FC Wichita practiced Wednesday, under gray skies and nestled on a west-side soccer field.
Two women on a walk picked up soccer balls that had gone over the fence facing Ridge Road and tossed them back to the practice field. A car full of girls honked and shouted at the team.
A man driving a produce truck stuck his arm out the window, hit his horn and yelled, “YEAHHHHHH BOYYYYY,” and kept rolling along.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that honk,” FC Wichita coach Larry Inlow said, laughing. “It’s pretty neat, actually, and it kind of goes with what we’re trying to be. We want to be accessible to the people in Wichita, to the fans, to anybody who wants to get behind us.”
And with that, Wichita’s next soccer chapter takes form at 7:30 p.m. Friday when FC Wichita kicks off its inaugural season against the Joplin Demize at Stryker Complex.
There are two major differences between FC Wichita and other Wichita soccer franchises such as the B-52s and Wings: FC Wichita is playing outdoors and is an amateur team, for now, in the National Premier Soccer League.
That means none of the players will be paid – although FC Wichita will provide housing and help with finding jobs – and the team will feature a healthy dose of college-age players. It’s a similar setup to the baseball teams that play in the Jayhawk League and in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
They hope it can be the start of something much bigger.
Owner Blake Shumaker has conceived FC Wichita with the idea of eventually becoming a member of the United Soccer League, which, along with the North American Soccer League, are considered the next tier down from Major League Soccer in the U.S. outdoor ranks.
“It’s important to have the city’s support, and for Wichita to come out and support this model that we have now,” said Shumaker, a Wichita native who owns Service Body Shop. “It’s amazing how quick the culture change has come with soccer, and how the sport continues to grow.
“I think I’m part of a group of people, locally, who wants to see soccer played at a higher level around here. We’re not going to get to the level of 20,000 people at games like Sporting KC, but I think we can get it to the level of (the USL), to end up with the same relationship between our team and a pro team, or higher, that the Wichita Wranglers had with the Kansas City Royals.”
The defunct Wranglers were a Double-A team in the Royals’ farm system. Shumaker pointed out that Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Tulsa and St. Louis all have USL franchises, and 20 of 24 USL teams have MLS affiliates.
Any presumed ascension, however, must come as a result of wins and other feathers in the cap for FC Wichita.
Inlow, a Wichita native, played and coached for the B-52s and, along with coaching FC Wichita, is a Wichita firefighter.
“I think this works because we have an owner who is very excited about the sport and works very hard to make sure it’s built the proper way,” Inlow said. “He knows the way we want to run it from a soccer aspect and from a business aspect. We’re building a way for players to be seen, and I’ll use whatever connections I have to reach out and help make that happen.”
With that, there are already several feathers, and obstacles, for FC Wichita. Inlow said the team has already had two players taken by NASL’s New York Cosmos — midfielders Uwem Etuk and Travis Pittman. As of Wednesday, several college players had yet to arrive in Wichita because they were still finishing final exams.
FC Wichita also plays on Sunday at Stryker against Liverpool FC’s International Academy team. The season runs through the middle of July.
“I’ve not experienced a situation like this in my career, or worked in this capacity,” Inlow said. “Dealing with contracts, you get with the player, you agree and get the services contract and there you are. It’s not like that with this league, we commit to bring you in and you commit to come play. This weekend is going to be a very large crash course for us, but we’re going to put the best players out there.
“We’ll get a chance for some growth on Sunday, and Monday we’ll all shake hands, meet each other a little more and keep moving forward.”