Soccer is often seen as a fall or spring sport but this summer you can catch a game of the Little Rock Rangers soccer club at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Jonathon Wardlaw grew up playing soccer in Arkansas when the sport was still new to the state. He now coaches at the youth level and has children who play soccer in Little Rock. Though he loves the expanded opportunities for kids to play, from recreational leagues to club teams, he feels the area still lags behind other states in producing successful soccer players. After speaking with parents of other players, Jonathon decided to create the Little Rock Rangers as a way to bring high-level soccer into the Little Rock area.
The Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club was founded in 2015 and played their inaugural season in 2016. The club includes both a men’s and women’s team and is mostly comprised of college soccer players. The teams allow these players to keep their amateur status, but also to continue to train and compete against high-quality competition during the summer months. The men compete in the National Premier Soccer League and the women in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. Both leagues provide opportunities for regional teams to develop players who could become professionals within a few short seasons.
“A lot of the players that come through War Memorial Stadium to either play for or against us will go on to play professionally,” Jonathon says. “I’ve gotten to know all of them so well…and they are all special to me in one way or the other. We are really becoming one big family.”
In the future, Jonathon would like to see that relationship extend down into the younger players in the area. One of his original goals in forming the Rangers is to provide quality coaches and role models for kids. Jonathon sees a gap in the level of coaching for kids ages 6-10. “Our better coaches have for the most part been placed within the older age groups of kids.” Jonathon hopes the Rangers might be able to step into coaching or leadership roles with the younger ages and help these younger players develop their soccer skills at an earlier age.
If so, the Rangers might be able to address another problem he sees within youth soccer. As children reach the ages of 9-12, they often choose to focus on other sports. With the Rangers in Little Rock, Jonathon hopes to change that. “Maybe we can keep some of these kids in soccer by providing a higher level for them to aspire to,” he says.
The development of youth soccer in Arkansas is at the heart of what Jonathon hopes to accomplish with the Rangers soccer club. He’s considering the idea of attaching a youth academy program to the Rangers, a move that many pro teams have done in larger cities. Academies provide a year-round training atmosphere for kids to develop their talent and compete at higher levels.
Jonathon’s tentative about when and if the Academy will develop, though. Right now, the men’s team is competing in their second season and the women in their first. The focus is on providing a nice atmosphere for games that both players and fans can enjoy.
The Little Rock Rangers are a non-profit organization and the best way to support them is to attend a game. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Whether you’re already a soccer fan or not, Jonathon encourages you to come out and support the Rangers.
“Soccer fans provide one of the most ‘electric’ atmospheres. Soccer is a great spectator sport as well. There are two 45 minute halves and the clock doesn’t stop, no stoppage of play during the halves, no time-outs. You will be out of our games in about two hours.” A game is perfect for a summer evening and a great way to inspire younger players in the area.
The Rangers continue play through June into early July. You can find out more about the teams and ticket information at LittleRockRangers.com, find the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Gonzalez. Photos are courtesy of the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club and used with permission.