Birth of a Club: Season in Review

By Davis Harper

It’s been nearly two months since the curtain fell on Tobacco Road FC’s inaugural season in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Tobacco Road players are back training with their college teams, performing their day jobs, coaching their youth clubs or caring for their kids. On either side of the real Tobacco Road, students are returning to the Duke and UNC campuses under the oppressive August heat.

For co-founders Cedric Burke and Seth Kaplan, who spent the late spring and summer consumed with all things Tobacco Road — often to the detriment of their professional and domestic lives — life has slowly returned to normal.

Everyone associated with the project, though, remains in a quietly celebratory mood. And how could they not? Armed with little more than grit and determination, Tobacco Road not only survived their opening season, but very nearly succeeded past their wildest expectations.

A Postseason to Remember

When we last left off with Tobacco Road, they had just suffered their worst loss, in the final game of the season, to the their closest rival, on their home pitch. It was an almost unthinkable 7-1 drubbing in front of the largest TRFC crowd of the season. With the playoffs and a trip to top-seeded Myrtle Beach Mutiny just six days away, it looked as if the Tobacco Road expansion season would fizzle there. The goal, after all, was to make the playoffs in their first season, and they had already done that.

Against Myrtle Beach, though, Tobacco Road went out with a roar rather than a whimper. Team captain James Carroll said that the Railhawks loss motivated TRFC to “go out and prove we belong in this league.” Tobacco Road employed a take-no-prisoners mentality, outplaying their opponents for much of the match. In the final minutes, Ibrahim Diouf converted a penalty and Tobacco Road won, 1-0.

“We were pissed,” Kaplan told me. “We were coming off that Railhawks loss. We were coming off the previous defeat to Myrtle Beach [3-0 on June 10th]. Everybody was lit for that one. It was by far the best we played all season.”

It was an abrupt ending for the Mutiny, who finished fourth nationally in 2015 and were angling for the national title this season. But for Tobacco Road, it was more evidence of the heart that allowed them to overcome the expansion-season jitters that had plagued them all season.

Two nights later, Tobacco Road faced the Atlanta Silverbacks, who had dropped into the NPSL after five seasons in the NASL. It was a quick turnaround and, true to form, Tobacco Road made seven changes to the starting lineup who beat Myrtle Beach. Still, they took a 1-0 lead deep into the second half. Heading into the final minutes, it looked like they would again pull off the improbable. But the Silverbacks tied it in the final minutes, and went on to sneak the winner late in extra time.

With that, Tobacco Road’s season took its final breath.

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Long Live Tobacco Road

July was a weird month for the Tobacco Road co-founders. After talking multiple times a day during the season, they didn’t speak for a while. Both realized how much work they had been pushing off for the previous three months. They actually took vacations. Short ones, but still. There were kids and wives and day jobs to attend to. And sleep. Also sleep.

Both Kaplan and Burke, though, are in too deep to neglect their baby for too long. With the 2017 season still nine months away, they are already working on the sponsorship package for next season and checking up on their core group of players. Burke, who also assumed head coaching duties this past season, has already started coordinating visits to his college players at schools like Duke, UNC, Davidson, Emory and Furman.

“I should feel ecstatic with what we accomplished, but the competitor in me reflects on those missed opportunities, those games we lost or drew in the final minutes,” Burke said. “I replay all those games in my head and see there were points we left on the table. I can’t let that go as a competitor.

“All in all, though, I am super proud of these guys.”

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Looking Back to Look Forward

Kaplan is, oddly, only slightly more satisfied. After all, the team was approved by the league only in December. It entered the season with no name recognition, no help from sponsors, and managed with a shoestring budget of just $20,000, certainly one of the smallest in the league. (For comparison’s sake, Stockade FC, another NPSL expansion side, had a budget of $50,000.)

Whereas their opponents practiced four to five times a week, Tobacco Road only had the field space for two, and often weather got in the way or one or both of those. Burke had never coached an adult team before this one. A few key starters had to return to college for camps during the NPSL postseason, forcing the team into some tight spots.

It’s that never-satisfied mentality that should aid Tobacco Road next season, when they will attempt to straighten out some of the aforementioned kinks. With a year under their belts, though, are Tobacco Road in danger of losing some of the unfiltered, underdog determination that aided them this year?

Burke isn’t worried. He told me the late loss against the Silverbacks should give them plenty of motivation.

“We were 90 seconds away from winning the conference, from being on the scene from a national perspective,” Burke said. “From a coaching perspective, I’ll never say I’m happy with a loss, but I don’t think it was the worst thing. It keeps us humble. It keeps us hungry.

“I can tell you right now, I’ve got a roster full of guys ready to go to Atlanta.”

And go to Atlanta they will. Burke and Kaplan hope a settled team, supportive sponsors, dedicated field space and flexible practice time will be coming along with them.