There’s no doubt that Mobile is a soccer town. The city is home to high quality men’s and women’s college soccer programs, a number of competitive local high school teams, quality youth clubs, and a burgeoning minor league team. However, AFC Mobile is not the first team to represent the city of Mobile. From 1995 to 1997, between the 1994 World Cup in the United States and the dawn of Major League Soccer, the Mobile Revelers staked a claim as one of the south’s best clubs.
The team was the brainchild of former University of South Alabama men’s coach Roy Patton. Patton approached local soccer enthusiasts Steve Clements and Ken Kvalheim to form a new professional soccer team to play in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL) Professional League, a multi-regional league sanctioned as a Division III Professional League by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USISL was a predecessor to the modern day United Soccer League (USL) and Premier Development League (PDL).
“At the time, the South Alabama [NCAA] program was just on fire and of course Mobile College [NAIA] had a really great program as well. Pretty much all our players came from those two schools,” Clements said. Patton’s goal was to give his college players and other local players the opportunity to continue playing soccer at a high level. “We hated the fact that they graduated and left us,” Clements said. “That was one of Roy’s primary goals was to give these players an opportunity to continue playing soccer at a level that they might be seen in the bigger leagues.”
The Revelers roster, much like the roster of the South Alabama team at the time, was made up of players from across the globe. “We were not that international, compared to my 1995 season at South [Alabama], but we came from South Africa, England, Scotland, Denmark, Trinidad, and the US,” said former Mobile Reveler left back Søren Jørgensen.
Jørgensen was from Copenhagen, Denmark and earned a scholarship to play for South Alabama. Unfortunately, his high school credits did not properly transfer to the American system and he was unable to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. But he had fallen in love with the Mobile soccer community, and he decided to stay in Mobile and play for the Revelers.
Jørgensen said that even though the core of Revelers players graduated from South Alabama in 1994 or ’95, it wasn’t hard to break into the group. “It was easy to enter the group,” Jørgensen said. “As long as you can play some good soccer and drink a beer afterwards.”
Patton originally intended for the team to play its matches at South Alabama. He would coach the team at home and Tom Bierster, his assistant coach, would coach the team on the road. That plan never came to fruition, as behind-the-scenes politics at South Alabama could not be worked out. “There were issues… I don’t really know exactly everything on that level, but at one point, Joe Gottfried went to Roy and said, ‘look, you can’t play at South… I’m getting too much pressure and if you coach this team, you may not have a job with the college,'” Bierster said.
Ultimately, Bierster took the reigns as the head coach of the Revelers heading into their inaugural season. Soon after, Patton left South Alabama to take the head job at the University of Vermont. He would eventually return to the Port City as the head coach of the University of Mobile.
Despite the talent in the city, not everyone in Mobile embraced soccer. This became apparent during the Revelers search for a home field. “Some people didn’t understand it at all,” Kvalheim said. “I remember we were looking to do some practice, or some tryouts on the field – and I’ll never forget – a football coach told us that the soccer players would damage his field.”
Ironically, the Revelers finally found a home outside of Mobile at the Fairhope Municipal Soccer Complex, a venue that quickly gained a reputation as one of the nicest facilities in the USISL. “My second season, everyone wanted to come to Fairhope because they heard how beautiful the field was, and it was,” Bierster said.
With a stadium deal in place and a roster full of players ready to play, the only thing the club was missing was a moniker. “We wanted to make something that was synonymous to who we are,” Kvalheim said. “We were the first sports team to say ‘we need to capitalize on what makes us unique to the region, what makes us unique to being Mobile,’ and ‘Revelers’ just worked out.”
The Revelers finished their inaugural season in second place in the Southeast Division and were eliminated from the playoffs in the Divisional Semifinal round. “We got a little bit known out there because our first season we were better than .500 and we got people wanting to come play for us,” Bierster said. One of the players that Mobile added was Bill Elliott. Elliott is currently the head coach at the University of West Florida and the NPSL’s Chattanooga FC. Elliott said that the core of South Alabama and University of Mobile players were crucial to building the team’s success in the first year. “All those guys knew each other really well…I think even when they were in college in the offseason they played together, you know, pick up games,” Elliott said. “By the time I joined they had a very good core and I was fortunate enough to be able to work my way into that and become a part of it and really enjoy my time playing there.”
Elliott took the University of West Florida job in 1995 and has been there ever since. He has lead the Argonauts to nine conference championships. He took the managerial position at Chattanooga FC in 2011 and has been the runner-up in three of the last five NPSL National Championships. Elliott thinks the biggest change in the American lower league landscape is the amount of professionalism shown from the clubs at this level.
“In those days, everything in the league was very ‘Bull Durham-ish.’ I think now there’s a lot more professionalism in those leagues… I think there was a lot more gimmicks and minor league baseball marketing tricks to kinda get people out,” Elliott said. Mobile wasn’t above using wild promotions to draw fans out to the stadium. The Revelers were able to draw 2000 fans to a match by bringing the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in town to perform a halftime show.
Bierster said that Mobile’s greatest game came against one of the USISL’s powerhouses, the Minnesota Thunder. The Thunder had won four consecutive league championships and boasted the likes of future MLS star, Bundesliga regular, and U.S international Tony Sanneh as well as current Minnesota United sporting director Manny Lagos and his brother Gerard.
The Thunder were playing in New Orleans on a Friday night before making the trip to Fairhope on Saturday. Bierster drove to the match in New Orleans and devised a game plan that took the Thunder to the wire. Instead of going at the Thunder head-to-head, Bierster told the Revelers to absorb pressure from the Thunder attack before trying to hit them on the counter. The Thunder found themselves shell-shocked. The Revelers took the game to double-overtime and were mere seconds from a shootout when Tony Sanneh turned a Revs’ defender, launched a shot with his left foot, and won the game 1-0 with five seconds left. News of the Revelers’ unexpected success against the Thunder spread quickly. Days after the last-second loss, Bierster received a phone call from Bob Gansler, former manager of the US Men’s National Team during the 1990 World Cup in Italy and the head coach of the Milwaukee Rampage at the time, asking Bierster how his Revelers took the Thunder to double-overtime.
The Revelers returned to the playoffs in the 1996 season, but failed to move beyond the Conference Semifinals. Bierster left the team following the 1996 season. The Revelers did not qualify for the playoffs in 1997, which turned out to be their final season.
“The biggest problem with professional sports from our standpoint back then was that we were required by the league, and by conscience frankly, to provide these kids with workers comp insurance and the cost of it became absolutely oppressive to say the least,” Clements said. “With that in mind, with the travel that was involved, we simply couldn’t generate enough money between ticket sales and sponsorships to make it viable.”
The Revelers only lasted for three years in the Mobile area, but their impact on the game in the area can be felt today. “I really believe that what we did, we created an opportunity to expose a lot of people to a sport that they didn’t know very much about,” Kvalheim said.
AFC Mobile will be paying tribute to the city’s original minor league soccer team by holding Mobile Revelers Night this Saturday, July 1st. Kickoff against Gaffa FC of Jackson, Mississippi is at 7:00 p.m. All tickets are only $5, and kids 12 and under are admitted free. AFC Mobile is also auctioning off an original limited edition Mobile Revelers Inaugural Season Commemorative Poster. All auction proceeds will be donated to USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital. Click here to participate in the auction. Come out and honor Mobile’s soccer history while supporting your local grassroots soccer team!