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The Louisville Coopers: On the Relationship Between a Club and its Fans

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What does it take to make a professional soccer team appear in a virtual soccer wasteland? The internet, hard work, courage, and a little luck.

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From the makers of "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" comes a question that is its soccer equivalent; which came first, the club or its supporters? (When it comes to MLS, this is a trick question. The money comes first.)

In the case of Louisville, however, it's safe to say that without the Louisville Coopers there wouldn't be a Louisville City FC. The club's relationship to its supporters group is a fascinating example of American soccer's existence in the 21st century. In Orlando City SC's USL PRO affiliate, a few inventive and passionate Louisvillians created something from nothing -- a soccer club from thin air.

The Seeds of a Club

"MLS in Louisville is not achievable, USL Louisville is realistic." - Wayne Estopinal

"The Coopers were founded by a few individuals stemming from a conversation that they had on a Facebook board entitled 'Make Louisville an MLS Expansion City,'" according to Augustus Waiters, the Coopers Capo Chairperson.

The Facebook conversation in question was part of an ongoing discussion on whether Louisville could, should, and would entertain the idea of having a professional soccer team. Some of the page's posters believed Louisville should shoot for the stars and try for an MLS team right our of the gate, while others felt Louisville should look toward the lower leagues for its professional soccer beginning.

"After doing some research on what it truly takes to put together the foundation of an MLS franchise, I concluded that MLS was probably out of our reach for the moment," said Taylor Sorrels, co-founder and first president of the Coopers. "Some other guys that followed that page or from similar discussions on Reddit came to the same conclusion."

The watershed post was started on Sept. 25, 2013, by the man who would eventually become Louisville City FC Principal Owner, Wayne Estopinal. In it, he weighed in with opinions on the debate. "Relocating a USL team to Louisville is the best option," Estopinal posted. "Currently, I'm a minority owner of Orlando City Soccer Club. OCSC will likely be moving to the MLS in 2015, conversations with USL executives (regarding Louisville) occurred at last weekend's USL Championship Game in Orlando. We need to develop a USL Louisville Supporters Group, develop support within Metro Government and create a USL Louisville Ownership Group of adequate means to fund the team.

"MLS in Louisville is not achievable, USL Louisville is realistic."

The wheels began to turn, and with the material motivation of a potential USL club on the horizon, the Coopers became a reality. "After that post, four of us sat down over coffee, and The Coopers were off and running," said Coopers member and co-founder J.C. Cissell.

"J.C. (Cissell), John McCullochTaylor Sorrels and myself met up in a local café one afternoon, and discussed what was possible, what was plausible, and what we could do," said Martin French, an Irishman who found his way to the Bluegrass State to co-found the Coopers. "We couldn't own a team, or build a stadium, but we could work to create a supporters group to prove a desire. So we set to work."

"By December, we had a board of directors and merchandise. By January, Orlando City’s ownership was having beers with us at Molly Malone’s," Cissell added.

In the Coopers, Louisville had it's supporters group. In Estopinal, Louisville had the beginnings of a potential ownership group and the keys to a future USL franchise in its lap. What they needed next was the approval and support of the local government. Enter the man who would become the second Coopers President, Timothy Clark.

Louisville's Inferiority Complex

"I would support a professional soccer team, but we're still hard at it on the NBA." - Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson

I've written before for The Mane Land on our old site about Louisville's potential as an MLS city, specifically in the context of it being a basketball hotbed. Louisville has a love affair with the game of basketball, and it has both been a boon for the city and a source of its heartbreak. While Louisville consistently achieves high viewing ratings for college basketball broadcasts nationwide, it has been without a major league professional outfit since the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. Despite being one of the leaders in attendance throughout the league's existence as one of the ABA's most successful clubs on and off the court, the Colonels folded after the 1976 NBA-ABA merger for reasons both financial and political. Louisville was left behind like the last kid at the park, shooting hoops by herself.

Ever since, Louisville has been on a journey, searching for its basketball holy grail. We've been misled and teased. We've been told about the Hornets (before New Orleans), Rockets (before the Toyota Center), Grizzlies (before Memphis), and Kings (before the new ownership) all moving here and fulfilling our dreams. We trusted our pro hoops fate to one J. Bruce Miller, who has only used our collective yearning to dupe the local government into paying him $89,000 because he had an ever-illusive "unnamed foreign billionaire" on the hook to buy an NBA franchise and bring it to Louisville. All the while, he used his self-created public persona as our forlorn NBA messiah to peddle a book deal at every turn, despite never actually coming through with that foreign moneybag due, in part, to -- at least according to him -- the most recent NBA lockout.

