade FC is based in Kingston and serves soccer fans in the Hudson Valley, but it’s spreading.

“One of the goals in the beginning of the season was, ‘Let’s try to bring more fans to the away games than the home teams bring,’” Crowley said. “When we went to the Boston game [on July 8], we thought we had more fans. When we showed up at the New York Athletic Club field [on May 20], we had more fans. And then we showed up at the playoff game [against Clarkstown] and it wasn’t even close. The home fans felt uncomfortable that we brought so many people. That’s kind of what we’re going for.”

Kingston Stockade FC will begin focusing on 2018 soon enough, but you’ll forgive them perhaps for wanting to hang on to the 2017 season just a bit longer.