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Ballard FC: An Inaugural Season to Remember

On Aug. 14, head coach Jason Farrell capped off Ballard FC’s inaugural season by leading “Scarves Up” at the Seattle Sounders home match against Real Salt Lake. This moment of celebration for Seattle’s newest sports franchise capped off an incredible summer for Ballard, who fought through the Northwest Division of USL2 on their way to the final eight, where they fell to Ventura County Fusion in the Western Conference Finals.

As with every story in sports, this one started long before the team took the pitch for the first time in May. Co-founders Sam Zisette, Lamar Neagle, and Chris Kaimmer and dozens of volunteers had been working behind the scenes for months to put together a quality soccer and fan experience for Ballard and for Seattle. The team that would eventually play at Interbay Stadium needed branding, merchandise, sponsors, coaches, and players. The founders took their idea of a “hyper-local” soccer club from a blank page to one of the most successful franchise launches in Seattle sports.

Public announcements about the club started in late 2021. Merchandise started popping up on the streets of Ballard in early spring. Would-be fans and the club adopted local brewery and kit sponsor Reuben’s Brews as their unofficial headquarters. The already iconic red and yellow badge with the sun setting behind the open arms of the Ballard Bridge quickly struck a chord with soccer fans. Fan events were packed with Bridgekeepers — the local supporters group — before a single player was announced. It was clear to everyone involved that this was about more than soccer. More than 500 people showed up at the official launch party, surprising even the optimistic founders.

Visette credits Ballard itself for this energy.

“Ballard is a special place and a very unique part of Seattle,” he said. “It is a soccer-loving neighborhood in a soccer-crazed city.”

But that also meant that they had to get this venture just right.

“We knew it was important that our first public presentations were professional and had credibility. We couldn’t do this halfway.”

In January, the club announced Jason Farrell as head coach. Farrell arrived with a wealth of experience and credibility in the Seattle and national soccer scene, with a playing and coaching career that made him a perfect fit. Farrell knew the mission from the start. He wanted to build a team that would match the energy and ethic of Ballard itself: a working-class base with an innovative and creative thread running through it.

Farrell points to the community and fan engagement as one of his highlights in a season full of them.

“The level of community engagement was a shock to me, if not necessarily a surprise,” Farrel said. “I have a lot of friends in the Ballard community that were season ticket holders long before I became involved with the club. I knew that there was excitement building as a result of all the hard work Sam, Chris and Lamar had put in.”

And then the season started.

“We knew opening night was a sellout, but there was no way to predict exactly what was going to take place.” Ballard FC put over 1,200 fans in Interbay Stadium for opening night on May 21, and those fans were part of an amazing night of soccer. Declan McGlynn scored the first goal in club history on a 33rd-minute free kick, and Ballard never looked back, dispatching Eugene Oregon’s Lane United 5-1 with goals from five different players.

On June 1, in-state rivals Oly Town FC rolled into Interbay. McGlynn once again opened the scoring, this time with a 38th minute volley that found the top corner. Teammate Angelo Calfo called that goal one of his favorite memories of the season. “That was one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live,” he told me.

Kevin Galiano came on at the half and netted two goals of his own, and keeper Akili Kasim recorded his first clean sheet of the season. The new club from Ballard was making a statement to the league. They were here to win.

Kasim’s goalkeeping and a 17th minute goal from Alex Mejia drove Ballard past PDX FC in their next competitive match.

The three-game winning streak to start the season was followed by consecutive gutty draws on the road to Oly Town and Lane FC, then it was back to winning ways with another three straight against OVF Alliance away and at home, and another win over PDX FC on June 26.

The only two losses of the season came against Salem Oregon’s Capital FC, who battled Ballard for the top spot in the Northwest Division all season.

The club needed a win against PDX FC on July 17 to secure their playoff spot, and the team rose to the occasion, pouring 8 goals into the net to end the regular season.

From an organizational standpoint, making the playoffs was an amazing opportunity and also a logistic marathon for the club. Ballard was set to host the first two rounds of the Western Conference Playoffs. “That was five matches in 10 days,” Visette said. “We had to scramble to get everything in place.”

The biggest crowd of the year turned out for the quarterfinal match against Project 510 out of Oakland. Goals by Charlie Gaffney and Declan McGlynn and more heroic goalkeeping by Kasim drove Ballard to a 2-1 victory.

The semifinals match against San Francisco Glens FC is the match most players point to as the highlight of their season. Christian Engmann scored a 13th minute header and Kasim made save after acrobatic save in the first half before the Glens equalized in the 35th. A late first-half goal from Alex Mejia sent Ballard into the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

An 87th minute goal from the Glens leveled things in what was a tense and physical second half. The match went into extra time, where the chances came fast for each side. Then, in the 109th minute, Mejia found the net with a scissor kick goal off a stolen back pass. Ballard held on for the final minutes, going a man down after Bailey Letherman received a second yellow card.

When the final whistle finally came, Interbay Stadium erupted. Players and coaches ran from the box and the sideline to field. Fans went bonkers. Ballard had advanced to the Western Conference Finals in their first year.

Defender Nik Reierson said “that game was a battle, and the feeling of relief and euphoria especially in the fashion that we won was something I will never forget. The memories and moments that you share as teammates and friends after a win like that in the celebrations is something special and something I will look back on when I am gray and old.”

When you hear that from a player, it’s easy to imagine how impactful that win was for the young fans in the stadium. The fans got everything they could ask for from this club. Community engagement, winning soccer, and a fantastic fan experience. Ballard FC had done it. They had launched a soccer club in unknown times with a lot of hope, and it worked beyond even the club’s expectations.

While the club would go on to lose a heartbreaker to Ventura County Fusion in the conference finals, it is impossible to consider this season anything but a massive success. Objectively, this was one of the best inaugural seasons a franchise could hope for.

Farrell credited the players in the locker room with a remarkable run of success in this inaugural season. “The real reason we had a great run this year was 100% due to the fact that we had an amazing roster of young men that were committed and engaged from day one. When you throw in a phenomenal group of assistant coaches and support staff, we really did have a recipe for success. Every single one of our players worked their ass off all summer for this club and this community.”

And now? The staff and coaches have taken a well-deserved break and are back to work. “There’s nine months to next season’s opener,” Visette said. “There is a lot to do, but we have a little more time and a little more knowledge going into next season.”

Coaches are scouting players, and having a year of USL2 play behind them gives the staff a better idea of what to look for in recruiting.

What can we expect for next year? Nik Reierson, who is going on trial to the Richmond Kickers of USL League One, said “I think the club is headed in a good direction and can build off of the great year we had. I know that they will want to make upgrades to facilities and some of the processes on trainings and game days ... just small things that you learn from an inaugural season, so I think the club is committed to growing and getting better each season.”

Speaking on behalf of the founders and front office staff, Sam Visette echoed those sentiments. “You’ll see some changes to game day operations, fan engagements, and community events to be sure.”

They set the bar high for themselves, but the Bridgekeepers, the Ballard community, and the Seattle soccer scene are ready for year two.

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