Flint — The soccer-playing Bucks are vying for a national championship, which isn’t so much as news for the 24-year-old outfit with a winning tradition.
Where the perennial powerhouse is challenging for its third title in five years is, though. And, frankly, it’s breath of fresh outdoor air.
After winning Premier Development League crowns in 2014 and ‘16 while playing indoors at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, the club moved this season to refurbished Kettering University’s Atwood Stadium in Flint.
The relocation came with a rebranding, as the Michigan Bucks were rechristened the Flint City Bucks.
The transformative powers of the beautiful game have been in full force as the community has taken to the club and vice-a-versa. Attendance has increased to nearly 5,000 a match and the Bucks now have their own supporters’ group, the River Rats, who count a barber among their 60 members.
Defender and team captain Charlie Booth tilts his head forward to show off his latest hairstyle courtesy of River Rat member Zac Minock, who worked his shear magic prior to the Bucks’ 1-0 victory over FC Golden State Force in the semifinals last weekend at Atwood.
“Not bad,” Booth said after Wednesday’s practice. “My cut's a low fade with a one. Leave the top long.
“So he did it. I saw him in the fan section after the game and gave him a 'What's up.' They are really good to us. When we win games, they run around the field. They're going crazy, they're jumping around. It's a good sign. We're really happy to have them with us.”
The Bucks are ready to cut to the chase for this Saturday’s national title clash against Reading United AC. The storied team is chasing its fourth national title in 24 years, having also won a PDL crown in 2006.
The USL has renamed the fourth-tier Premier Development League as League 2 this season.
Reading comes with its own rich legacy, which includes an affiliation with the Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. Flint has no big-league ties.
The Bucks, owned by Dan Duggan, rely on the brain trust of former Oakland University coach Gary Parsons and coach Demir Muftari to mine soccer talent. Former Saginaw Valley State coach Andy Wagstaff joined Muftari this season as associate head coach.
The list of Bucks luminaries in professional soccer is lengthy, but some notables include Portland Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark, Colorado Rapids defender Kofi Opare and Orlando City goalkeeper Adam Grinwis.
Despite dealing with injuries to key players like midfielders Jared Timmer, Omar Osman, defenders Michael Wetungu and Marc Ybarra, the Bucks persevered and reeled off three straight wins to qualify for the postseason.
The team finished 6-3-3, good enough for second place in the arduous Central Conference Great Lakes Division, drawing undefeated No. 1 seed Des Moines Menace (11-0-3) in the first round.
The Bucks upset the Menace after Ayuk Tambe scored in the third minute of stoppage time to level it 2-2. After 10-man Des Moines went up 3-2, Flint’s Gustavo Vaconcelos incredibly lobbed the keeper in the dying seconds of extra time to force a shootout where the Bucks prevailed 4-2.
The improbable victory set the postseason tone as the Bucks rolled to a 4-2 victory over Lawrence, Kansas-based Kaw Valley in the Central Conference championship game two days later.
The Bucks’ reward was a homecoming in the USL League 2 semifinals where they defeated Los Angeles-based FC Golden State 1-0 with former AFC Ann Arbor standout Yuri Farkas converting a penalty in the 78th minute.
“I think just going through that grueling division schedule, to be honest, really helped prepare us for this run,” said Muftari, who returned as Bucks coach this season after serving in a front office capacity last year. “Then we faced the No. 1 seed in Des Moines in that first game and it was a great performance by us and we were incredibly happy to win and it kept rolling from there.
“The boys have a lot of belief and a little momentum and the guys are playing well.”
The Bucks have created a “positive narrative,” which has people in Flint rallying around the team, said River Rats founder Mike Allard, 26. The Flint resident works in public health. “The playoff run has shed a light on that,” he added.
River Rat members meet at Soggy Bottom Bar. They march to the stadium and sit in Section 11 at Atwood.
In the community, the fledgling supporters group has been involved with helping the University of Michigan-Flint Center for Gender and Sexuality and the Flint Area United Soccer Club. Their mission is to promote soccer in what's largely a football-basketball stronghold, Allard said.
Everyone appears uplifted by the magic taking place on the field.
“The community has embraced us,” Muftari said. “There’s the support at the games but just even locally when we're out and around, people are excited about the team and they are excited to tell you that they are fans and they like being here.
“It's been an awesome experience. The move couldn't have gone better.”
USL League 2 National Championship
Flint City Bucks vs. Reading United AC
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Atwood Stadium, Flint