By Pierce Brannen
Image via @appalachianfc Instagram
TopBin90 is one of the top sources for soccer in the Carolinas. While we typically focus on Charlotte FC, we understand the importance of and want to spread awareness for the clubs that are making an impact in their communities. Introducing the TopBin90 “Road Trip” series, highlighting various clubs across the Carolinas who are making a difference in their community and growing the game locally. To kick off this new series, I sat down with the Owner/Founder (Jason O’Keefe) and Head Coach (Dale Parker) to discuss the Boone, NC-based NPSL club Appalachian FC.
Less than a two hour drive from Bank of America Stadium, you’ll find your favorite club that you never knew existed. An electrifying matchday atmosphere, club-signature beer, a stadium with a panoramic mountain backdrop, and even bigfoot sightings are all things to expect as a supporter of NPSL side Appalachian FC.
In May of 2020, the Appalachian State University (ASU) Athletic Department was forced to cut the men’s soccer program, despite finding recent success under their head coach, Jason O’Keefe. The cut was another unexpected pandemic casualty as ASU (and all colleges and universities) worked to stem the financial struggles in a new Covid world.
“The decision to discontinue the men’s soccer program left a lot of people in kind of a bad place.” O’Keefe told TopBin90. The program’s final season was the Mountaineers’ best season in decades; with its demise, his main focus was ensuring his players had the next step in their careers mapped out. Once they were settled, it was time for O’Keefe to forge his next step.
Michael Hitchcock, O’Keefe’s business partner, has played a key role in contributing to the success of multiple MLS clubs, including four years as the General Manager of FC Dallas. “He’s done everything in the business of the game that you could possibly do” said O’Keefe. When O’Keefe first accepted the ASU Men’s Soccer head coaching job, Hitchcock had mentioned the idea of bringing an NPSL team to Boone, but it never really became more than an idea, as both were busy with other projects. A few months after the program was cut, they decided to revisit the idea. Just six months after the discontinuation of the ASU men’s soccer program, O’Keefe, Hitchcock, and the rest of their newly formed ownership group announced the formation of Appalachian FC.
When creating a business plan for the potential club, they wanted it firmly rooted in the local community. Everyone in the ownership group is Boone based (or Boone adjacent), making the club 100% locally owned. As with any other small business, they rely on partnerships and support with other small businesses in Boone. The club also partners with Watauga County schools to assist with programs for the students. “It gives a full pathway for the youth in the high country and in the rec program to see that higher level and aspire to it,” O’Keefe says.
Appalachian FC competes in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The NPSL is the fourth division of American soccer, among the highest of the semi-professional leagues. It is the largest soccer league in the country, with over ninety teams nationwide, and is constantly growing and expanding.
In only their second season of competition, Coach Dale Parker led the club to a Southeast Conference Championship title, and a runner-up in the NPSL East Region Championship, falling short to the eventual NPSL National Champion, FC Motown. Coach Parker was named the 2022 NPSL Coach of the Season, and the successful season was enough to earn the club a spot in the upcoming US Lamar Hunt Open Cup.
While recognizing that qualifying for the Open Cup is a huge accomplishment, Coach Parker knows there is still much work to do preparing for their first match. Many of the players on the summer roster play collegiately and/or out of state, forcing the club to virtually rebuild their roster for their run in the Open Cup. “There’s only a small number of players available for us to select from, and then the challenge is getting them to Boone and getting them prepared for the game,” Coach Parker said about the process. Once they build their roster, they will only have a few days together to prepare as a team.
However, Coach Parker embraces that aspect as an even more exciting opportunity. “I think that’s part of the magic. We may have a slightly more difficult challenge, but that adds to the drama, and adds to the excitement. Now, you can have an unknown guy come in and score a last minute winner in the US Open Cup game, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
Appalachian FC hosts USL League 2 side NC Fusion on March 22nd in their first ever US Open Cup match. The winner will travel to Charlotte for a second round matchup with Charlotte Independence. Coach Parker views the potential second round matchup as a motivating factor for his players. “You can’t look beyond the game that’s ahead of you, but again, when you’re a part of the magic of a competition like this, it adds to the excitement. Now the incentive is you get to go play a pro team in Charlotte, and that will only add to the motivation.”
The unique matchday experience created by Appalachian FC is one that you will not find anywhere else. “From a football perspective, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve played in decent crowds back home in England, but I know for a fact that App FC is some environment to play in.”
The Squatchguard is the club’s official supporters group. Before every game, they arrive hours early to meet at Booneshine Brewing Company, a club partner just a short walk down the road from the stadium. Booneshine Brewing Company worked with the club to create Squatchy Ale, the official beer of Appalachian FC, with the club’s crest on the can’s bright yellow label. After pregaming at Booneshine, the Squatchguard marches down the road to Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex, complete with flags, drums, chants, vuvuzelas, and flares. And of course, the march to the stadium would be incomplete if not for being led by the club’s mascot, Bigfoot. It is truly a sight you must see to believe.
“The atmosphere is fantastic. You can go up a couple tiers and see bigger crowds in bigger stadiums, but you pack a couple thousand fans in our stadium and it gets loud, and it is electric.” Parker continues, “It’s a special place, and anyone that says that soccer isn’t one of the main sports in Boone needs to come see a match and let it change their mind.”
The club is committed to catering to the various experiences desired by fans, so that everyone can have the matchday experience they are looking for. They offer a VIP section, with parking backing right up to the stands. There’s sideline seating, for the fans who want to be up close and personal with the action.
There’s a grassy knoll on one side of the stadium where fans can set up a blanket or chair and enjoy the game with a view, and even bring their dog to the match. And of course, fans are welcome to sit in the main stand with the Squatchguard, participating in all of their chants and cheers. However you choose to enjoy it, a matchday at Ted Mack is certainly one you will never forget.
Want to experience a matchday for yourself? Get tickets to Appalachian FC’s first ever US Open Cup game on March 22nd at https://www.appalachianfc.com/. The game will also be available for streaming, as it has been selected for one of the featured USOC broadcasts on Bleacher Report & B/R Live YouTube Channel.