© 2023 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It's the Season of Giving at KUAF! Learn how you can give to KUAF and get gifts in return!

Professional soccer is making its way to Northwest Arkansas

USL Arkansas co-founder Warren Smith, managing director Wes Harris, co-founder Chris Martinovic and USL deputy CEO Justin Papadakis attend a press conference announcing the USL Arkansas teams in early July.
USL Arkansas
USL Arkansas co-founder Warren Smith, managing director Wes Harris, co-founder Chris Martinovic and USL deputy CEO Justin Papadakis attend a press conference announcing the USL Arkansas teams in early July.

In early July, soccer fans in Northwest Arkansas got a bit of a surprise: the announcement of two new USL clubs and the rights to build a stadium in the Pinnacle Hills entertainment district.

Chris Martinovic spoke at a press conference in Rogers at the site where a new 5,000-seat professional soccer stadium will eventually stand. Martinovic, along with co-founder Warren Smith and representatives from the USL and the city of Rogers announced plans to bring men's and women's professional soccer to the region by 2026.

Martinovic said he has been working on this project since 2019.

"At the time, it was purely an idea. Maybe a little hobby, maybe a little side project I could work on, [that] was the way I thought of it," Martinovic said.

Martinovic, a former collegiate and professional soccer player who moved to the region from New Jersey in 2007 to work for a Walmart vendor, said he liked the area so much he decided to stay, but desperately missed getting to see live professional sports.

"And fortunate for me, and through my soccer career, I developed a lot of relationships at national levels, MLS levels, and USL levels," Matinovic said.

He said one of the first hurdles though, was convincing his USL contacts that Northwest Arkansas was even a worthy market.

The initial response was, 'Well, we're kind of looking at bigger markets...' and that conversation ended very quickly once I was able to give them some of the demographic data and I started doing an analysis of [the region's] demographics versus USL.
Chris Martinov, co-founder USL Arkansas

He said interest in soccer has been steadily growing in the U.S. and he believes upcoming international tournaments close to home will draw a new set of fans.

"We have Copa América coming in 2024, that's being hosted in America," Martinovic said. "This is a championship that encompasses North, Central and South America, and will include teams like Brazil, Argentina, the United States and Mexico who will get to play against each other. Then you have the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025, and that will put clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United against each other. And then the big event is the 2026 World Cup that's being hosted in North America."

Martinovic believes Northwest Arkansas is primed to capitalize on that excitement. He said the sport already has an audience evidenced by the numerous youth clubs and the success of the Razorback women’s soccer team.

Most casual sports fans likely know about Major League Soccer or MLS. The USL is one tier below that—think minor leagues—with pro and semi-pro leagues. The USL Championship—where this team will be playing—currently has 24 men’s professional teams each playing a 34-game regular season from March to October.

On the women's side there's the top National Women's Soccer League or NWSL, then pre-professional USL W and the recently announced USL Super League, which is where the Northwest Arkansas team is slotted to play, beginning in the fall of 2026.

Getting the learning curve for casual fans in the region is a bit steep but Martinovic said the enthusiasm is there. Most importantly, he said the club wants to engage with the community before it ever gets up and running.

A rendering of the proposed 5,000-seat stadium set to be built by 2026.
USL Arkansas
A rendering of the proposed 5,000-seat stadium set to be built by 2026.

Last Thursday, USL Arkansas held a listening session for the general public at Rendezvous Brewing Company in Rogers, just yards away from the planned stadium grounds. Past the high ceilings and kegs of the crowded tap room, 15 people clutch plastic cups of beer as they shuffle into a grey conference room. The group was compiled from an interest survey sent through the Northwest Arkansas Council. Eric Brooten and Jared Wilson sit at the front of the room chatting before the session starts.

"I think both of us have wanted this to happen for a long time," said Brooten in reference to both him and Wilson. "I'm excited to add some input and learn more about what's going on.

"With the growing area we have, just the diversity that comes to this area as well, I think it's long overdue for soccer," Wilson said.

Brittany Johnson is a self-proclaimed soccer fanatic. The Houston native moved to Fayetteville for work and said having live sports not tied to the University is exciting.

"It would be great to have a sports team that's not the Razorbacks," said Johnson, an alum of Texas A&M University. "I think it's another really good addition for an area that's growing and that is looking to offer people opportunities to feel like they belong to northwest Arkansas. I'm not from here, and there's so many people moving here from other places, and sports do such a good job of bringing people together and rallying people around that I think it will be nice to build community that way."

USL Arkansas is hosting 15 total listening sessions—with two in Spanish and one in Marshallese and taking place all across the region from Siloam Springs down to Fort Smith. The sessions are meant to gauge everything from thoughts and feelings about the region, to team crests, colors, logos, a team name and the general publics interest in seeing professional soccer.

One place where the USL has already begun to take root in the natural state is in Little Rock. The city has been home to the semi-pro USL league 2 team the Rangers since 2016 and over the weekend, it hosted the southern conference playoffs for the first time since 2018.

The Little Rock Rangers average close to 4,800 fans per game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Little Rock Rangers SC
The Little Rock Rangers average close to 4,800 fans per game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

On Sunday, crowds hit a record high of 7,700 people for the semi-final. Spokesperson for the Rangers, Trent Eskola, says while momentum is up – the club has faced challenges with getting supporters and earning profits.

"League 2 tends to be about $150,000 a year, that's just for the summer and you're not paying the players," Eskola said. "USL Championship tends to be anywhere between $50,000,000 and $100,000,000, so there's a big gap. But once you have the club for a couple of years, you start to make some of that money back from jersey sales, tickets and competition rewards."

Eskola said the news of a northwest Arkansas team though is good for the Rangers and soccer as a whole in the state.

"Getting that big donor that's willing to invest the millions of dollars to bring in top players, to build a top stadium that can host international games," Eskola said. "That's kind of our next step. We're not quite to the level that the Northwest Arkansas club is at, but we're getting there, and it's exciting to see that we have two potential pro clubs in Arkansas coming around."

Martinovic said USL Arkansas has a long way to go—as of now there is no team name, no players, and no coach. But that, he said, will all come with time.

I think it starts with just being really good stewards of the brand, listening, engaging the community. And then providing a great product on the field, that's important, we want to play good, attractive soccer.
Chris Martinovic

He said the estimated $15 million dollar stadium and the teams that will play there are expected to be ready by 2026.

Stay Connected
Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
Related Content