New England Soccer Today

Azul Bring Soccer Back to CT

EAST HAVEN, Conn. – It had been a decade-long void. So Steve Coxon decided to do something about it.

Following the disbandment of the Connecticut Wolves (A-League) in 2002, the Nutmeg State waited – then waited some more – for soccer to return. Discussions were held. Ideas were floated. It all added up to nothing, though.

Finally, after years without a team to call their own, the wait was over.

In December of 2011, CFC Azul were formally introduced as Connecticut’s newest club. And not a moment too soon.

As co-founder of Connecticut FC, Coxon, a former Wolves player himself, knew that the state was ready to embrace a team of its own again.

“We found the opportunity,” Coxon said. “We knew that the (Premier Development League) was looking for a franchise in Connecticut and we were ready to build it.”

Ready to build? You bet. But Coxon, who witnessed the demise of the Wolves first hand, knew it that it would take considerable effort to launch a brand new franchise.

The grunt work begins

As with any expansion franchise, Coxon, a native of Newcastle, England, knew that a great deal of work awaited him and club vice president Costas Flessas.

Granted, the CFC program had already been established at the youth ranks.  But putting together a legitimate Premier Development League (PDL) operation? That was a whole different ballgame.

So Coxon got on the horn and called the one person he knew who could help him tackle it – former Wolves teammate and current Southern Connecticut assistant coach Dave Kelly.

With a resume that included stops at Trinity (2001-03) Quinnipiac (2004) Hartford (2005-2010), Southern Connecticut (2011), Coxon believed that Kelly was the ideal candidate for the job.

Kelly accepted, fully understanding the challenges that awaited him.

“It’s a little daunting, to be honest, when you’re trying to build a team that has zero players,” Kelly said.  “So the strategy was that I reached out to players that I knew and that I respected and that I trusted.”

Kelly called upon players he knew in the area. First, it was Jesse Menzies from Central Connecticut. Then, it was Ryan Kinne, whom Kelly had coached at the youth level. And more players familiar to Kelly would be added.

But Kelly and his staff didn’t close the door on potential diamonds in the rough.

“We had 2 or 3 open tryouts and there were about 100 kids at each one,” Kelly said. “We did our best to try to get players an opportunity to get on the field.”

With the team’s first game quickly approaching, Kelly had the core of his team in place by early-May. And once first kick arrived, it was time to show what it had.

Welcome to PDL

The start of the PDL season is designed to coincide with the completion of many schools’ spring semester. But in the Azul’s case, it was a little too close for comfort.

With only a handful of formal practices before their May 5 debut against Boston Victory, the Azul had no choice but to hit the ground running. And so they did.

The Azul controlled the tempo early, and as scripted, Kinne scored the first goal in franchise history in the 57th minute.

“It felt good,” Kinne said of the historic goal. “We had a pretty good crowd that night, opening night and getting the first goal against a good Boston team was huge.”

But it was a lead that wouldn’t last. Boston went on to score two goals in the final two minutes to rip the win away.

In the Victory supporter’s section, smoke bombs went off. Boston players and coaches laughed and smiled. And all the Azul could do was shake their heads.

“It’s just a process that you have to go through,” Kelly said.  “And to learn what it’s going to take to win and how to win and not just for me, but for the players as well.”

Behind the name

The Nutmeg State has seen its fair share of soccer clubs spring up within its borders over the years. The Bicentennials. The Wolves. The Yankees. Even the storied Vasco de Gama side out of Bridgeport.

Coxon knew he’d have to choose a name that kept the CFC identity at the forefront, but without resorting to something bland or generic.

So he went with Azul – the Spanish term for a familiar hue.

“We’re all blue,” Coxon said. “The club’s a blue club, we wanted to give it that sort of Latin flair rather than call it the Connecticut Nutmeggers or something very American, shall we say, so we came up with Azul.”

The Azul. The Azuls. The Blues. It may not be as catchy as the Yankees, but Coxon has gotten positive feedback thus far from his club’s supporters.

“Some people love it,” Coxon said. “Some people, not so much. But we like it. It works.”

The immediate future

When the Azul outlined the specifics of their inaugural season during the winter, Reese Stadium at Yale University was designated as their home pitch. But it wasn’t long before the team had to resort to alternatives.

Prior to the start of the season, last-minute conflicts forced the expansion side to scramble and find a new home venue. And they did – kind of, at least.

Five different venues were secured for the eight Azul home games: East Haven High School, Wilton High School, Willowbrook Park, Pomperaug High School and Tuxis Mead. Stadium issues? Yeah, you could say that.

“Our biggest challenge – and we haven’t solved it yet – is our stadium,” Coxon said. “We don’t have a home, so we’re kind of floating all over the state looking for the best venue for us.”

Among the destinations fans can catch the Azul in Connecticut: New Haven, New Britain, Southbury and Farmington. Road map, anyone?

“It’s blessing in the fact that everyone gets to see the team,” Coxon said. “But you’re coming into a new environment every time you’re playing. So these boys don’t have a home and we don’t know if the press box is going to work or the PA system is going to work so for the backroom staff it is a challenge.”

But travel and stadium issues aside, Coxon has been especially pleased with the squad on the field – wherever that may be.

“We knew the boys were good,” Coxon said. “And it’s just something about them. They’ve got a good team spirit. The boys always mention how good the camaraderie is on the team. That’s a blessing for us.”

Beyond 2012

PDL is often seen as a stepping stone for many young talents who dream of playing professional soccer. But players and coaches aren’t the only ones hoping to use the fourth division league as a springboard for greater success.

It may be early, but the Azul have a vision. One part of that vision is the construction of a soccer specific stadium so that the Azul will be wanderers no more.

Another part of that vision? A jump from PDL to USL Pro (third division) or NASL (second division). But why stop there? Kelly and others in the organization haven’t dismissed the notion of turning the Azul into an MLS expansion side someday.

“I think that there’s support for it,” Kelly said. “I think that there’s a market for it.”

And Kelly isn’t the only one eager to help make the Azul push up the American soccer pyramid.

“I know this club has higher aspirations to move up in the ranks in professional soccer in the U.S.” Kinne said. “So I’d like to help them move along.”

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