The players were in their 20s and 30s. Some hailed from Croatia, Iran and France; others were born at Martha Jefferson Hospital. Some had played soccer in college or professionally, and now they had homes and families in Charlottesville.
They met weekly for casual pickup games to knock a ball around UVA’s Lambeth Field. In the summer of 2015, just for kicks, the group registered for Neptune’s, a regional tournament in Virginia Beach. They thought it would be a fun way to spend a weekend.
They ended up sweeping the competition.
“We realized that not only were we having fun, but we were winning and really successful,” says David Deaton, who was the squad’s captain.
The team decided to ride that success all the way to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest ongoing national amateur soccer tournament in the U.S. There, a team can climb the ranks from playing other local groups to potentially competing against a Major League Soccer squad.
But before that, they needed uniforms. And a name. For both, Deaton turned to Aroma’s Café.
In the beginning
Hassan Kaisoum, owner of Aroma’s, is well-known not just in Charlottesville but in international soccer circles. A former professional player from Morocco, Kaisoum credits the sport for saving his life when he was orphaned at 11 years old, by providing him with an outlet and a support network of his teammates’ families.
“When I lost my mom and dad and the support of my parents, I had the support from others,” says Kaisoum. “Fathers and mothers of my friends making sure I wasn’t missing anything food-wise, and everything I needed—repairing my bike, helping me to continue and finish school.”
Kaisoum has spent his life paying that goodwill forward, from charity drives at Aroma’s to coaching soccer at Charlottesville High School. When Deaton approached him with the opportunity to fund the team, Kaisoum was thrilled.
“I never paid any coaches when I was in Morocco,” said Kaisoum. “They gave it to me for free, for love. When David approached me to build Aroma’s Café Club first, without hesitation I said, ‘Okay, what do you need?’”
So Aroma’s Café FC was born. Not only did it beat two different teams to make it past the amateur round of the U.S. Open Cup, but it also claimed a 2-1 victory over the Richmond Strikers, a semi-professional team in the National Premier Soccer League, before ultimately falling to a Division II team.
“I think that coming off of Neptune’s in the summer and Open Cup from the fall and spring, people realized that there was something big happening,” Deaton says.
And if the club could beat a semi-professional team, why couldn’t it be one itself? And that’s how, one year and one lengthy application process later, the team—newly named the Charlottesville Alliance after its goal of helping to create a unified community—joined the National Premier Soccer League in 2018.
Kaisoum recalls an Aroma’s customer asking how the club was faring after the Open Cup. “Wonderful,” Kaisoum told him. “Now we’ve become C’ville Alliance, we’re now semi-professional.” Two days later, Kaisoum received a $1,000 check from the customer for the team.
“This community supports you if you support them,” says Kaisoum. “I was stunned by the support of Charlottesville, for my business first, and also for the soccer.”
And that community support is apparent on nights like a Monday in early July. Even though an oppressive heat has baked the turf dry at Albemarle High School’s stadium, the seating area is filled with more than 100 people. They’re carrying flags and holding signs. Some of them are wearing Alliance red. Like the Charlottesville Tom Sox, the Alliance has become part of a growing local sports market in its first year in the NPSL.
For many of the original players from the pickup team, having that crowd cheer them on is something they haven’t experienced in years.
“My last soccer game in front of people was in a different country,” says Price Thomas, a longtime member of the group and a William & Mary alum whose professional playing career spanned from Turkey to Germany to Richmond, Virginia. “I haven’t felt that in a long time. Personally, it was very nostalgic to be up there.”
The NPSL is geared toward current college players, but the Alliance roster has its own unique makeup: It’s split into two halves, with “senior” players comprising one part and college students making up the other. That allows the team to accommodate summer schedules, with senior players like Thomas filling in roster spots when jobs or vacations get in the way for their younger teammates.
Those college athletes often serve as the real draw for fans. The team pulls from a wide range of Virginia schools, and attracts both hometown players (Jake Gelnovatch, a Louisville player and son of longtime UVA men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch) as well as international ones (Joe Bell, a rising Virginia soccer star is from New Zealand). The 2018 lineup consisted of three UVA, four James Madison University, two Virginia Commonwealth University and two Virginia Tech players, as well as others from a range of schools. Their names are the kind that kids in the crowd want autographed on jerseys they hold out to the players after games.
“Joe Bell starts for UVA,” says Thomas. “I’m sure some of these kids have his poster on their wall.”
Creating a talent pipeline
Even before the Alliance became part of the NPSL, it was already shaping players’ college careers just by keeping them in touch with the game.
“Just playing pickup with them isn’t exactly the level that college soccer is or anything,” says Forrest White, a regular at pickup games while on summer break from playing at Virginia Tech. “But it was still kind of just to keep me in shape and keep me enjoying playing soccer, which a lot of people in college lose very quickly.”
