FLINT, Michigan — When Flint City Bucks backup goalkeeper Gustavo Vasconcelos was pressed into emergency duty in the field against unbeaten Des Moines on July 19, his teammates weren’t exactly expecting something miraculous.
“I saw him run onto the field and was thinking, ‘What the heck is he doing out here?’” said team captain Charlie Booth. “Then 30 seconds later, he scored.”
The coaching staff turned to Vasconcelos in overtime, with no other options. Players were exhausted and dealing with near-100 degree heat on the field even though it was past midnight in Iowa. The Bucks had already completed one miraculous comeback — tying the game on a goal by Louis Sala late in regulation. Vasconcelos was the only fresh player left on their bench.
“Gustavo said to me when he came in, ‘I’m gonna score!’” teammate Yuri Farkas said. “I just said, ‘No, come on!’”
Then, magic happened. Justin Ingram found Vasconcelos streaking toward the goal with a long pass. Vasconcelos beat his defender to the ball and got off a strong kick to beat the goalie and tie the game. Vasconcelos would score again in penalty kicks, as Flint finished off the victory.
The Flint City Bucks Football Clubs 2019 cinderella season has provided lots of spectacular shots and come-from-behind victories.
“I’ve never seen anything like that game,” said Bucks team president Costa Papista.
Flint followed up that game with a 4-2 win over Kaw Valley FC on July 21 to advance to the national semifinals. The Bucks will host FC Golden State (Los Angeles) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27, at Atwood Stadium. Tickets may be purchased via www.ticketmaster.com
, Flint Prints at 615 S. Saginaw St. in downtown Flint, and at the stadium gates on match day.
Papista is hoping for a great turnout — a win means the Bucks will play for a national championship. Officials from the USL 2 league will also be on hand.
“We want to make a great impression on the league and show them Flint is a soccer town,” Papista said.
Bucks Magic is Nothing New
Although the victory over Des Moines was spectacular and provided a great storyline with Vasconcelos coming off the bench to score the equalizer late in overtime, getting late goals was nothing new for the Bucks this season. They’ve been involved in close games all season, they’ve scored to tie or win games in extra time before, and they’re comfortable playing from behind.
“Every time they’re backed into a corner, they seem to find a way out,” said associate head coach Andy Wagstaff. “They have a desire to win and a competitive edge that allows them to believe we can win late.”
That mentality has resulted from dealing with adversity all season. They’ve had players miss time due to injury. They’ve lost players who had opportunities to attend Major League Soccer (MLS) training camps or had commitments they had to fulfill with their college teams. Whatever the circumstances, and no matter who is on the field, the team has committed to playing hard at all times.
“Sometimes things don’t go your way,” Farkas said. “We say let’s just play with heart. When an opportunity comes, anyone has to be ready. One ball can change everything.”
That comfort playing from behind also provides opportunities for the team to improve. For example, against Kaw Valley FC, Flint jumped out to a 2-0 lead but couldn’t hold it. Kaw Valley tied the game before Flint scored two goals in the second half.
“Sunday we were up 2-0 and we let them back in,” Wagstaff said. “We play better with our back to the wall.”
A Reflection of Flint
Players on the team live in the Riverfront Residence Hall downtown Flint. Most players on the team aren’t originally from the area. Booth didn’t know what to expect moving to Flint.
“Everyone hears the negative things said about Flint, but it has really exceeded expectations,” Booth said. “After living here, it’s a good area to move to, we do a bunch of things together as a team, and we are just happy to contribute positively to the community.”
“The players chose to come to Flint,” Papista said. “They’ve loved living downtown and playing at Atwood, and really appreciate how the community has welcomed them.”
Fan support has been the major factor in making the players feel at home in Flint. The Bucks draw approximately 2,000 fans per game, including a passionate supporter group known as the River Rats. The River Rats are modeled after supporter groups for clubs in professional leagues around the world. They sit in section 11 in Atwood Stadium, lead a pregame march that includes smoke and drums from Soggy Bottom Bar into the stadium before each match, and can be heard offering creative cheers throughout each game. A few members of the River Rats even traveled to Iowa to watch the team’s first two playoff games.
The River Rats pre-game at Soggy Bottom Bar and then march en masse to Atwood Stadium during home games.
The River Rats section has usually about 40 fans each game, and has had as many as 100.
“Most of us didn’t even know each other before the season started,” said Flint resident Mike Allard, founder of the River Rats. “We just want to provide a warm, welcoming, fun environment.”
The group also works together on community initiatives. In June, they hosted a Pride Night to raise money for the University of Michigan-Flint Center for Gender and Sexuality.
The support of all of the fans, including the River Rats, has been noticed and embraced by the players and coaching staff.
“We feed off of the support we get from the fans,” Booth said. “My barber is even a River Rat.”
“It’s amazing, there is not a single game the fans aren’t there for us,” Farkas said. “We play with everything we have to make Flint proud.”
The fact that the Bucks have had on-field success in their first season has been key to having interest grow throughout the season.
“We’re trying to be engaging and create respect for the sport (as fans),” Allard said. “Once you start paying attention to the team, how talented they are, and how hard they play, you really respect them.”
The team’s scrappiness and blue collar style has been a seamless fit in Flint, and makes them easy to root for.
“The underdog mentality fits well in Flint,” Wagstaff said. “They’re a perfect reflection of what Flint stands for and they don’t want to let the fans or the community down.”
Now, the team is hoping for fans to show out one more time en masse on Saturday.
“We are one of the last four teams in the league still playing, we’re in the national semis, cancel your plans Saturday and come out and watch,” Booth said. “We are proud to represent Flint.”