When the Maryland Bobcats FC soccer team was formed in 2009, it was started as a way for a group of college friends to keep in touch and stay in shape.
Over the past decade, the team has gone through multiple name changes and played in several amateur leagues. But last week, the Bobcats became a member of the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), making them the only professional men’s outdoor soccer team in Maryland — the Baltimore Blast is an indoor soccer team — and the first since Crystal Palace Baltimore dissolved in 2010.
Bobcats president and co-owner Jide Saba started the team with two of his fellow co-owners, Sam Oluleye and Ankur Patel–all three graduates of University of Maryland Baltimore County. The team’s fourth co-owner, Peter Mwanti, joined later on.
Saba told Baltimore Fishbowl that it was rewarding to see the team gain professional status.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on for years. So actually seeing our dreams come to pass, it feels really, really good,” he said.
Along that journey, Saba and his colleagues have sought to create a soccer team that is inclusive and open-minded, right down to the team’s motto: “For all.”
“If someone works hard, regardless of the color of their skin, you put in the same effort and try to help them in any way, shape or form that you can,” Saba said. “Most people just want the opportunity.”
All four of the Bobcats’ owners are people of color, as are the majority of the team’s players and front office staff.
Saba said he wants to change how Black people and other people of color are viewed in sports. Elevating the Bobcats to the professional level is part of that mission, he said.
“It means a lot to change the narrative,” he said. “It means a lot to change the way people look at us as minority groups.”
Part of offering players of color the “opportunity to blossom” includes “meeting them where they’re at,” Saba said.
The Bobcats have put on free clinics for players who cannot afford to play soccer, said the team’s general manager, Evan Raimist.
“This club was born out of our owners wanting to give players a chance–players that were overlooked and not given the same chances–to show that they can play and to show that they are really good players and can compete at the highest level,” Raimist said.
Raimist added that the team has also participated in community cleanup days in Montgomery County and partnered with nonprofits, such as Unforeseen Vision, which empowers youth through sports and health by putting on fundraising tournaments and using that money to bring nutrition counselors and athletes to local communities to have a positive influence on youth in the area.
“We’ve made it a heavy focus to make sure that we give back to the community as a club as much as the community supports us and comes out to games,” Raimist said.
That community-driven vision contributed to the Bobcats being accepted into NISA, according to NISA Commissioner John Prutch.
“The Bobcats truly exemplify what it means to be an independent club. They are closely tied to the community and have proven over the years what it takes to rise in the ranks both on and off the pitch,” Prutch said in a statement.
The Bobcats may have only recently become a professional team, but Raimist said they were playing at a high caliber long before being accepted into NISA.
The Bobcats capped off an undefeated season by winning the United Premier Soccer League National Championship earlier this year.
The team also competed in the inaugural NISA Independent Cup over the summer, where they earned the Mid-Atlantic Region title.
NISA had intended for the winners of each region to compete against one another to crown an overall champion, but the association cut the tournament short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Based in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Bobcats want to show that people don’t necessarily have to leave Maryland to play and watch great soccer, Raimist said.
Most of the Bobcats’ players live within an hour of where the team plays and practices, and all of the team members live in Maryland, he added.
“We’re not getting guys from all over the country and world,” Raimist said. “We’re really taking that talent that is in the Maryland area and giving them a platform to show what they’ve got and show that there’s enough talent in this area to compete with teams from across the country,” he said.
The Bobcats also have three youth teams, which will serve as a “pipeline” to the professional team for any of the younger players who are dedicated to developing their skills enough to play at the professional level one day, Raimist said.
Beyond cultivating a team of skilled players, Raimist said the Bobcats want to ensure that its members and their families are as safe off the field as they are on the field.
“If guys aren’t happy, are nervous or scared or whatever off of the field, that’s going to reflect in how they play,” he said.
Raimist said that at the beginning of the pandemic the Bobcats’ leadership told players that they did not have to come to games or practices if they did not feel comfortable doing so, and that the coaches and staff would not hold it against them.
Three or four players decided not to train for about two and a half months. But two of those players returned, trained for a couple of weeks, and got put right back into the starting lineup, Raimist said.
“I think that’s the reason we’ve been able to get certain players and why certain players have been happy is because we do look out for them as more than just players, but as people too,” Raimist said.
The Bobcats are planning to begin playing against fellow NISA teams in spring 2021, with their home games slated to be played at Maureen Hendricks Field at the SoccerPlex in Boyds, Maryland. Once they start, Saba hopes to see soccer fans at the games.
“We’re a family environment and we just want to welcome everyone to our games,” he said.