Robert E. Lee graduate bringing semi-pro soccer to Tyler

Published on Sunday, 19 March 2017 23:36 - Written by Travis Yoesting, tyoesting@tylerpaper.com

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From the soccer fields of Mexico to the oilfields of Pennsylvania, Christopher Avila had one thing on this mind.

Whether playing his way through college or toiling in a warehouse in Dallas, the Tyler native has always dreamt about the beautiful game.

Now, having competed for teams from Mexico to Georgia, Avila is coming home - and he’s bringing a new soccer team with him.

The Tyler FC Kings will become the Rose City’s first non-amateur soccer club, competing in the National Premier Soccer League beginning in May.

While the team isn’t finalized, the coach hasn’t been announced and jerseys haven’t been unveiled, Tyler FC has come a long way since it was merely a thought in Avila’s head.

The Kings play their first exhibition on April 2 against the Shreveport Rafters at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium, a match played before a Mexico vs. Honduras friendly.

The NPSL season begins May 13, with the home opener set for May 20 at Bullard Brook Hill’s Herrington Stadium.

“I noticed (NPSL) was something special,” said Avila, who played in the league last year. “I saw the atmosphere that this league could create without having to be a multimillion dollar team in the MLS.

“It came alive for me. It hit me immediately. I thought of Tyler, Texas, immediately.”

GRASSROOTS

It’s not uncommon for sports fans to daydream about being a team owner. Many play fantasy sports or take to their Xbox to enact those dreams, if only in a digital, make-believe form.

Avila has made it a reality.

“I guess it’s everybody’s fantasy to have their own team,” Avila said. “I have my own team; I have my own players. It’s kind of funny.”

Avila’s path from Robert E. Lee to team owner is long and winding, albeit brief in span.

An all-district honorable mention defender as a senior at Robert E. Lee, Avila was given a chance to play professionally in Mexico, where he played for San Luis Potosi for a couple years.

“It’s funny because ever since I got picked to go play in Mexico I always thought, ‘How come this guy didn’t get picked - why me?’ ” Avila said. “I didn’t feel like I was the best player out of Tyler, Texas.”

Avila played until he turned 21, when he was no longer considered a youth player.

While the club offered him a contract, it wasn’t enough money to support himself.

“I was interested in making money,” Avila said. “That’s why I went to the oil fields.”

Avila spent a couple years in the oil fields in Pittsburgh, but something was missing. He was making money, but he went from playing soccer every day since he was a child to not playing at all.

Before long, Avila enrolled at Richland College in Dallas to play soccer for the school. He then played at Thomas University in Georgia, where he played with Patrick Ramdial, now his chief financial officer and a forward on the team.

“He was telling me his dreams about opening a club from when we were in college,” Ramdial said.

A few semesters from earning a degree in sports psychology, Avila came back to Dallas to play for Dallas City FC of the NPSL.

After getting his first taste of the NPSL, Avila immediately thought of his hometown and the seeds were planted. It wasn’t long before he began making plans to create his own team.

“I worked in a warehouse and I played soccer,” Avila said. “I was writing notes every day. I’d go see the (Dallas City) presidents, talk to them, and I had to convince myself to do it. Nobody’s going to do it for me.”

 

TEAM BUILDING EXERCISE

Avila is by no means an expert in Photoshop.

It took him six months to get the Tyler FC logo just right, never mind the time spent coming up with the right name for the club.

“I was going to call it Rose City FC, but it just didn’t click for me, it almost sounded like an indoor soccer team,” Avila said. “If I would’ve named it the Rose City Kings, it would almost sound like a gang. It didn’t sound like something organized in the way I pictured it in my head.”

Ultimately, Avila settled on Tyler FC Kings and the logo represents the name. The crest has a shield featuring a crown on one side and a rose on the other, eschewing an early Italian-inspired design that may not have been recognizable to non-soccer fans.

“I wanted it to be something as clear as possible,” he said. “It’s something that kind of said soccer without having to put a ball and fire behind it - that would have been too amateur.”

This is no amateur operation.

Avila has picked the brains of anyone who will talk to him about starting an NPSL team, including Sean McDaniel, the owner of Chattanooga FC, which regularly draws 10,000 fans. McDaniel told Avila he thinks Tyler can be just as successful.

