The most interesting football clubs in the United States will not be involved in the MLS is Back tournament this month and they will not take part in the NWSL Challenge Cup. In fact, they have not missed a single fixture even as the rest of the country does its best to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. That is because the most interesting and fun football clubs in the country do not actually exist.
At least, not in the traditional sense of actually signing players, sending them out on to the pitch and playing football.
The United States has seen a spate of faux football clubs pop up since Asbury Park FC’s “founding” in 2014, teams that have elaborate backstories, put out press releases, release stadium renderings and sell merchandise but are not actually represented by 11 players on the field.
Nor do they plan to be.
The fake clubs, tongue planted firmly in cheek, draw on local references, create in-jokes and drum up “rivalries” with other non-existent clubs. In the process, they’ve become almost as relevant as the country’s real-life teams.
“Quite frankly, the story of American soccer is people trying to create something that is not there,” said Shawn Francis, who started New Jersey club Asbury Park with his friend, guitarist Ian Perkins. “We’re playing catch-up with this game, even though there is a history of soccer going back to the early part of the 20th century here the reality is we’re trying to create our own little world because everyone else is so far ahead of us in terms of having older, longer-established clubs, longer-established leagues, cultures and traditions around the game.”
In plenty of cities, that means MLS – the country’s top division – just is not cool yet. Asbury Park bleeds cool, and you just have to look at their new merchandise (this season is all about indoor football, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic) or see who has rocked their gear to notice.
MLS marketing teams dream of a list like legendary actor Danny DeVito, Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo and Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker being spotted in their gear, and that’s before current and former United States internationals like Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan and Freddy Adu get involved.
Francis and Perkins leveraged their contacts from years working in soccer and music to get the brand out. It has worked as Asbury Park merchandise has become a must-have for those in the know in the soccer world, the New Jersey music scene or just people who are proud to be from a state underrepresented in mainstream American sports.
“We really like to align ourselves with Jersey because there’s no-one else flying the flag, no-one else claiming it,” Francis said. “The great thing about it is it’s the one sports team you’ll never get in an argument with anyone about.”
That is, unless you get too deep into the fake backstories of the teams.
“People fell in love with a fake soccer club to the point where they were writing their own history, saying things like, ‘Hey, my grandpa was there for the championship in 1962 when we won the cup in stoppage time,'” said Andy Munoz, a Utah native who launched Saltair FC this year and has seen the local community latch on to the idea.
Munoz discovered Asbury Park last year but wanted something that would resonate with the Salt Lake City community. He thought of Saltair, an amusement park that was a “historic, mythic” landmark, especially since the first version burned down in an incident now commemorated on Saltair’s crest.
Munoz initially hired a designer to work up logos but did not like the results and now does the designs himself despite having no experience.
“I wish I could credit a design team because maybe it would make us a little more legitimate,” Munoz said with a laugh.
Not too legitimate, of course, since it is a fake soccer team.
There was a bit of confusion when he first launched the project, with players wanting to sign on and local news outlets reaching out to try to cover matches. That confusion is set to increase when Saltair soon reveals its “stadium designs”, which an architecture student approached Munoz about doing as a final project.
Francis and Asbury Park also have a “stadium plan”, with the way renderings are received among soccer fans another element of supporter culture the club can embrace.
“I think the first thing we ever really did was put out a press release about putting a stadium on top of Convention Hall, which is this grand old iconic building on the Jersey Shore,” Francis said.
“We paid an architecture student in Sri Lanka $50 (£41) to make some renderings because Ian and I, being big soccer fans, knew stadium renderings were one of those things fans get all excited about and it always generates a buzz.”
As Munoz starts to get some of that same type of buzz, the Utah resident is looking to take the fake team concept and bring it to the real-life community. He helped out members of the Salt Lake community struggling to pay bills during the coronavirus crisis and is planning more charity initiatives.
Community involvement is a big portion of what Fishtown FC, named for a neighbourhood in Philadelphia, looks to do. In addition to the fish on their crest with a star above it, added when co-founder Jon Turner passed suddenly last year, their jerseys feature “JAWN” across the front in reference to the regional slang used to stand in for pretty much any noun.
“It doesn’t say, like, ‘Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Come visit!'” said Fishtown FC co-founder Phil Imhof, who has sent shirts as far away as Qatar to Philly natives serving in the military. “It’s a nod to the slang here, and if you’re from here you know it. If you’ve been here, you know it. It’s just something a little fun.”
Proceeds of sales go to help local youth teams like Kensington Soccer Club, AC Fairhill and Anderson Monarchs, who provide assistance to young players who may not be able to pay for fees.
“We started doing fundraisers, creating a bunch of weird stuff – products from jerseys to hats to T-shirts and hoodies with the goal of supporting some of the great programmes around Philadelphia, but also being a little wacky, a little sarcastic, a little fun,” added Imhof.
There is even a faux club named after a tollway rest stop, FC Belvedere Oasis, started by a supporters’ group for third-division Forward Madison FC to poke fun at their founder’s proclivity for starting (real-life) clubs. They made jerseys and donated profits to a local food bank.
Francis says imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when it comes to the movement he and Perkins unwittingly sparked.
“We’ve created this thing which is much more fun than we thought it would be and it’s lasted much longer than we thought it would,” he said. “It has had a greater impact than we ever could have dreamed.”