Asheville City SC: Half an Idea to Full-Fledged Family

Get up-close and personal with USL League Two’s Asheville City Soccer Club – North Carolina amateurs born from a simple premise and aiming for glory in their debut Open Cup.
By: Anthony Boscia

You know those conversations with friends? Somebody pitches something -- a business idea, an endeavor -- sometimes serious, sometimes not. Usually nothing comes of it. Half-hearted nods turn into paid bills, rides home and forgotten impulses. But every so often, and very rarely indeed, a moment just like that turns into something special.

Here’s the story of the idea that sprouted Asheville City Soccer Club.

The Birth of a Soccer Family

ACSC Owner Jimmy Wheeler and five high school friends found an article about how to start a professional team from scratch. It became the blueprint as they began laying the foundation for their own club.

“It was a semi-serious idea to start with.” Wheeler said. “But then a week or two later we all got together and were like ‘Hey I think we could actually do this.”

Due diligence led to meetings with town officials – and the seed of a plan to start Asheville City Soccer Club was a go. The first game came on May 6th, 2017 against the Georgia Revolution – in the NPSL, a nationwide amateur league which will send eight of its clubs to this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In front of over 2,000 fans, ACSC – only a flicker of an idea months earlier -- emerged with a 2-1 victory behind goals from Christian Szalay and Cameron Saul.

When the final whistle blew that day, Wheeler knew that what started off as a lark, and later a fun hobby, was going to be something altogether bigger.

“We had a couple of long days trying to figure out, how do we throw on this event, how do we get ready for a crowd of -- is it going to be 500? is it going to be 1,000?” said Wheeler. “Gates were slated to open at 6 for a 7:30 game and we looked around at 5:30 and realized this was much bigger than expected.

“It was a cold, rainy night and there were still 2,000 folks -- and we were off and running from there.”

Since then Asheville has added a women’s side, changed leagues from the NPSL to USL League Two, changed stadiums, won a South Central Division title, and qualified for their first-ever U.S. Open Cup (the 2024 edition, which will see ACSC kick off at home on March 20 against Division III pros One Knoxville SC from USL’s League One). And while much at the new club has changed, some things remain the same: a familial feeling and a tight-knight culture.

“Everyone cares. Through every struggle everyone has always pulled together and found a solution. Once I played there a couple of summers I wanted to go back, it felt like it was my home,” said Jamie Smith, a defender who played three years with the Blues before moving to the professional ranks with USL League One’s Greenville Triumph (also in this year’s Open Cup).

That culture extends far beyond the locker room. It suffuses the front office, the vendors and the fans and community of Asheville – a city in the shadow of both the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains known for welcoming all sorts and fostering a culture of inclusion.

“I was a day-zero fan following the announcement from the fall of 2016 through that first rainy cold early May 2017 match,” said died-hard superfan Tim Blekicki. “I went with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I knew next to no one and – this is going to sound cliché – but I immediately felt at home.”

South Slope Blues

The soul of Asheville City’s strong fan support is the South Slope Blues. The chants, the banging of the drums, the words of encouragement on social media -- the way they love the club makes the SSBs the beating heart of Asheville City SC.

“As soon as I came to Asheville I felt loved by the fans. They’d show up no matter the weather, no matter the day of the week, they’d show up playing their instruments, singing songs.” said former player Alex Andersson. “It gives you a little extra drive…Their support means more than they’ll probably ever know.”

The rambunctious fans even draw compliments from unlikely sources -- opposing players.

There’s a firm bond between players and fans at ACSC / Photo Cameron Shook

“There’s an admiration for how hard we work as the 12th man or woman at the field. They are very complimentary of our Blues spirit,” added Ben Butler, one of the SSB founders.

One fellow Blue, Vince Hyatt, put it best: "If the team and all its supporters are the Griswolds [of the National Lampoon Vacation series] then the South Slope Blues would be Uncle Eddie.”

COVID 19: ‘Turning Adversity into Opportunity’

Support was never needed more than when the COVID pandemic reached U.S. shores in 2020.

