The Tri-Cities Otters FC soccer team has been through many trials and tribulations, but in just the fourth year of existence, the team is on the verge of winning the division, qualifying for the playoffs and earning a berth in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
“We are light years ahead of where we were in the first year,” Otters head coach David Strickland said. “In that first year, we were just hanging on in matches. Our reach to get better players was not big enough. We really started to turn the corner last year, but this year the connectivity with the players and the community is just unbelievable.”
The Otters are currently coming off what Strickland says is one of the biggest wins in franchise history last Wednesday on the road at Lionsbridge. The Otters were already on a road trip facing off against Virginia Beach United and dropped an 0-2 decision that put them in a tough position to make the playoffs.
With the big road win, the Otters were able to end a three-game losing streak and put them squarely back in the hunt.
“We had a great response to the loss at Virginia Beach,” Strickland said. “They were having a big festival there at Lionsbridge, and there were like 3,500 people at the match. The crowd was so great, and our guys came to play.”
Strickland has seen the Otters franchise grow from its infancy to a playoff contender, and he says that it is much more than just an overnight sensation.
“This has been a long process, but the community has been so supportive,” he said. “This is such a tight group, and they’ve expressed their goals to each other both publicly and privately. They are truly focused.”
The Otters (5-4-3) currently sit in fourth place in the South Atlantic division with 18 points but still have two more matches remaining in the regular season, both against Tobacco Road FC.
If some other matches go in favor of the Otters, they could be looking at not only a division win but a berth in the prestigious U.S. Open Cup.
The Open Cup brings together USL and MLS for a massive 97-team knockout tournament every year since 1914. The winner of the tournament — which has been predominantly MLS teams since 1996 — earns $300,000 and qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League.
“If we were to qualify for the Open Cup, it would mean so much to this team. That’s what they’ve wanted to do since the beginning of the season,” Strickland said. “For the franchise, it changes what the Otters look like on a macro level. People will start to take notice of the legitimacy of the program. It would also help us massively in recruiting guys to come here and play.”
With the recently completed FIFA Women’s World Cup and Gold Cup, soccer has certainly been at the forefront of sports in the United States this summer. The women’s team steamrolled through the tournament on its way to a fourth title. The men dropped a tough 0-1 decision to rival Mexico in the finals but had plenty of chances to even the match. Strickland said this uptick for soccer will hopefully spark interest for fans and youth.
“This has been a great thing for people to keep up with during the summer,” he said. “This only helps us and with the MLS expanding to Nashville. It helps us even more because we’re almost like a regional feeder team to them. This helps us with connectivity, and we’re all doing the same thing. We’re trying to get a connectivity with all the youth, developmental and professional programs.”
Part of the improvement for the Otters this year has been the play of forward Taylor Gray. He is the team leader in goals scored (6) and shots (22).
“Taylor was with us last year, and the improvement he has shown in 365 days has been amazing,” Strickland said. “He’s gone from being able to create opportunities and not finishing them to doing both creating and finishing those chances.
“In terms of leadership, Carlos Rubio and Oscar Perez have been huge for us. You can’t get much better than those two on the field.”
Rubio is the Otters’ all-time leader in saves and already has 51 so far this season, carrying a 1.72 goals against average. Perez is one of the primary defenders on an Otters defense that has been tough to penetrate this season.
The next game for the Otters is on Tuesday against Tobacco Road at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., at the Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex. Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m.
“Tobacco Road is coming off a big win themselves with only 10 players,” Strickland said. “We’re going to have to come out early and respond in a big way. We’ll have to score early and try to break their will.”