“I see a lot of potential in this area, the East Texas area in general,” Avila said. “It’s a big market for soccer. It’s just there’s no real outlet to a more serious side of it.”

Avila also has plenty of help.

Beto Ortega is the director of player development. Jason Martinez does a number of things from photography and social media to organizing events, including TFC Ministries, which will get Kings players involved with local churches, and a free soccer camp for kids 12 and under on April 9 at Super 1 Foods on Gentry.

Ramdial is a player and Jamaican international but also heads the finances, having recently graduated with a degree in business management.

“It’s always been about balancing, so work and soccer, it just came naturally,” Ramdial said.

Funding has come from a variety of places, starting out with Avila asking family and friends to help out.

As Avila began to develop confidence in his plan, the team began getting sponsorships and a few silent investors.

“It was funny for me for a while because I felt like I was selling air,” Avila said. “It was just a bunch of ideas that I had. I really didn’t know if it was a good idea or not. I hesitated a lot to make this an official thing because I was afraid to fail.”

Early in the year, Avila approached Bullard Brook Hill athletic director Wally Dawkins about using the school’s Herrington Stadium for home games.

Being a private Christian school, Dawkins said there were some issues to sort out, namely the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco as well as Brook Hill’s need to approve any sponsored advertisements.

Now that the details were sorted out and a contract signed, Dawkins said he hopes it is a win-win for both sides, particularly with Brook Hill’s history of success on the pitch.

“I hope they get a lot of support,” Dawkins said. “I hope people in East Texas come out and watch them play. We hope it’s a good deal for the sport of soccer. We hope they can bring something to Tyler in East Texas that hasn’t been here yet that will be of interest to people.”

Added Avila: “Beautiful stadium. It’s gorgeous. I love it out there.”

 

TALENT SPOTTING

A beautiful stadium and a shiny new logo won’t do much to maintain interest if there isn’t a good product on the field.

A major reason Avila wanted to start the club in Tyler was to highlight the abilities of East Texas soccer players and give them another outlet to further both their soccer careers and education, helping them earn scholarships to play in college.

“I see too much talent going to waste,” Avila said. “It’s not just talent; it’s their futures as people outside of the field. I’d like to help them get into school as much as possible.

“A lot of these high school kids are just graduating high school, getting a job and just letting their talents go to waste. They never really had an option, and that’s what I would like to present.”

One such player is Alan Arroyo, 24, UT Tyler student who has played at Lon Morris, LSU-Shreveport and UT Tyler.

Arroyo was born in Mexico but raised in Van, earning All-East Texas honors as a defender for Lindale. He was one of the team’s first players to sign and is eager to show East Texas fans what the team is about.

“I hope that they come out there and just let the world know about Tyler ... and let them know that there is a bunch of competitive talent ready to play and give a good show,” Arroyo said.

The National Premier Soccer League is the unofficial fourth tier of American soccer leagues (U.S. Soccer doesn’t designate past the third tier).

NPSL regularly qualifies more than a dozen teams for the U.S. Open Cup, which this year will include 99 clubs ranging from local qualifiers to all 19 U.S.-based MLS teams.

Both Arroyo and Ramdial expressed keen interest in trying to get into the U.S. Open Cup. With the season less than two months away, they’re eager to kick things off.

“With the talent we have so far and the talent coming in, it’s just us left to put the work in and be ready,” Ramdial said.

The final talent search was held Saturday, the third of three tryouts for the squad.

Avila said he has a good 18 players in mind, with six officially signed. He hopes to have around 23 on the roster by the start of the season, with 26 the max allowed by NPSL.

In the next week or two, in the buildup to the scrimmage against Shreveport, Avila will unveil the team’s uniforms, something he says is the No. 1 question he gets asked about these days.

The coach could be revealed shortly thereafter. Avila knows the man he wants to hire, someone he says is an East Texan with a strong track record.

More than a year in the making, Avila’s dream of starting a soccer team in Tyler is nearly a reality.

“It was a beautiful experience being able to travel to the world to play soccer,” Avila said. “I would like to help as many people as I can to be able to have that same experience.”

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