NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. — They came from around the country and even around the world on a chilly northern Rhode Island Friday to put reality and soccer boots behind the abstraction: Rhode Island Football Club is a thing. It is a thing that is happening. After several years of planning, professional soccer is here. The outside noise about the stadium? All that was safely outside at the Wide World of Indoor Sports on Pound Hill Road.
So was the dusting of snow, which is all the better for the players who came to North Smithfield from warmer places like Alabama or Tampa or Bermuda or Spain to practice together as a team in front of the media for the first time.
“The construction of the stadium, that’s down to other people,” said head coach Khano Smith. “I’m just prepared for the construction of the team and putting a good team on the field.”
Rhode Island FC will play in the USL Championship, the second tier of American men’s soccer, against the likes of New Mexico United, the Charleston Battery, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Friday was their fourth practice. The expansion team is playing its first ever game on March 16 at its temporary home at Bryant University’s Beirne Stadium while the soccer stadium in Pawtucket gets built.
The stadium, called Tidewater Landing, has been in the works for years, and has faced a number of challenges — most recently, increased borrowing costs for state taxpayers to help build it. It’s supposed to be open by the 2025 season.
But Friday was about the 2024 season, which is already almost here. It was about ironing out tactics, about learning a new system, about shaking off the offseason rust and figuring out how to work together as a team. It started with some keepie-uppie to get loose, then a lap around the indoor turf field, a few rounds of rondo, and onto full drills. They were like little mini-soccer games where players had to pass the ball a certain number of times before trying to score on a comically small net.
In this global game, a local team is looking to win. The team generated some buzz in the USL Championship soccer world by signing Albert Dikwa, the league’s leading scorer and MVP last year for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. He wasn’t at training on Friday, because he’s still in his native Cameroon.
“I think people don’t know exactly the how high is the level here in the USA,” said Koke Vegas, a Spanish goalkeeper who was the team’s first signing. “Everything is growing and it’s getting better.”
Koke may be familiar with the relative levels of soccer quality, but he wasn’t as familiar with this kind of snow.
“My dog is enjoying it a lot,” he said.
Fortunately for those who are more accustomed to warmer climes, warmer climes are coming. The team heads next to a two-week camp at IMG Academy in Florida, and will also have a six-day camp with the Bermuda Football Association. Then it’s back in northern Rhode Island for the March 16 kickoff.
For forward JJ Williams, the goal is… well, to score goals.
“So that way, we’re very exciting for Rhode Island to come see us,” Williams said. “Everybody wants to come out and watch the Rhode Island game because we’re constantly scoring.”
There are a few players with New England ties, like Joe Brito, who is from Connecticut.
“I think people see the signings that we’re bringing into the club in the area, and it’s building a lot of hype, along with having the stadium coming and being built,” said Brito, a midfielder who described himself as calm on the ball but with a cutting edge to score goals and rack up assists. “I think that gets people excited.”
Midfielder Amos Shapiro-Thompson grew up in Worthington, Mass, and played at Boston College. When he’s getting coffee or in an Uber, people tell him they’re excited for what’s to come, he said.
“The community seems hungry for soccer,” Shapiro-Thompson said.