It was a sad time for lower-level soccer, with financial pressures causing many clubs to close their doors. In what was supposed to be the Blues’ first season in their new league (USL League Two) after making the jump from NPSL, they opted to shut down operations for a year due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“It was definitely a low point for Asheville City. You never thought in 2016 when we were starting this club that there is a chance that we may miss a full season because of a global pandemic,” Wheeler said about the difficulties of Covid-19, which also caused a two-year hiatus for the Open Cup in 2020 and 2021. “We had to do what was best for us, which was to cancel the season. But we were fortunate enough to get through it and, luckily, we’re still here.”

ACSC is a tight-knit club on and off the pitch / Photo Hannah Tracy

And in true Asheville fashion, they didn’t just survive the pandemic – they thrived in its aftermath.

“The story of the club is the story of Asheville -- originality, growth, challenge, perseverance, success. Being a rung on the ladder to pro for anyone on the sporting side favors an impermanence and transient existence. That journey is littered with shuttered clubs and flashes in the pan. What ACSC succeeding in was operating with a flexibility to absorb the worst and, in true Asheville fashion, turn adversity into an opportunity,” said Blekicki.

Covid was a tall hurdle, but the Blues cleared it with flying colors.

New Coach, Fresh Hope

After narrowly failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2021, the club hired Scott Wells before the 2022 season and instantly made the leap from fringe contenders to a force in the league.

“Sitting down and chatting with him for 15 minutes, you could just tell his passion and love for the game and Asheville,” Wheeler said of Wells. “I knew that he was the guy and it was one of the best decisions we have ever made as a club to bring him in.”

Last season saw the NC club hit the high notes and qualify for the USOC / Photo Martha Pollay

“My wife is from Asheville so there was always a connection there. We came to a few games and the atmosphere was unbelievable, so it was like, well, I’d love to be in front of this every week,” Wells said about his decision to join the club. “We’ve grown so much off the back of the last two years and ACSC is just a part of my DNA at this point.”

If that first year in 2022 was a step in the right direction, then the 2023 season was a giant leap towards Asheville City’s ultimate goal: winning the USL League Two National Championship.

A Year to Remember

ACSC posted a 10-1-1 record in the regular season, good enough to claim the South Central Division title (a first trophy in club history) on goal differential as the Blues outscored their opponents by a whopping 36-9 over the course of the campaign.

“Scott created a special culture and brought in an unbelievable group of players. I was so excited to get back to the team and make sure that we brought a trophy back to the city and to those fans that meant so much to all of us,” said Quenzi Huerman, two-time captain of the Blues.

The Blues went on to host the first weekend of the USL League Two playoffs and capitalized on the buzz in the city with a 4-1 win over Weston FC in the first round. But they fell two nights later 1-0 to the Villages SC (now Brave SC) in a tight game to end their playoff campaign.

However, their phenomenal regular season performance was enough to qualify them for the US Open Cup, an opportunity the club is embracing.

Big Chance Ahead

While the cards are obviously stacked against lower-level clubs making deep runs in any Open Cup, they do happen. Every year, in fact.

As recently as 2022, ACSC’s in-state USL League Two rival NC Fusion won their First Round match before knocking out USL League One pro side Charlotte Independence in the Second Round. They would end up falling in extra-time to the 1995 Open Cup-champion Richmond Kickers -- but not before they joined a long list of tournament giant-killers.

That’s something that ACSC is aiming to do themselves this time out.

“The Open Cup is a very historic, prestigious competition that has been going on for a long time. It really gives USL League Two clubs and players an opportunity to be publicized, so it’s huge,” said Wells ahead of their tournament opener – at home in Asheville. “It’s going to be a special night for everybody.”

“We’re going to be playing against top quality opponents so we’re not taking it lightly,” the coach added. “We’re going into it like we go into every competition, wanting to see how far we can progress.”

It’s all possible now in Asheville. And it’s worth noting that this opportunity was born from a simple idea passed between high school buddies over a drink seven years ago. One simple idea has evolved into family. That family now has the opportunity to shock the world and show what it means to “Belong, Believe, Be Blue.”

Anthony Boscia studies journalism at Hofstra University, where he is involved with the School Radio Station, 88.7 FM WRHU. He’s been involved in multiple broadcasts for Hofstra Men’s and Women’s Soccer. Follow him at @AnthonyBoscia on Twitter/X.