This post was contributed by Sara Jenkins, a long time fan of Wilmington Hammerheads FC. Sara felt the need to voice her opinion, and Scratching the Pitch volunteered to provide her an outlet. I hope it proves therapeutic for Hammerheads supporters and serves as a wake-up call for anyone who may need woken.
Hello fans and followers of Scratching the Pitch! My name is Sara and I’m here today to guest post about my USL club, the Wilmington Hammerheads FC. Before I get rolling here, big thanks to Chad for allowing me to guest post! We used to write content together for Reckless Challenge back in the day, and he’s so devoted to his Dutch Lions that he followed the team’s Carolina road trip last year, stopping in Wilmington to tailgate with us and share some beers and stories. (We also traded scarves – I’m proud to have my Oranje Legion scarf hanging on my door amidst my collection.)
I guess I’m going to lay it on the line here – this article isn’t going to be pleasant. I love my team and all of our past highs and lows, but this season has pretty closely resembled a dumpster fire, and it hurts to have to sit down and bullet out the points as to why I am so unhappy. I know many others feel the same, but in the respect of everyone’s opinion, I am just going to go ahead and speak for myself in this write-up. I think it needs to be said; after two seasons of mediocrity, we’ve started 2015 off not with a bang, not even a whimper, but just radio silence.
I’ll start with our current situation in the Eastern Conference. The Hammerheads are presently 10th in the table, thankfully above our Canadian brethren Toronto FC and Montreal FC. They currently hold 5 points after 6 games and have only had one win, an away match versus the new Red Bulls USL team. The numbers in and of themselves are telling, but what you can’t see from the stats is the absolute lack of heart and effort on the field. I mean… some games I’m absolutely speechless. Coming into a season that is such an undeniable game-changer in the landscape of the USL, a league that’s now been divided into geographical conferences and has new cities and teams banging down the door to join in, you absolutely need to come out of the gate running. No exceptions. These inaugural teams are hungry and just chomping at the bit to prove themselves and show everyone that they belong here and we can’t afford to just ignore that and not up our ante. And if you take a look at the Eastern Conference table right now, it’s clear that the other original USL teams have gotten the memo. Rochester, Richmond, and Charleston, all founded in the 90’s back before the inception of the league in its current form, are in first, second and third place, respectively. Where are we? Tenth.
We are a storied team that is failing to play up to our storied history. The Wilmington Hammerheads were founded in 1996, way back before divisional professional league soccer was a blip on anyone’s radar. The team actually didn’t play for a year, back in 2010, due to financial difficulties until Bill Rudisill stepped in and pulled the organization back from imminent defeat. We were one of the original few that started to pave the landscape for divisional soccer here in the US, we have history and achievements under our belts, and we need to prove that we deserve to be here because we’ve been here from the start. We can’t have teams coming to Legion Stadium banking on getting an easy 3 points under their belt because right now, after watching the Hammerheads this season, I almost guarantee that’s what they plan on. I don’t blame them – I’d think the same thing.
The team only has one championship under their belt, but that doesn’t even bother me. We don’t need to be Conference champions or USL champions. We don’t need to win the US Open Cup. I will happily and devotedly cheer my heart out for a mid-table team if they in turn roar back at us from the pitch and give 150% of their blood, sweat, and tears for the crest on their chest and fans behind the rail. But that isn’t happening.
Saturday night the Hammerheads, who at the moment sat in 5th place, suffered a devastating and ugly 4-0 defeat to then 9th place Harrisburg City Islanders. It was not a pretty or hard fought defeat at all. Harrisburg’s third goal (or it may have been second, they all kind of blur together after a while) was a ridiculous defensive breakdown – player dribbling parallel to the box through three of our guys, realizes he’s a little too claustrophobic to take a shot, boots it 10 yards behind him to a completely unmarked teammate who smashes it in for an easy goal. The Hammerheads had their chances, but it seems once they get up into the box for scoring position some kind of force field descends that makes shots fly over the goal from putting way too much power on a chance that didn’t need it, or clear goal-scoring opportunities fly weakly into the opposing keeper’s hands. One fantastic chance stands out in my mind last night, a clear shot into goal from right out front, that could have been a goal if the first touch was just taken and buried. Too much bungling, and what looks like confused panic sets in. Our set pieces are, per usual, pretty bad – it seems like we are always crossing to The Invisible Man. Crosses either have way too much power and fly across the field to no one, or a cross in goes to someone that’s defensively mobbed and it’s an easy takeaway for the other team.
