The Kickers take on the Hailstorm at City Stadium in April 2023 | Image Credit: Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
RICHMOND, Va. - There are only two professional soccer clubs in the country that have been continuously operating for over 30 years: the Charleston Battery and the Richmond Kickers. Nine different league iterations, five regular season championships, three postseason league crowns and one U.S. Open Cup title later, and the Kickers are still going strong as they enter their 31st season.
For Head Coach and Sporting Director Darren Sawatzky, the secret to Richmond's longevity has much to do with one thing: culture.
"It's funny listening to coaches and leaders talk about 'winning cultures,'" Sawatzky said. "For me, culture isn't a tagline. It isn't just something you mention as you're talking about the game. It starts with culture and it's something you have to work for. Winning isn't just about winning trophies like we did last year; winning is about your community embracing you and people coming to games, and when you talk, people listen."
A storied history that saw the Kickers claim a U.S. Open Cup crown in its first participation in the tournament in 1995 ushered in a golden age of soccer at City Stadium. Richmond finished first or second in the regular season and/or postseason in 9 of 13 seasons between 2001 and 2013.
Between 2014 and 2019, though, the Kickers were trophyless with an average finish of 16th place through six seasons. Amid their first season in the newly formed USL League One, the Kickers determined it was time for a change. Enter Darren Sawatzky and Camp Peery.
Within a year of joining League One, Kickers Chairman Rob Ukrop tabbed his former New England Revolution teammate Darren Sawatzky as Head Coach and Sporting Director. He also added local sports executive Camp Peery as Vice President, Sales and Operations from Minor League Baseball’s Richmond Flying Squirrels.
"It starts with the commitment of the people here, the Ukrop family, and the people that started the club in the beginning," Sawatzky said. "People come here and stay because Richmond is a great place to live.
"At the same time, you have to win. If we're not winning, we won't average 5,000 or 6,000 fans. The other side is you need a front office that's committed. President and COO Camp Perry came over from the Flying Squirrels and over the last few years, he's done a great job in the front office."
Three-time League One MVP Emiliano Terzaghi with Richmond's 2022 USL League One Players' Shield | Image Credit: Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
A season after claiming the 2022 League One Players' Shield and seeing their star striker Emiliano Terzaghi become the first player in American outdoor professional soccer history to be named Most Valuable Player in three consecutive seasons, Richmond have enjoyed back-to-back sellouts of more than 5,000 people at City Stadium to kick off the 2023 season, extending an attendance increase of more than 40% in each season since 2020.
"Richmond is a great soccer community, and that's really evident at the youth level," Richmond Chairman Rob Ukrop said. "You had the Richmond Strikers that started in the late 1970s which now have the Jefferson Cup, you had FC Richmond, and then the Kickers added a youth development system in 2000, so there's always been a love for the game.
"A ton of people from across the country - pro and youth - have come to Richmond to play in a soccer match through the years. I think we have a strong soccer culture in our DNA here in Richmond that I would attribute our success since 1993 to."
The 1995 U.S. Open Cup-winning Richmond Kickers | Image Credit: Richmond Kickers
The Kickers are the only active professional side outside of MLS to have a U.S. Open Cup title to its name, and their 23rd run at the cup continues just two hours up I-95 against its DMV rival, D.C. United.
The Kickers are still hoping to replicate their success in their first participation, all the way back in 1995, when Manchester United FC legend and Kickers Head Coach Dennis Viollet led Richmond to a 1995 title. The Kickers reeled off three consecutive victories in cup play before downing fellow USISL side El Paso Patriots in penalties in a championship match that saw current Kickers Chairman Rob Ukrop named match MVP.
"I think there's so much allure and excitement around it," Ukrop said of the tournament. "In '95, I'd tell you we had the best team in the country, hands down. Before the year started, no matter what league, I thought we were the best team and we were able to demonstrate that on the field which was fantastic.
"After winning the tournament, most of our team left to go play indoor or ended up in MLS when it launched a year later. So back in those days, you were just trying to live paycheck to paycheck. Now the landscape has changed so much."
Newpaper clipping following Richmond's 2-1 U.S. Open Cup victory against D.C. United in 2004 | Image Credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
Ukrop and Sawatzky - who both played in a U.S. Open Cup Final - now turn their attention to D.C. As two of the oldest clubs still kicking in the United States, the pair has a history that's rather interwined.
Not only have Richmond and D.C. faced off five times in official competition and four in friendlies, but the Kickers served as an affiliate of the MLS side between 2013 and 2018 with several players suiting up for both the Kickers and DCU either on loan or permanent deals including 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, current D.C. captain Steve Birnbaum and MLS veteran Brian Kamler, among others.
Richmond will be hungry to pick up its first victory over an MLS opponent since 2011 as they make the short trek to Audi Field for Wednesday evening’s Third Round clash. While the pair last faced off in official competition back in 2012, the Kickers have slain D.C. back in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup. In front of a crowd of over 8,775 at City Stadium, a brace from McColm Cephas helped the Kickers upend D.C. United and their teenage sensation Freddy Adu in his rookie season.
For Sawatzky, the Kickers Head Coach has a unique perspective on the tournament thanks to his years within American soccer. As a player, Sawatzky's Colorado Rapids fell to the lower-division Rochester Raging Rhinos in the 1999 U.S. Open Cup Final. As a coach, though, Sawatzky was a member of the Seattle Sounders FC coaching staff that won four U.S. Open Cup titles between 2009 and 2014.
"All the pressure's on D.C., all the pressure is on these MLS teams and I've been on both sides," Sawatzky said. "I was in Seattle when we won four of them and it was great to win Open Cups. But when a lower division team has the opportunity to go and do what Omaha or Northern Colorado did last year out of our league, it's a great opportunity for our guys to get seen and test their abilities."
Win or lose come Wednesday night, the Richmond Kickers will continue to advance the sport in their community, focusing on the culture and the people that have made this organization what it is today, more than 30 years after its inception.
"We're only as good as the people within our organization," Ukrop said. "It's all about people. That's the lifeline to any successful business. When our fans come out to the games, we have our front office team and people at the gate thanking them as they leave and making sure that they understand that we appreciate them.
"There are lots of opportunities to spend your money in the marketplace. Our goal is to continue to create an environment where you feel appreciated and you're enjoying the product on the field, but you also get a chance to interact with some people that maybe you wouldn't get to know without the beauty of soccer bringing us together."
Kickers Head Coach and Sporting Director Darren Sawatzky | Image Credit: Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography
"Our culture needs to stay intact and you have to work on it every day," Sawatzky added. "Culture is the most important piece. People have to want to be here, they have to want to go in to work and go home smiling from work after. That's hard to do, especially in a competitive environment, but Rob's done an amazing job of creating a front office staff that works incredibly hard for us to put fans in the stands.
"We're also working to evolve our youth pathway, modernize it. We want our local players playing for our club so that we are able to move to Europe, South America and the MLS down the road. Lastly, we want to expand this club so that it's not just a USL League One club, we want to be a world brand. As long as I'm here I'm going to fight to make sure that that happens. We're certainly on the right track."