One hundred pounds of commercial fishing net received a new seasonal use Saturday as part of the debut of Ballard FC.
The fourth-division men’s soccer team played its first United Soccer League (USL) League Two match at Interbay Stadium. The soccer-specific facility normally used by Seattle Pacific University, high-school and club teams was refaced in Ballard FC signage, including an imposing, red replica metal bridge affixed to the entryway gates.
If lost, there was a sign post with arrows, buoyed by gobs of fishing net, to assist in finding seats, the Ballard Locks, Paris and other stops. Ballard FC, the main attraction, ousted Eugene-based Lane United FC 5-1, a throng of kids seeking autographs and kicking balls around on the turf afterward as the buzz of the historic evening carried on.
“This is so much more than what we thought,” said BFC co-founder Lamar Neagle, whose trek to becoming a Sounders FC star began with USL2 side Des Moines Menace in Iowa. Former Ballard High boys soccer captains Chris Kaimmer and Sam Zisette are the other founders of the semipro club.
“We originally thought it was going to be a long process, and we would eventually get to this level of atmosphere, maybe five years in,” said Neagle of the sold-out crowd of approximately 1,200. “The way the community reacted and the way we all put in the work, it’s unbelievable. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while.”
BFC made city, club and country a thing for Joshua Wallace and Tyler Kaslik — the club being the Sounders. Wallace, who was hooked on the Sounders after witnessing fellow Panamanian Roman Torres score the 2016 MLS Cup-winning penalty kick in Toronto, spotted the Ballard FC launch news on Twitter in December. He passed it on to Kaslik, not expecting his friend to immediately buy season tickets and start a Facebook fan page.
After communication with Zisette, the fan page swelled to 200 members forming the Bridge Keepers supporters group last winter. About 50 met at Mulleadys, an Irish Pub at the foot of Magnolia, for the first March to the Match on Saturday.
The Bridge Keepers, most dressed in team merchandise, took over a lane on Dravus Street, shouting “Up the Bridges” and waving flags as they walked to the stadium.
“I’ve never experienced this, being a fan of a team who hasn’t played one game,” Wallace said. “We know some of the players’ names because they’ve come to some of the events we’ve done, but this is a blank slate. We don’t know and that’s scary, but also, I love that because it’ll be, ‘remember when we went to the first Ballard FC game?’ This is amazing.”
Kaslik’s passion for the Sounders predates their joining MLS in 2009. He and fiancé Kimberly Pendergast recently moved from Queen Anne to Enumclaw but still make the commute for every Sounders and now Ballard’s eight home games.
“They’re never going to replace the love that we have for the Sounders,” Kaslik said of many within the Bridge Keepers. “It just shows how passionate the soccer football community is within Seattle.
“USL2 has an interesting part where some of the other leagues that are higher up — USL1, MLS Next Pro or MLS — they look at some of these younger soccer players as a potential option to sign. As much as I want to support a local team, being as big of a football fan as I am, I really want to see some of our players get picked up, so they can continue to progress their football careers. It adds to the unique experience that Chris and Sam have created.”
Players such as BFC left back Lesia Thetsane. He was recently called up by his Lesotho national team for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Thetsane lined up to take a free kick in the 33rd minute against Lane United, faking a shot. Teammate Declan McGlynn, a center midfielder from Kirkland, ran up from the opposite angle, firing a right-footed shot to the back of the net in the 34th minute for the team’s inaugural goal.
The crowd increased the volume of their cheers another octave as McGlynn waved his arms for more noise.
“This is pretty special, and I just wanted to be a part of it,” said McGlynn, who plays for Seattle University. “This one of the biggest turnouts I’ve seen for a soccer team here in Seattle outside of the Sounders and their second team. The goal, it felt amazing because we were battling the first 30 minutes.”
Ballard forward Alex Mejia, who’s from Seattle, made the opening half more festive with a breakaway goal in the 44th minute. The celebrations didn’t stop after the break with BFC midfielder Taketo Onodera (50th minute), winger Charlie Gaffney (66th minute) and Kevin Galiano (85th minute) bagging goals. Mejia recorded the assist on Gaffney’s shot.
The blowout was another idealistic outcome Zisette couldn’t have written better when scribbling notes back in 2017 about his operating a soccer team in Ballard, the once independent city annexed by Seattle in 1907, that he loves.
A friend-of-a-friend-type network helped bring together the communal vibe on Saturday. Zisette said there were about 20 main employees, including four paid interns and the part-time technical staff, plus about 30 volunteers who handled gameday setup.
The team’s title sponsor is Reuben’s Brews, so naturally a beer garden was carved out on the east side of the stadium. Other nods to Ballard’s history was a Zesto’s sign, a well-known hamburger stand that no longer exists, and Ballard Driving Academy, a website with a throwback ad that’s a must-see.
But really, the picturesque sunny day dotted in the rainiest May of record in Seattle exceeded what Zisette and Neagle experienced as former lower-division soccer players, Zisette said. Even from when they honed the idea in one of the solemnest periods — the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — and it was revealed to the community in December.
Ballard FC sold-out season tickets before naming a coach, players or schedule.
What emerged Saturday was an impressive beginning.
“We wanted to have an impact,” Zisette said. “The English term is ‘your grounds,’ your playing grounds and it feels like this is our community hub right here. We’ve got our local business that we’re putting on display and Ballard everywhere. I’m proud.
“It’s one thing to have a dream about something, but we have to make sure we have the means to do it sustainably because for us, we want to do it for decades. It’s very metaphorical, pie in the sky, but I think it’s real.”