From left to right: Howell, Zerbini, Mumford and Cox. | Image Credit: Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
RICHMOND, Va. – The Richmond Kickers on Thursday announced the signing of goalkeeper Eli Mumford, defender Otavio Zerbini, defender Beckett Howell and midfielder Gabe Cox to USL Academy contracts for the 2023 season, pending league and federation approval.
“We are committed to developing young players and helping them achieve the professional level,” Richmond Kickers’ Chief Sporting Officer and Head Coach, Darren Sawatzky said. “All four of these players represent different paths to get here, but we are fully devoted to helping each of them not only get better in the game but get on the field and help us win games.”
Mumford joins for a second season with the Kickers after spending the entire 2022 season working with the team and goalkeeping coach Akira Fitzgerald. While not appearing in a USL League One match last season, Mumford played between the pipes on loan at NPSL side Grove Soccer United which also played its home matches at City Stadium.
“Eli grew immensely in 2022 working with Akira every day along with getting game minutes with Grove United in the summer,” Sawatzky said. “As we progressed into the final phase of the season and were preparing for playoffs, Eli was in the discussion each week. We are looking for him to continue to grow and push to get on the field in 2023.”
Mumford has progressed as a modern goalkeeper that is comfortable having the ball at his feet. The 18-year-old flashed his agility whenever he was in the goal, quick to come off his line to disrupt opposition attacks or make a save.
“After a truly incredible first year with Darren, Mika, Akira, and the team, I hope to continue and advance myself on the field by working even harder and really refining my skill set as well as to contribute to the team any way I possibly can in order to bring another championship back to Richmond,” Mumford said. “I also hope to continue the work off the field, in order to maintain this amazing culture we have built and help out in the community. I am extremely excited to be back and cannot wait to get started.”
Zerbini joined the Kickers in the middle of the 2022 season after playing in South Africa. The 18-year-old proved himself at Hout Bay United FC’s U-18 squad and was promoted to the first team.
“As we develop our player pathway, we are looking for quality young players from all avenues,” Sawatzky said. “Otavio was a pleasant surprise midseason academy signing this past year. He worked very hard and he grew as a young professional player. He has bite, he is very good in one-versus-one defending situations, and he is mature beyond his years. This preseason and full season will be the next step for him as he progresses. We see him fighting for minutes on the back line immediately.”
Zerbini showed when he arrived in Richmond that he was capable of playing across the backline and was eager to build up play from the back. An admirer of Thiago Silva, Zerbini matched aggression with cerebral play.
“I want to help the team win another regular season and, this time, go all the way and win the playoffs,” Zerbini said. “I really enjoyed my time here last year and want to build on it and develop under Darren and the staff to bring many trophies for the Kickers this year and beyond.”
Howell is a standout youth defender from Glen Allen, Va. making the jump from the U-18 level to training and maturing in a professional environment.
“We had Beckett train with us and we can see his ability and competitive nature,” Sawatzky said. “The jump from youth soccer to professional soccer is demanding but his commitment to fighting his way into the discussion is there. Beckett is a good young leader and he has a warrior’s attitude. We are looking forward to watching his progress as we motor into the season.”
Howell is a modern center back that is comfortable playing the ball out of the back. He matches his calmness on the ball with aggression off the ball using his already 6 feet 2 inches tall frame to shut down attackers.
“It means so much to be able to represent the city that I grew up playing in,” Howell said. “I have worked hard for this moment and want to thank Darren for giving me such an amazing opportunity. I can’t wait to learn, develop, and fight for the Reds.”
Cox joins the Kickers after playing in the Columbus Crew SC U-17s that finished as 2022 MLS Next Cup Finalists this past summer. He earned the start in the final for the Black and Yellow.
“Gabe is a young man that brings character to the locker room,” Sawatzky said. “He is good on the ball and he has great passing range. He is young but ready for the challenge of professional football. He represents our commitment to young players and the ability they have. If you are good enough, you are old enough. It is a pleasure to welcome Gabe into the group, now the work begins.”
Cox prides himself on being a versatile midfielder. While a player that thrives in a creative, attacking role, he enjoys rolling up his sleeves and helping out on the defensive end when the team is out of possession.
“Signing with Kickers ahead of the 2023 season is a great opportunity and it means a lot to me,” Cox said. “I’m excited to learn and grow as a player, and I’m looking forward to competing day in and day out to help the team succeed.”