But this summer, the NPSL team provides something that Charlottesville lacked prior to 2018: a place to train over the summer. Local college players, for the first time in their career, don’t have to drive hours out of town to condition with a competitive squad.
NCAA regulations restrict athletes from playing with their college coaches during break, which means the Alliance holds a powerful draw. This is one of the only teams in the NPSL to be led by a Division I coach, with Jon Atkinson of Longwood University at the helm, which gives players a chance to receive college-level instruction when school’s not in session.
Many of the senior players on the team also serve as mentors, and several of them have their own coaching careers. Thomas is the founder of Gradum Academy, a training program for kids who want to take their soccer careers to the next level. His academy serves as a pipeline to the Alliance; some of his students include Abibi Osman (University of Lynchburg), Barun Tamang (Randolph College) and Blake Wheaton (Emory University), all on the Alliance’s 2018 roster. The NPSL team provides Thomas’ trainees with a place to play full games, an invaluable addition to their college preparation.
As someone who had to mail CD recordings of his Albemarle High playing highlights in order to get the attention of college teams, Thomas hopes Alliance games not only draw soccer fans but scouts as well.
“Can we make this a place where people want to come watch, from a fan standpoint but also from a legitimate talent standpoint?” asks Thomas. “The boys are good. They’re absolutely good enough.”
Soccer is a lot of things to the members of the Alliance. It’s a passion. It’s a way to make a living. But, above all, it has made strangers all across the world into teammates and friends.
“Your connective tissue is the game, so you don’t have time to worry about the fact that you don’t agree on politics,” says Thomas. “Maybe we don’t, and maybe we argue about that later, but at the end of the day, the foundational part of our relationship is our love of the game.”
Sports can do more than just ease political differences; they can smooth cultural and linguistic ones as well. Because soccer is an easily accessible street sport intrinsic to areas all over the world, playing it helps introduce kids to international communities at an early age.
“If you’re of American background and playing soccer, then you’re going to be immediately drawn into where it’s a hotbed of popularity, and all these other international groups that are playing the sport,” Deaton says.
Some Alliance members have played in the local Liga Latina, even if they don’t speak Spanish. For others on the team, English is a second or third language. On the pitch, that’s usually a bigger joke than it is an issue. Deaton himself has played everywhere from the slums of India to snowy Korea, where you don’t need to share a language to point someone in a certain direction or high-five after a goal.
“When growing up in my teens and through my 20s, soccer was fun because it was a sport,” Deaton says. “And then when I moved to Asia and I was able to travel the world, I started to realize that soccer was amazing because it put me in contact with people that I never would have known otherwise.” In Charlottesville, soccer introduced Deaton and the team to kids at the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, where the Alliance plays a soccer game with residents on the first Friday of every offseason month.
“We can come [to the detention center], kick a ball around, have a laugh, shake hands, even though the contexts of our lives have taken different paths,” Deaton says. “That doesn’t mean that, at our basic core, we’re not exactly the same people.”
For the kids at BRJDC, meeting visitors who consider themselves to be “exactly the same people” as detainees is a novelty. In Volume 5, Issue 4 of Sharing Our Progress, a detention center newsletter, a resident shared heartfelt thanks with the Alliance for its visits. “People think that we are criminals and bad people,” he wrote, “but it’s good to see that people come in and don’t see us like that.”
Visits to the detention center are just one example of underserved parts of the community that soccer has allowed the Alliance to reach. The team has purchased soccer goals for International Rescue Committee children as well as for Friendship Court. Members play with and offer free game tickets to kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia. These efforts have culminated in a college scholarship program for local students.
Deaton has also been part of a campaign to improve area practice field infrastructure. The Alliance has a seat at the table as the county discusses creating new places to play, which the team sees as crucial in helping area kids grow up in a diverse community.
“If we can play together as kids, we can build together as adults,” says Deaton. “If we’re not cultivating a safe place to play at younger ages, then it leads to a lack of understanding at the adult level.”
On July 7, in Baltimore, Maryland, the Alliance’s first season as an NPSL team came to an end, with a record of 3-5-2. But more than its record, the team was successful in establishing a semi-professional summer team in Charlottesville that will continue working toward its goal of reshaping the sports landscape in town.
“It’s all about pushing this concept as far as it can go,” Deaton says. “How successful can Charlottesville be on the pitch? How much can it have an impact on the community?”
One answer to that is to create a women’s team. Next summer, the Alliance hopes to have a parallel female squad debuting alongside the airing of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Meanwhile, both teams hope to be present in the community year-round, not just during the summer season.
“My goal, if you ask me what do I want to see this do long-term, is that I want it to be around,” says Thomas. “I want it to be around when my kids are playing.”