All of this is why I find Councilman Dan Johnson's comments on August 8th, 2013 so frustrating.

Aug. 8, 2013, was the day that future Coopers President Timothy Clark, along with Neal Turpin and Chris Heading, addressed the Louisville Metro Council on the general advantages and benefits of Louisville adding a professional soccer team. Their message was clear: soccer presented Louisville with a legitimate opportunity to become a major league city. "Louisville could be the hub of soccer for Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and southern Ohio," Heading said in his portion of the address. "All too often, Louisville has waited for surrounding cities to act, and then tried to copy them. This cannot wait."

When it came time for Clark to speak, Johnson felt it necessary to rear the ugly head of Louisville's decade-old NBA inferiority complex (around the 6:30 mark of the embedded video). "I would support a professional soccer team," Johnson said, "but we're still hard at it on the NBA."

As if the Colonels folding wasn't enough. As if J. Bruce Miller leading Louisville around for the better part of 20 years like a dog on a leash wasn't enough. That Johnson had the audacity to imply that somehow Louisville chasing its NBA dream is counter to the possibility of professional soccer in the city is startling, if not ignorant. Did he think that another 30 years, sitting around, waiting for the NBA to finally come calling with flowers and chocolates was worth passing up the real opportunity of soccer? Did he think we should continue to throw money at a lawyer with imaginary billionaires and illusory NBA connections in his pocket?

Despite Johnson's indignant response, Clark approached the podium and spoke of the great numbers of youth players in the area as more evidence of soccer's support here and the potential value in having a pro soccer team here. "I want Louisville to become a world-class city," he said. "A world-class sport could be another attraction to our growing city."

Someone in the room was listening.

When Clark finished, another councilman piped up with his thoughts. "These guys are right on it. It is something that's very possible," said Councilman James Peden. "The mentality is already there. As much as we think of ourselves as basketball -- and kudos to Councilman Johnson -- this is probably an easier reach to become a pro sports city than some of our other aspirations."

Clark, Turpin and Heading were on the extravagant side of the MLS vs. lower leagues debate that was raging (in internet terms) on the pages of Facebook, and their visit to the council predated Estopinal's post, announcing his USL intent. While the quixotic MLS-centric details of their address to the council were premature, the overall message was important in the Louisville professional soccer timeline; Louisville had the support for professional soccer and the people with the courage to shake the windows and rattle the walls of the local government. It began to understand.

A Team, Finally

"I see nothing but a bright future for soccer in Louisville." - Jason Ence, Member of the Coopers

Fast forward from Estopinal's first post in fall of 2013 until the official announcement of Louisville City FC in the summer of 2014, and the Coopers finally had the club they were created to support. However, the club's announcement wasn't without its hiccups.

"The old logo, good god was that awful," Waiters said. "It really hit me how bad it was when the whole fiasco hit Deadspin. It was the first time that we as Coopers had to go up against the ownership group and demand a change, and they actually relented on the day the team was announced. Ownership has been very welcoming to us ever since they started up, and this spirit of cooperation has extended to the executive staff of the club as well."

"No start-up is going to be perfect," French said. "But what is heartening is that it is improving. I've been committed to this for over a year already, and the club was only announced about seven months (ago), so I have seen a lot of what has happened. There are elements that I think could have been handled better -- the original crest being the best example -- but I do see that there is a steep learning curve and things continue to improve."

For all their work so far -- from Facebook, to the founding of the group, to working with ownership to change the original crest -- the Coopers don't see this as being a finished job. But their outlook is positive.

"An average attendance of 5,000 or more in Louisville is a very realistic expectation," says Cissell. "That doesn't mean it will absolutely happen, of course -- the team has to market itself well and the fans need to buy tickets -- but I believe it will. Among Louisville City's strengths is a large investment group, rather than a single owner, and a first-rate downtown stadium that -- while not designed for soccer -- will offer one of the most complete fan experiences in the league."

Jason Ence, the Coopers' PR representative, is even more bullish. "I see no reason why this cannot be a great success," he said. "We have the support, we have the passionate fans that live here, and our history has shown that we support our teams here. As long as we get this off to a great start and ownership continues to show they are going to work with the fans, the city, and everyone else involved, I see nothing but a bright future for soccer in Louisville."

It suffices to say that if Louisville soccer dreams prove successful, the Louisville Coopers will have had a big hand.