As rivalries go, it wouldn’t seem like much of one, even among cross-town clubs.
With a 22-year history, the Richmond Kickers have won their league crown three times and the U.S. Open Cup in 1995. RVA FC is playing only its second season, albeit with a National Premier Soccer League title in its inaugural year. When they clash Wednesday in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup, a match that will be streamed as the ‘Game of the Round’ at ussoccer.com, it makes one wonder: How much friction can there be?
“You’d be surprised,” RVA FC manager Grover Gibson said. “We have players who used to play for opposing youth clubs, Kicker clubs. Soccer is a small world. A lot of people involved in the Kickers are now with us.”
From the Kickers’ standpoint, they don’t consider RVA FC a Richmond club.
“I don’t think it’s a rivalry. They play out of Fredericksburg (Virginia), an hour away,” said Leigh Cowlishaw, the Kickers’ counterpart to Gibson, a Fredericksburg native and resident. “They’re calling it a rivalry to promote the game.
“There is no rivalry. They have VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) and UVA (University of Virginia) players. We also have VCU players. We’re very familiar with [the college players]. We play all those teams in the spring season.”
At least one tie between the clubs is forward Tishan Hanley, a 23-year-old St. Kitts and Nevis international who helped RVA to the NPSL championship last year and now plays for the Kickers.
“Any time a player has the opportunity to play against his former team, the player relishes the opportunity,” Cowlishaw said.
The clubs have similarities but have their distinctions by which league they play in. While the Kickers’ USL Pro league is considered the third division of American pro soccer, the RVA’s NPSL is considered amateur. NPSL regulations parallel many of those found in the USL’s PDL division to give college players a place to play in the summer without threatening their NCAA eligibility.
Also distinguishing the two clubs is the Kickers’ resume of success, such as reaching the third round or better in each of the last four years of Open Cup play – they even made a semifinal appearance in 2011 – before being eliminated by MLS clubs.
And then there are the managers. Cowlishaw is a 43-year-old English native who came to the United States to attend the University of Richmond, joined the Kickers in 1993, helped them win the 1995 U.S. Open Cup and became coach in 2000.
Gibson is a 35-year-old American, who left for Germany at 18 and played in both the second and third divisions for various clubs, including VfB Stuttgart and Mainz, before returning home and establishing RVA.
Having seen the intra-city rivalries of Germany and Europe, particularly that of VfB Stuttgart and its smaller rival the Stuttgarter Kickers, Gibson relishes the chance at a “derby” against the Kickers, even if his opponents don’t.
“It’s not like we’re out to prove something,” Gibson said. “I’m excited about the event. I think it’s missing in the U.S., the intra-city rivalries. It’s not Richmond vs. Arizona. The crowds care. They create passion. I was really hoping of getting this going. It’s just by circumstance that it’s happening sooner than I hoped of playing the Kickers.”
The two clubs have never played one another, even in a friendly, so that may explain the disinterest on at least one side of the ball.
But if not a derby in the sense of long-established clubs with fan bases to match, Wednesday’s game at Sports Backers Stadium, RVA’s home field, can at least be viewed as the old guard vs. the upstart.
“We’re kind of a thorn in their side that we’re doing well. They’re more of a youth scene,” Gibson said. “We’re New Age. RVA is the new, hip team. Kickers have been around for 22 years.”- Brian Trusdell