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The Falcon

Seattle Pacific University's Student Newspaper

The Falcon

Seattle Pacific University's Student Newspaper

The Falcon

Up the bridges

Ballard FC creates community across Seattle and SPU
Mason Hrcek
Ballard FC midfielder Raymundo Mendez (15) celebrates after scoring against Midlakes United during the second half of a USL2 soccer game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Seattle.

Raymundo Mendez hustles across the left side of the box. He squares up a shot that briefly flies across the mouth of the goal before punching its way into the back of the net. His team leads 4-1.

Mendez is a junior secondary education major at Seattle Pacific University and a midfielder on the men’s soccer team, but in this game, he was not playing for the Falcons. 

Ballard FC is a semi-pro men’s soccer team that plays in the United Soccer League League Two. The league includes 128 teams in North America. It sits at the top of the amateur American soccer pyramid as the highest level before true professional play. 

The team is co-owned by three men: Sam Zisette, Chris Kaimmer and former Sounder Lamar Neagle. The trio met a couple of years before the founding of the club; Zisette and Neagle met as a result of playing on the same soccer team, the 2019 Tacoma Stars of the Major Arena Soccer League. Then, Kaimmer got in the picture through Zisette.

“[Zisette] and I got connected as two people who were thinking about soccer and entrepreneurship and community in Seattle,” Kaimmer said. “Sam and Lamar came onto my radar, and we all met and decided that we might make a good team together and we each might have different strengths.”

The team began play in 2022, going 8-2-2 on the year but losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Ventura County Fusion.

During that inaugural year, Oscar Warnersmith, then a high schooler just out of his junior year, got involved with the team. 

“In the first season, I just started out as a volunteer, just doing it on my own time for free, helping them out in whatever ways I could,” Warnersmith said.

Warnersmith stayed with the team in 2023, becoming a paid gameday intern. Ballard had an even better regular season, going 10-1-1. Far more importantly, the team went all the way in the postseason—they won the championship on Aug. 5, 2-1, against Lionsbridge FC. 

The final match was played at Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila, Washington instead of their usual home at Interbay Stadium in Seattle. For Warnersmith, it is a day he will never forget.

“It was just unreal. I remember Peter Kingston scored that game-winning goal and I just leaped up and I ran over to find one of the other interns and we were just so excited,” Warnersmith said. “It just felt so amazing to be a part of and feel so included in that community.”

Warnersmith is a freshman psychology major at SPU. For the 2024 season, he upgraded from a gameday intern to a gameday manager. His job is to ensure a good experience for the fans by running the stadium as smoothly as possible.

Friday, May 24, 2024, the home opener for Ballard, marked the beginning of Warnersmith’s new job. Due to renovations, the match was not at Interbay Stadium like usual but at Memorial Stadium, right in the heart of Downtown Seattle. 

“It’s a whole new challenge to take on because it’s a much bigger place that we’re working with,” Warnersmith said. “Being where the Sounders started playing, the Reign played there back in the day, it’s fun to feel like you’re part of soccer history in Seattle.”

Although the move to Memorial is a temporary one (only for the 2024 season), the in-stadium experience gains more amenities at the new place: more food options, more parking and even tattoo artists.

The extra amenities were not the only things that Friday’s match experience delivered. The game ball was delivered by a skydiver, which dazzled people all over town. Madalynn Stark, a sophomore environmental justice major at SPU was late to the game.

“My bus driver was like, ‘You missed the skydiver!’” Stark said.

The hardcore supporters— called the Bridge Keepers— brought a big effort of their own, hanging a tifo (a large decorated banner) over their section of the stands before the match. It depicted a trophy-holding Mario on the right side and the words “You got a star” written on the left.

The Bridge Keepers are a big part of the fan experience for Ballard FC. One of their main slogans is “Up the bridges,” a reference to the Ballard Bridge. It could be heard many times Friday night, alongside chants of “Ballard.”

Kaimmer says that a big part of the Ballard FC brand is based on the unique history of Ballard as a neighborhood. It was its own city until 1907 when it was annexed into Seattle. It was historically home to many Scandinavian immigrants.

“There’s so many elements of Ballard that still feel like a very unique and proud community, so it wasn’t that hard to find businesses who were excited about building a soccer club here,” Kaimmer said. “Reuben’s [Brews] was the first partner that really bought into the idea.”

Ballard FC shares two players with the SPU men’s team, Mendez and redshirt freshman defender Isaac Ketcham. Though Ketcham played in Ballard’s first game of the 2024 season (a 2-2 draw on the road against the Tacoma Stars), he was not on the playable roster for Friday’s game. Mendez, meanwhile, was on the list of available subs for Friday but was not part of the starting 11.

Ballard FC hosted Midlakes United, a team based in Bellevue. Midlakes (and many other USL League Two teams in the Northwest, such as Oly Town and the Tacoma Stars) also has SPU players on their roster, such as freshman business major Chris Soto, who started the game at left winger, and senior education major Evan Aune, who was Midlakes’ starting right center back. 

The match itself started well for Ballard, with midfielder Taketo Onodera notching a goal 24 minutes in. Midlakes equalized in the 37th, as their striker Nii Engmann took advantage of a lapse in judgment from his younger brother, Ballard’s left center-back Christian Engmann.

The second half was all Ballard’s. Right winger Joe Dale untied the game in the 49th, followed by Onodera’s second goal in the 57th and topped off by Mendez, who entered the game in the 63rd, making it 4-1 in the 82nd. 

Friday was Mendez’s first game for Ballard FC. Mendez — who scored 13 goals in 18 matches for SPU over the fall — credits his SPU performance with getting him to Ballard.

“I think I did pretty well last season, so I got my name out there, and the coaches, my coaches and Ballard coaches, gave me a shot and I took it,” Mendez said.

According to Kaimmer, being in Seattle is a bonus for his team because of the plethora of good players like Mendez.

“Seattle is chock full of talent. We don’t have to look far for a lot of great players from SPU, from SU, from UW, and from elsewhere, once you go even a little further afoot,” Kaimmer said. “We’re looking for the best players in the country. That’s why we’re the national champions at this level of soccer.”

Mendez observed that when there are so many talented players on one roster, performing well is often a question of chemistry as much as it is talent.

“It’s a summer team and we have a little bit of time preseason and during the season for seeing the players, getting to know them off the field and on the field,” Mendez said.

From the looks of Ballard’s 4-1 win, they are finding that chemistry. It is also, evidently, finding community  — from the Bridge Keepers to tattoo artists to excited players. At a time when SPU needs community, this community extends to SPU.

“It was fun to see SPU students on the field. We were like, ‘Hey I know that guy!’ … he just scored!” Stark said.

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