-By Ben Peacock 1/8/19
If the 2018 Little Rock Rangers season is any portent of things to come for this National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) team, then soccer fans in central Arkansas have a great deal to be excited about.
The 2018 roster shakily came together as an international-rich team, boasting players from Japan, Brazil, and other Central and South American countries, gathered from their colleges across the country to launch the Rangers’ third season in a series of friendly matches against Rafters FC and OKC 1889. The Rangers managed to just pull out one win of four from these matches, with the Heartland Conference schedule also beginning in a four game road trip. The Rangers faced some adversity early on against rivals Tulsa Athletic and FC Wichita, as well.
It looked to be a tough beginning with roster cohesion a critical factor in those first couple weeks. Rangers Head Coach Will Montgomery knew going in that NCAA rules were going to keep out several key players until after conference play started.
“We had to perform in games with personnel that were adjusting to the speed of the league,” said Montgomery. “I still vividly remember our first game. We had only one substitute, and he was a goalkeeper.”
The team’s first conference win came at Saint Louis Club Atletico’s house. Goalkeeper Walid Birrou, of Spain, kept the Rangers in it with three shots saved while the game was tied, giving his teammates a chance to put a couple more on the board to secure the win. Their next stop took them to Branson, Missouri where Hot Springs native Alex Guadron not only scored a hat trick but took the whole hat rack with him, making all four goals in the victory over Demize. This would begin Guadron’s march to nine goals on the regular season, the team’s highest. With that win in hand, the Rangers headed to Little Rock to make their home conference debut sitting in third place with a 2-2 record.
In June, the Rangers made a three game homestand before a quick trip to Ozark FC and back to War Memorial. Simply stated, the Rangers caught fire, season sweeping both Demize and Ozark FC. Montgomery recognized the talent potential waiting to be unlocked.
“We had some outstanding attack-minded players who were goal scorers, but we had to get one or two to recognize those opportunities,” he explained. “This combined with our strong defensive organization led to an exciting winning streak in June.”
Both wins over Ozark gave the 2018 Downriver Derby victory to the Rangers, bringing the historical record to 2-1-1. The Stags ended the month of June with an outstanding 5-1 record to finish 7-3 overall, setting up what would be the most remarkable part of the 2018 season story: the Rangers playoffs run.
The last regular season game against Tulsa Athletic setup home field advantage in the first round for the Rangers. The standings already destined a rematch against Tulsa for the first round, but it would be the Stags’ first ever home playoff game. Same match, completely different stakes in this Heartland Conference Semifinal. Tulsa was back for blood. It remained scoreless for nearly the full match. Speedster and goal scorer-extraordinaire Donald Benamna, from Central African Republic, scored the only goal of the game in the 90th minute, his sixth of the season, and now every step the Rangers took would be historic firsts.
With a contingent of supporters in tow for the Heartland Conference Final, the Rangers headed to Wichita, Kansas for a thrilling match that went to overtime and penalty kicks. Heroic goalkeeping by Birrou sealed the 5-3 PK victory. The Rangers next stop was west Texas to face Lone Star Conference champs Laredo Heat SC in the South Region Semifinal. The Rangers secured another overtime win as a massive crowd gathered to watch the 2-1 victory back in Little Rock.
The South Region championship game was upon the Rangers and what followed in the days ahead spoke to the passion and tenacity of the lower league soccer community. Their opponent was Miami FC 2, and the team had the enormous logistical and budgetary expense of getting to Florida. Team owners looked to the community with a GoFundMe page to raise support. Within 24 hours, the $20,000 had been raised.
“The wins are fun, exciting, and make you extremely proud of the coaches and players, but that really hit at all kinds of emotions,” Jonathan Wardlaw, the Founder of the club said of the support. “It was so cool seeing all of the donor’s names and messages come across.”
Wardlaw went on to say that players and administrators from all over the country, including even the Miami FC coach and some guys who didn’t make the team, donated.
“You know that just shows how much character that we have in this sport,” said Wardlaw.
Miami FC 2 was a different kind of challenge, boasting a roster of 15 professional players from the defunct North American Soccer League (which was denied a season by the US Soccer Federation for not meeting sanctioning criteria). This proved the end of the road for the Rangers’ season and Miami would go on to win the NPSL national championship, but there is little to regret in the results of this season.
Of note, Rangers defense led by Birrou in goal and backline star Ben Watson held opponents scoreless for 600 minutes of gametime from June 16 vs Ozark until the July 16 South Regional Semifinal. The Stags remained undefeated the remainder of the regular season.
Accolades on the year include National Player of the Week for Guadron, Heartland Conference Starting XI for Montgomery, Birrou, Guadron, and Watson, South Region Starting XI for Montgomery, Guadron, and Watson, and National Starting XI honors for Watson.
The deep playoff run should have been enough to secure a bid in the 2019 US Open Cup, details of which should be released by US Soccer soon. There will be new teams to face this year as NPSL expands. And having reached new pinnacles of success in each of their three seasons, anticipation for 2019 is high, from both returning players and staff who have invested their time and loyalty here, as well as from fans of soccer all over central Arkansas.
Season Tickets on sale now for 2019 at this link. Get in on the pre-order for the new 2019 kits as well!