RICHMOND, Va. – On Wednesday, the Richmond Kickers will host the Columbus Crew in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the country’s oldest ongoing soccer competition. In all, 91 amateur and professional teams vie for the right to call themselves the best team in America.
The VCU Soccer program has long been intertwined with the USL’s Kickers, who began play in 1993. When the Kickers take the pitch Wednesday in search of an upset, VCU will certainly have a hand, or a foot, in the effort.
A number of former VCU stars have suited up for the Kickers over the years, including Andrew Dykstra as part of a loan agreement with D.C. United. Against Columbus on Wednesday, three former Rams, Matthew Delicate, Owusu Sekyere and Nathan Shiffman will wear Kickers red.
The Kickers represent something different to all three players, who find themselves at different junctures of their careers, but they all agree that the organization has allowed them to keep playing their beloved game, while finding a home in Richmond.
Matthew Delicate knows moments like Wednesday’s match aren’t unlimited. They are to be cherished. Events like the U.S. Open Cup and the opportunity to chase another USL Championship, like the one Richmond captured in 2009, keep him coming back.
“Once you get a taste of that, you want to continue that, and there’s a lot of guys that will go their whole career without winning things like that,” he said. “I don’t have many seasons left, so time is running out, and that’s why I want to bring another one back to Richmond. That would be nice.”
The 33-year-old Wales, United Kingdom native has long been the face of the Kickers franchise. He’s the team’s all-time leader in goals and points, and he’s spent nine of his 12 professional seasons with Richmond.
Delicate crossed the Atlantic Ocean to play for VCU in 2000 and left an indelible mark. The slender striker set school marks for goals (44) and points (101) and was named 2003 CAA Most Valuable Player and Tournament MVP. His 2003 squad captured the program’s first NCAA win, a 5-2 victory over Virginia Tech.
Afterwards, he landed a short drive away from VCU’s campus, with the Kickers. There was a three-year stint with the USL’s Rochester Rhinos from 2006-08, but nearly all of the rest of Delicate’s professional starts have come as a member of the Kickers.
Delicate considered moving home to Wales after his freshman year at VCU, but decided to stick it out. Now, it’s home. A father of three, he coached his eldest son’s U9 squad last year. He occasionally trains at VCU and, when he can, finds time to take in a Rams game.
While he’s still enjoying his time with the Kickers, Delicate, who currently leads the team with six goals, is already preparing for life after professional soccer. Delicate has started a video-based player evaluation service, Eye 4 Detail, which tapes and breaks down video for players. For some, Delicate will provide diagrams, analysis and tips. He also assembles highlight reels for players in search of college scholarships. He recently purchased four additional video cameras.
“They’re pretty expensive, but it was kind of a leap of faith. I’ve got to move forward, and it’s been good,” he said.
Someday, Delicate will turn his full attention to growing business. Until then, he’ll keep doing what’s kept his career alive all these years, scoring goals.
“I would like to play as long as I’m capable,” he said. “As long as I’m in the mix to be on the team and I’m still scoring goals and staying healthy, then there’s no reason why I can’t continue playing.”
THE LATE BLOOMER
Few players have been as excited to become Rams as “Fred” Owusu Sekyere.
Growing up in Ghana, Sekyere’s parents appreciated their son’s soccer talents, but also pushed him to focus on education. The American collegiate model of sport, which combines athletics and academics is unique, and for someone like Sekyere, a dream come true. It offered him a chance to keep playing soccer, but also honor his parents’ wishes.
“[My father] was really insistent on my education,” he said. “When I got the opportunity to play and go to school it was like Christmas came early or like Jesus was calling me straight to heaven. You’re getting an education and you’re playing the game you love? For me, soccer was basically everything, but my dad had to put in my head that you need something extra to get going, you need school too.”
During his first visit to SportsBackers Stadium in 2006, Sekyere reached down and ran his fingers through the grass turf, as if to prove to himself that the moment was real.
“I was like, you guys should just let me sleep here [on the field],” he said.
Although it’s been almost nine years since that day, Sekyere’s heart has never left Richmond. This year, the 5-foot-5 defensive midfielder returned to Richmond with the Kickers after establishing himself professionally with USL rival Charlotte in 2014. He couldn’t be happier.
“It’s been great. I say now that I call Richmond my home,” Sekyere says gleefully. “Through VCU, Richmond has been my home, and so, it’s a great feeling playing in Richmond. Even last year when I was playing in Charlotte…whenever we came to Richmond [my friends] would say, ‘oh, we’re going to Freddie’s home.’”
