FLINT, Michigan -- The lasting impression the city of Flint had of Flint City Bucks player Ayuk Tambe was a good one. Tambe ended his 2019 season scoring the game-winning goal in the USL League 2 national championship game last summer in front of approximately 7,000 fans at Atwood Stadium, bringing a championship to Flint in the Bucks’ first season here. But rest assured, the city made an impression on him too.
“Flint’s become like a second home to me,” Tambe said. “After last season ended, the amount of love and appreciation I received from fans reaching out to me, it just feels so good.”
That experience is one of the reasons Tambe wanted to rejoin the Bucks for a special 6-game exhibition season that they kicked off last week with an 8-0 win over Midwest United FC. The team’s USL season, which was scheduled to start in May, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was just so shocked last year how much joy soccer brought to the city,” Tambe said. “That’s why I came, to be part of that again.”
The team will once again be playing games at Atwood Stadium on the campus of Kettering University, but things will look a little different during this exhibition season. To ensure the health and safety of players, coaches, and fans, there will be no fans in attendance for games. However, games are live on television each Sunday at noon on CW 46. The team’s website, YouTube channel, and Twitter account also stream each game live.
“Putting live TV together took a lot of time to nail down, to be able to secure consecutive Sunday’s for six weeks,” said Costa Papista, President of the Flint City Bucks. “It all worked out and came together very nicely at the end, and we are really excited to be able to offer this exhibition season rather than going dark for the entire year.”
The living and practice arrangements have also changed for the Bucks. Last year, the team lived together in the Riverfront Residence Hall downtown Flint. That experience helped the team bond, but also exposed players on the roster to many of the new developments downtown. This year, though, players are not living together, they’re driving in on Sundays for game days.
“We want to mitigate risk,” Papista said. “Guys aren’t living together like they normally would. They’re training on their own and living at home. We’re using predominantly mid-Michigan players on the roster, so they’re able to drive in for games. We’re not using showers or locker rooms, we don’t have fans at games, so we are really working hard to reduce all exposure points.”
Two other players from last year’s championship team are back. Grand Blanc native Spencer Nolff and Dylan Borczack, two of several players on the exhibition roster who play or played for Oakland University, have helped the team have some familiarity.
“There’s about five of us from Oakland, so a lot of us were teammates, that’s a plus for us,” Borczack said.
The biggest adjustment has been the lack of team practices. Players are doing their own individual work and conditioning, as many on the roster are still preparing for college seasons or professional opportunities, but they don’t get a chance to play together until game days.
“Getting back on the field for exhibition games definitely helps,” Nolff said. “You can do running and conditioning on your own, but there’s a big difference between running fitness and game fitness. It’s huge to get back in real soccer shape and just have fun again.”
The lack of crowd noise is also an adjustment, particularly after playing in front of thousands of fans toward the end of last season.
“With soccer being such a chemistry-based sport, it has made a difference (to not practice together),” Tambe said. “But when you’re surrounded by quality players, it definitely helps. Last Sunday, the way we came together, was really special.”
As someone who has grown up in the Genesee County soccer community, Nolff is proud of the role the Bucks have played in expanding interest in and passion for the game locally.
“Last year, we gave everyone a sense of unity almost,” Nolff said. “The Bucks are something everyone can support together, root for the same cause. The Bucks show (young) people here that there’s such a high level of soccer right here, so it gives them an attainable goal to believe in. It gives young kids a lot of hope.”
Although the pandemic has changed the team’s plans significantly this season, one constant has been a commitment to being involved in the community. Players volunteered at a census event for The Disability Network on August 27, and as often as they can safely do it, plan to help at other community functions during the exhibition season.
“That’s always such a rewarding aspect of playing with Bucks,” Nolff said. “Costa really cares about the community and people in it. We have fun with it, it’s exciting to go meet people who support you and cheer for you.”
This summer, in the midst of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests and rallies, some of the leading voices have been athletes. Tambe and Nolff both said that being a role model means a lot to them.
“The platform we have, we can’t take for granted,” Tambe said. “I’ve seen me and my teammates use the platform we have to advocate for change. Every team and player has followers. Kids look up to us, so when I say something about peacefully advocating for change, they listen to that. The platform we have in time like this, it’s like wow, together, we can make a positive change.”