Maryland Bobcats set to join NISA in 2021

Published Nov 11, 2020

Before Maryland Bobcats FC made the giant step to compete in a professional league, the team already had made some history.

The Bobcats are a Black-owned club, one of a few professional sports franchises in the United States that are operated by minorities. They are slated begin playing in the National Independent Soccer Association's 2021 spring season.

They are the first pro team in Maryland since Crystal Palace Baltimore performed in the former USL Second Division from 2007-09.

The club is the brainchild of Maryland businessman Jide Saba, who dreamt of operating a pro soccer team a decade ago.

"It took a lot of hard work, dedication, a lot of ups and downs," Saba said. "It was tough. There was a lot of competition. Some teams probably were better than us. We were just very grateful that we stayed true to the cause. We knew what our future was going to be and what we wanted out of this club.”

Saba and his colleagues could not believe how many minorities in Maryland were not given an opportunity to play professionally.

"We've always felt a lot of minority players, they'll play for top teams around the area, but then when it comes to actually being put on a larger platform after they've helped a lot of these teams become successful, their faces are nowhere to be found,” he said. “We kept thinking, especially in the past two years: 'What better ways can we give opportunity to people regardless of their race, their color, ethnicity, whatever background they have?' That really did motivate us a lot."

The team's motto is simple and straight to the point: For All.

"We don't care where you come from, we don't care what you look like," general manager Evan Raimist said. "If you can play, you have a chance on our team. If you can help off the field, if you are smart, energetic, we would love to have you because this club was founded on giving people a chance."

Just about the entire team comes with an hour's radius of its training ground.

Before capturing the NISA Independent Cup Mid-Atlantic Region crown, the Bobcats had applied for admission to NISA. Winning the tournament was a cherry on top of the cake on a memorable year, which included winning the UPSL national championship.

Saba admitted winning the Independent Cup title was a pleasant surprise because the team's goal was to measure itself against competition such as the New York Cosmos. The Bobcats recorded a 1-1 draw with the Cosmos on a late goal in Leesburg, Va. on Aug. 9.

"We wanted to see exactly what this particular squad we had could give us when they're playing against some of the top teams around the area," Saba said. "We wanted to see what else we had to add come next year. ... We look up to the Cosmos. A lot of our players, coaches and technical director were so excited to play against the Cosmos. "

Maryland had several youngsters on that squad, from 16- to 19-years-old.

"It felt good. It was shocking at the same time," Saba said. "We knew playing professional teams like the Cosmos wasn't going be easy. They made us proud. That solidifies that 'Hey, they're ready to take the next big leap.' That was more confidence to the decision that we have already made."

The Bobcats also recorded a 1-0 win over another NISA team, host Chattanooga FC on Oct. 24.

For NISA, the Bobcats will move from playing at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. to the Maryland Soccerplex in Germantown, Md. (4,000 capacity).

Though they fared beyond expectations in the Independent Cup, the team will be upgraded for 2021. That will mean making some difficult decisions.

"Our coaching staff and owners know that there's going be some players that have been with us for 2-4-6 years that have played hundreds of games for us, have scored tons of goals, have held down the backline that unfortunately, probably aren't going to make that pro roster, which is going to be a hard thing to do," Raimist said. "It's going be hard to tell them, 'Thanks for the last four or five years. Unfortunately, you're not going make that roster.' The good thing about our roster is … it's guys that want to help build this up for something bigger than them.”

Some players might join the Bobcats reserve teams while others have agreed to work in their front office.

The Bobcats are a good fit for NISA, which encourages community involvement. They don’t need to be reminded of that.

"If we can make one impact on one person because one of our players stood up for something, that's exactly what we want to do," Raimist said. "We see ourselves not necessarily just as a soccer team, but a part of the community that can make some change by playing soccer as a way to get that across. There are some guys on our team that have kids. For them to be able to say, 'Hey, look my dad played for the Bobcats, and they're standing up against racism against oppression,' that is what makes what we're building worth it."