Editor’s Note: Baltimore Kings players and coaches visited the newsroom and spoke by phone to the Watchdog in the days leading up to their first-ever game. Here are three different looks at the making of the team and what it means for Baltimore soccer.
By Chris Katz
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
For most athletes, playing at the professional level is a dream come true.
For soccer players in Baltimore, those dreams are now becoming a reality — for one long-awaited game, at least.
The Baltimore Kings, a non-league, independent pro soccer club, will play their first-ever game 5 p.m. Saturday at Concordia Prep in Towson. Their opponent in what is being called the DMV Cup is the Washington Fire.
Almost two years ago, former professional soccer player and Towson University varsity athlete Josh Danza announced the creation of the Kings as a team that would bring together top soccer talent to play in front of local soccer fans. The club is also home to teams and year-round soccer programs for younger players.
Baltimore’s professional roster features local players — and some from as far away as Hawaii — who have played professionally or at the college level. Many have full-time jobs apart from soccer and want to compete in their hometown. Some are looking for a springboard into a full-time professional career or are out of contract and looking for their next professional home.
“Maybe they weren’t given the proper stage in college or they just weren’t looked at properly and had a lot of potential,” said Danza, the founder and chairman of the Kings and a player on the team. “We offer them the opportunity to continue to play soccer.”
Unlike other professional clubs, the Kings sign players to one-game contracts. They report to training camp a week before the game. The team practices several times a week at night.
“We can bring guys in, sign them for a week, and they train for a week and play the game,” Danza said. “Then they are released and can play wherever they want.”
This strategy allows the players to get professional experience and game film but not tie them up when they may be able to seek opportunities elsewhere, Danza said. It is also a product of scarce scheduling: the Kings only plan to play a few games per year (nothing is scheduled for the remaining of 2017).
“The way I like to think of it is like an MMA fighter’s schedule,” Danza said. “They only fight a match every four or five or six months.”
That way, Danza said, excitement builds for each game — and the Kings can gauge fan interest for the future.
The Kings are looking to distinguish themselves from other professional club teams in the past that have tried to start in the region.
“Getting support first is what has to be done so we don’t become like other minor league teams that are around for two to five years and then end up folding because they don’t have the financial backing or the fan support to support this kind of venture,” Danza said.
For a team that only holds events a handful of times per year, gaining public recognition is a challenge. Kings players have been tasked with spreading the word in person and on social media. They are receiving commission for every person they bring to the stadium for Saturday’s game.
Several players on the team have attempted to drum up interest among current and former Towson University students. It’s personal for them given that three Kings players played one year at the Division I level before Towson decided to cut their soccer program.
“They didn’t know where to go,” Danza said. “Now to have an experience where they can return to Towson and play on a big stage, that’s something that’s definitely owed to them after what they went through.”
The team is a huge stepping-stone for players trying to pursue a career in soccer. It’s also a chance for Baltimore fans to watch professional soccer at times when the Baltimore Blast, which recently announced plans to play at SECU Arena, are not in season.
“I moved back to Baltimore [in 2014] recognizing the need for something new in the area,” Danza said.
Danza expects the attendance on Saturday to be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 people. With a relatively short schedule, the Kings need to make their games worthwhile for the fans.
“One of our main goals is to make the fan experience good,” said Ian Jett, the communications director for the team. “Having a good, competitive game on the field will translate into a good fan experience.”
Gavin Boyer, a student at Towson University who plays on the club soccer team and previous played varsity at Xavier University and Howard University, said he is excited to play in the Kings’ first-ever game.
“It’s exciting to see the two brand new teams,” Boyer said. “I expect it to not be a friendly match, but an aggressive match.”
For players on the team like Boyer, the Kings could be the opportunity to showcase their talents.
“The real premise behind this is to put players on a stage where they can succeed and then maybe move on to other playing opportunities that are full time,” Danza said.
By Desmond Boyle
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Ever wonder what it would take to start a professional sports team from scratch?
Josh Danza can tell you. After nearly two years of business meetings, marketing plays, recruiting trips and tryouts, the Baltimore native is ready to show off his product to soccer fans across the region. The Baltimore Kings, a non-league, independent soccer team that Danza launched in late 2015, will play their first-ever game Saturday at 5 p.m. at Concordia Prep High School.
“It means a lot [to be playing the first game] because we put so much effort into building it and making sure it’s done the right way,” said Danza, the Kings’ chairman and founder. “Some of these guys who work for our club work a full-time job and all of their free time is sacrificed.”
That describes E.J. Jackson, who is working on his sports management degree at Towson University, coaching youth soccer through the Baltimore Kings and the girls’ soccer team at Mercy High School in Baltimore, and training youth players at Community College of Baltimore County Essex — all while recruiting players for the Kings and getting in game shape himself.
For Jackson, coaching, promoting and player soccer is a labor of love.
“It’s like a rolling ball of soccer, but I love it,” Jackson said. “I took off from school and got a job at a car dealership and I realized that I only love soccer — there’s nothing else to life but soccer so I’ve completely engulfed myself in soccer.”