Combine the above with a roster that seems to be picked out of a hat every game and I feel like sometimes the Benny Hill theme should be playing while the match is on. We lack any sort of stability and cohesiveness as a unit out there, and it shows. Our team does have its strengths – there are enthusiastic players that are not starting for whatever reason, or are put into the game too late to make any sort of difference. I’m no coach, not even close, but there are some roster choices that fuel confused rumblings in the stands.
I think what baffles me most is the team’s transition from having Carson Porter come on as coach last year late into the season when David Irving was sacked, compared to the Carson Porter Effect of this season. Last season our team was performing at the level of a wet paper bag under Irving, but when Porter came on for that last month or so? Whoa. The difference was instant and hugely noticeable. We were winning away games, playing harder and hungrier, and it SHOWED on the field! The fans were excited, hell, I was excited to see that. I had huge high hopes that the positive, effort-fueled end of last season would seamlessly transfer into 2015 and we were finally, finally onto something that would make our team succeed. Thus far it has been anything but. So, what gives?? Why is there such a huge performance difference between then and now? (Spoiler: I don’t know.)
We as fans put our heart and soul into the teams we love. I’ve been fortunate to become friends with many similar supporters within the Port City Firm – people that live and breathe blue and white for these boys and this organization. Saturday’s crushing loss hit hard, and it shocked me to the core, not only for what was occurring on the field but also in the stands. Fans emotions ranged from outright angry and livid, to quiet and shocked, to disappointed and frustrated. Huger than that, even more telling to me than a lackluster team performance, was that die-hard Firm members started to leave the game mid-match. We’ve had some rough games before but this level of frustration and disapproval has never, ever happened before.
And I get it. On a personal level, gameday takes up a LOT of my time. Including getting to the stadium to set up and tailgate, march inside, watch the match and drive home afterwards, a normal gameday for me usually runs from 3 pm – 10 pm. That’s a full day, and I know many others devote the equal amount of time, if not more, to gameday. That’s a full day, and on a weekend where time is short and precious, do I really want to sacrifice that much time to attend and support a match that’s going to leave me unfulfilled and disappointed? Last night I found myself in the quiet stands at about the 70th minute, rolling over in my head all of the things that I could have been doing with that chunk of time that would have made me happy – reading a book, watching a movie, going to the gym, taking a walk at the beach, enjoying a nice dinner, go ahead, insert your own options. Is my time and money going to waste? Am I going to regret losing that big chunk of weekend time? Why should I make this a priority?
I love soccer. Live, breathe, bleed. I’ve cried in joy at hard-fought Hammerheads matches against bitter rivals, and I’ve cried in loss during the 1-0 loss to Charleston in the 2012 finals. I’ve yelled obscenities and made up curse words at the television to Premier League matches, La Liga matches, Bundesliga matches, Champion’s League matches. I’ve sat on my floor sobbing (and drinking wine) in nervous pre-emptive defeat during last year’s FA cup when Hull unexpectedly went up over my beloved Arsenal in the 10th minute. I’ve created tifo on my own and traveled to USWNT matches with other American Outlaws chapters. I’ve travelled to watch NWSL games with an attendance of mostly 300 enthralled 11-year-old girls. I spent my own time, money, and effort to sew and paint a cape I wear to Hammerheads games to show my support. (I know, ubernerd, right?) I’ve helped grow the game by not only being an active board member, but co-coordinating and promoting the hell out of last year’s World Cup with the American Outlaws Wilmington chapter, and I amazed myself last year by coming in 3rd place in our World Cup fantasy football challenge by choosing my players carefully and tinkering with my lineups. We’ve pumped little quiet tournaments like the Algarve Cup and have spent literal months planning events, contests, and watch parties for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. I’m not saying all this to prove I’m better than any other fan or to seem “cooler” than anyone else, or to insinuate that anyone else’s opinion on this matter in invalid, because that’s ABSOLUTELY not true. I value every single game experience I’ve been fortunate enough to have, and I’m saying this to explain that I’m not a fly by night fan of the game, and to show you where I’m personally coming from as a fan. I’m not fair weather, and I’m not just writing this three page catharsis because I’m upset on a base level. To me, something is terribly wrong with a team I love, and it’s going to take more than a 1-2-3 record at the start of the season to remedy.
2013 and 2014 were shaky seasons for our team that they managed to turn around and gain high moments and momentum from. We had hard-fought draws and even losses but we as fans were proud of our team because those draws were 110% effort fueled. This season doesn’t even hold a candle to that, and something needs to happen fast – my deepest fear is our team loses its storied history and eventually ceases to exist, and that would be a crying shame for all of the dedicated staff, players, and fans that have poured their hearts and souls into getting the Hammerheads where they are today. We can do better. We need to do better. No excuses.