Although Sekyere enjoyed a solid collegiate carer with the Rams from 2006-09, professional opportunities were slim when he graduated. There were just nine remaining players on VCU’s spring roster in 2010, so new coach Dave Giffard asked Sekyere if he’d like to continue training with the team, even though it had not been customary for graduating seniors to play on the spring squad. Sekyere left an impression.
“I remember watching him, thinking, man, I wish we had 3-4 more years of this guy. We could really do something with him,” Giffard recalled.
Despite the cool response from professional clubs, Sekyere spent time coaching and training and dreaming. In 2013, he led semi-pro club RVA FC to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) Championship and caught the eye of USL. In 2014, five years after the end of his collegiate career, Sekyere finally found professional stability in Charlotte.
Finally given an opportunity to play professionally, Owusu did not disappoint. He logged nearly 2,000 minutes for Charlotte in 2014 and scored two goals, while assisting on three others.
“He was hungry and kept chasing it and chasing it and training with the Kickers every preseason and trying to make the team. He’d be popping around everybody’s different tryouts. It never quite happened for him. Finally, the guys in Charlotte gave him a chance and he had a great year,” Giffard said.
On Jan. 17, the Kickers signed the 29-year-old Sekyere and reunited him with his adopted hometown. In 13 matches this season for Richmond, he’s logged nearly 1,000 minutes and a pair of assists.
Although Sekyere never played a season under Giffard, he’s remained close to the program. He’s frequently trained at VCU and has stayed in close contact with Giffard, even while he was in Charlotte. After signing with the Kickers, Sekyere says drove to a place where the people would understand and share his excitement.
“The minute after I signed with the Kickers,” Sekyere said, the next place I went was to Coach Giffard’s office. He was excited, because he knew I wanted to be in Richmond.”
Someday, Nate Shiffman could be a doctor or a biologist or a businessman. He’s always had the chops academically, but he’s got the rest of his life to pursue those ventures. His window to play professional soccer, on the other hand, is much smaller.
Tomorrow, maybe he’ll be studying platelets through a microscope, but today, the 23-year-old Shiffman, a graduate of VCU and Richmond’s James River High School, is a midfielder for his hometown Kickers.
Shiffman is in his second year as a pro after spending the 2014 campaign with the USL PRO’s Oklahoma City Energy, where he appeared in 22 matches. He has played in five matches for the Kickers this year, and says he’s still getting accustomed to life at the professional level.
“It’s a big jump,” he said. “I think people underestimate the level of the USL. I know when I was in college, ‘I could easily do that.’ You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be extremely consistent in your play.”
Although he’s played just 115 minutes in the Kickers’ 14 matches this season, Shiffman is happy to be back home.
“It’s great. There’s nothing really better than playing for your friends and family in your hometown,” Shiffman said.
Standout veterans like Delicate can make a good living in the USL, but for a less established player like Shiffman, the paychecks are much leaner, so Shiffman says he’s moved back home with his parents to save money. In the meantime, he’s also finishing up his biology degree at VCU. He’d originally planned on attending medical school, but also says he’s been training with his friend’s real estate company and considering a career in business.
But most of his attention these days is centered around soccer. As one of the younger players on the roster, he’s trying to glean as much experience from veterans like Delicate. Although they were never teammates at VCU, Shiffman says it’s nice to have fellow Rams like Delicate around.
“Definitely. It’s an immediate connection. I didn’t know Delly before, but it’s nice to have that connection. We’ve talked about our times at VCU, and it’s nice to have that network,” Shiffman said. “He’s been here the longest and there’s so much experience to learn from him. Every time guys like that tell you something, you listen because they know what they’re talking about.”
RAMS-KICKERS CONNECTIONS RUN DEEP
The VCU Soccer program and the Richmond Kickers organization are intertwined in many ways.
William Yomby, who serves on Coach Dave Giffard’s staff as director of operations, is in his sixth season as a defender with the club.
In addition, Giffard sends a handful of players to train with the Kickers and Coach Leigh Cowlishaw each summer. NCAA rules permit the Rams to send as many as five players to train with the team. They cannot play in games. In recent summers, Giffard has lent standouts like Dennis Castillo, Juan Monge Solano, Juan Fajardo, Mario Herrera Meraz, Andrew Wells, Garrett Cyprus and Devon Fisher.
Giffard says the partnership is invaluable, and serves as a critical piece of VCU’s player development plan.
“Leigh can fire you. He treats them like one of the guys in the squad, and it’s a great opportunity and experience for players who have never been in that type of situation or environment, to realize, you can get fired. There are not too many places in the country where college guys can go and train all summer with a USL first team. He treats them just like guys on the team.”