To build the Kings roster, Jackson and Danza (who are both playing Saturday) had to find players who shared that passion for the sport. The roster is filled with former college players, former pro players and current players who are out of contract.
Jackson had long been eyeing Gavin Boyer, a Baltimore native and former Division I soccer player at Xavier and Howard. Boyer transferred to Towson this year to be closer to home. He plays on the club soccer team and was looking for an opportunity to play professionally. Boyer sacrificed NCAA eligibility by signing with the Kings.
“I felt that coming to Towson and playing with a club team that I can do on my own time and my own spare eligibility is much better than having a commitment to a team that pretty much owns you,” Boyer said.
Danza has made sacrifices himself. He ended his full-time professional soccer career when he moved back to Baltimore with his family in 2014. He realized, however, that he wasn’t done with soccer.
“I moved back to Baltimore recognizing the need for something new in the area where we could help out local players play at the next level,” Danza said.
Danza knew that it would take several years to market the team, find a place to play and recruit both players and people to work for the organization. He has taken a slow-growth approach to scheduling games. Too often, he said, small soccer clubs try to put together an extensive schedule with a lot of games, which can be costly and drain all the team’s resources quickly.
“In order to sustain a professional team at a high level you need some sort of television deal where you’re constantly in people’s eyes,” Danza said. “But as a smaller-level team if you try operating at that level [too soon] that’s why some of these teams fail.”
To try to avoid this, the Kings only have one game scheduled thus far, their Saturday matchup against the Washington Fire in what is being deemed the DMV Cup.
To boost attendance, the Kings are giving their players incentive to promote the game. According to Jackson, when fans enter the stadium they will be asked what player asked them to come, and for every fan that each player brings in that player gets a commission.
Danza said he is confident that the team will attract a fan base. He is hoping for up to 2,500 fans on Saturday.
“Baltimore has always been a hotbed of soccer talent,” he said, adding that “Towson is the perfect spot for a niche minor league team.”
By Jordan Cope
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
On weekdays, you can find Gavin Boyer and E.J. Jackson walking to class at Towson University. But on Saturday night, you can find them on the pitch at Concordia Prep playing for the DMV Cup in the inaugural game for the Baltimore Kings.
Founded in 2015, the Kings are a professional soccer club that signs players to one-game contracts. Players are paid for the game, and from there hope that someone will see their game film — or watch them in person — and sign them to play full-time.
The Kings’ roster features athletes from across the country and from down the road — including a sizable contingent like Boyer and Jackson who have Towson University ties. That’s no coincidence. The team’s founder and chairman, Josh Danza, played one year of varsity soccer at Towson before the university eliminated the men’s soccer team in 2013.
“I graduated a year early from Stevenson [University] and you can play four years of the sport so I ended up transferring to Towson, and it was the last year they had the soccer program,” Danza said. “It was funny how it all worked out. I got to play a year of Division I soccer but the program got cut immediately afterwards.”
Danza’s career would have been over anyway, but several players who were freshmen that year were left without a Division I soccer experience. They stayed at Towson and played on the club team and now are returning to Towson to play for the Kings.
When Danza created the Kings, one of his goals was to give former college athletes and aspiring professional players a place to showcase their talents.
“The real premise behind this is to put players on a stage where they can succeed and then maybe move on to other playing opportunities that are full time,” Danza said. “Maybe they weren’t given the proper stage when they were in college or just weren’t looked at properly and had a lot of potential. We offer them the opportunity to continue to play soccer.”
Boyer, who transferred to Towson for the fall semester, took a long route to playing for the Kings. He was recruited by Xavier University and redshirted his freshman year. He transferred to Howard University before moving closer to home in Baltimore and enrolling at Towson.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why did you leave college soccer just to play with some club team,’” Boyer said. “The NCAA is really strict, has a lot of rules and the teams I was playing with weren’t really serious about it… I felt that playing on a club team was much better.”
Jackson had considered playing varsity soccer at Towson, but he learned of the plan to cut the team in 2012 and decided not to immediately enroll. He stayed involved in soccer and eventually came to Towson to major in sports management.
Jackson’s role with the Kings is extensive. He has roles within the front office in addition to coaching and playing with the team. Although Jackson says he doesn’t get to go to bed until 1 a.m. some nights (only to wake up at 6 a.m.), he said it is worth it to be so heavily involved in soccer.
“I took off from school, I just went and got a job at a car dealership and I realized that I only love soccer,” Jackson said. “There is nothing else to life other than soccer. I’ve completely engulfed my life with soccer.”
Saturday’s match between the Kings and Washington Fire is an opportunity for individual players to showcase their talents for 90 minutes. But it’s not just about individual efforts. Boyer said expects the game to have a large crowd and a competitive edge.
“I expect an aggressive first match,” Boyer said. “It’ll be good for people to see the new teams and maybe think, ‘Oh, I have a son that plays soccer maybe we can get him involved.’ People will see, maybe we can get this more involved and it will blow up next year.”