Kick­ers’ Ukrop, Sawatzky back on same team

In year of MLS’ 25th an­niver­sary, for­mer New Eng­land Revo­lu­tion team­mates are re­united

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS - BY WAYNE EPPS JR. Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch

Rob Ukrop can still re­call the en­ergy in the air.

As Ma­jor League Soc­cer dawned, the New Eng­land Revo­lu­tion rode a bus to Tampa Sta­dium — then the home of the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers — to play the Tampa Bay Mutiny in their first-ever game, on April

13, 1996.

Ukrop was one of the play­ers on that bus, a mem­ber of the in­au­gu­ral Revo­lu­tion team, picked in the sev­enth round, 65th over­all, in the first MLS draft. He re­mem­bers walk­ing into the big, NFL locker room at Tampa Sta­dium and see­ing all of the team’s equip­ment laid out. They even had a masseuse.

“I mean, it was cool,” he said. “It just had this big-time feel to it.”

Ukrop knew he’d earned him­self a spot in the start­ing lineup. He went on to earn a unique place in Revo­lu­tion his­tory.

He scored in the 20th minute, and then again in the 71st. New

Eng­land went on to lose 3-2, but Ukrop had the first two goals in fran­chise his­tory.

MLS, be­fore its sea­son was sus­pended due to COVID-19, was cel­e­brat­ing its 25th an­niver­sary this year. Ukrop, in the in­au­gu­ral sea­son, not only scored those two his­toric goals, but also con­nected with Darren Sawatzky.

Ukrop and Sawatzky were Revo­lu­tion team­mates and room­mates. That re­la­tion­ship helped beget a new con­nec­tion last fall, when Sawatzky was hired to be the Rich­mond Kick­ers’ coach and sport­ing di­rec­tor.

Ukrop is the club’s chair­man.

“It was a cool ex­pe­ri­ence. I mean, my time was short lived,” Ukrop said. “But my dad al­ways said, ‘Hey, the cool part was you got the first goal.’ Not re­ally the things I think about. I just think about the friend­ships.

“Thank­fully, be­cause of that ex­pe­ri­ence, Darren was one of the peo­ple that we talked to and brought in for this job with the Kick­ers.”

A cou­ple of months be­fore that April 1996 Revo­lu­tion opener, Ukrop and Sawatzky were both part of the player pool in­vited to the in­au­gu­ral MLS com­bine, in Irvine, Calif.

Ukrop re­calls be­ing in the lunch room one day be­tween ses­sions and see­ing a player with long, blond hair bounc­ing around, talk­ing to ev­ery­body.

“I’m like, ‘Who is that guy?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, that guy just knows ev­ery­body,’” Ukrop said. “And turns out it was Darren Sawatzky.”

About a month later, Ukrop and Sawatzky were both picked by the Revo­lu­tion in the first MLS draft.

Back in that first year of the league, peo­ple didn’t know what things were go­ing to look like. They were just ex­cited to play soc­cer, Ukrop said. The Revo­lu­tion prac­ticed at Bab­son Col­lege in Bab­son Park, Ma., but went down to Boca Ra­ton, Fla., for sev­eral weeks for a train­ing camp.

Var­i­ous play­ers didn’t make the cut, but on the fi­nal day of pre­sea­son, those who re­mained were told they had two days to find room­mates.

“Rob and I just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You in? Yeah. You in? OK cool,’” Sawatzky said with a laugh.

Ukrop de­scribed the first game day in Tampa Bay as a whirl­wind. Ukrop and some team­mates spent most of the day be­fore the game walk­ing around a mall in the area.

“In fact, I had a video cam­era that I trav­eled with that first sea­son, or when I was still there,” Ukrop said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff from Darren and I sit­ting in the ho­tel and just go­ing around, walk­ing around the mall.

“But we were just a bunch of young, care­free guys who had re­ally no cares in the world. We’re get­ting paid to play — not paid great — but we got paid enough to feel like we’re a pro­fes­sional ath­lete.”

Ukrop re­mem­bers that bit of en­ergy in the air later, as the team took the bus to Tampa Sta­dium.

Dur­ing the early por­tion of the game, Wél­ton Araújo Melo con­trolled the ball on a break­away down the left side of the field. He then crossed it to Ukrop who, with one touch, dumped it into the back of the net to give New Eng­land a 1-0 lead.

Ukrop has seen the goal 100 times now.

“My job was to score goals, so I was do­ing my job on that day,” he said. “So it was cool. I just got in the right spot.”

Later, with the Revo­lu­tion work­ing on a come­back, Peter Woodring poked a cross from the right side, into the 6-yard box, where Ukrop fin­ished with a header to cut the Mutiny’s lead to 3-2.

He re­mem­bers that he should’ve had a third goal, when an­other header late in the game clanked off the post. But the Revo­lu­tion fell by one.

Ukrop went on to start seven more games, and played nine to­tal, though his two open­ing day goals were his sole scores. He was re­leased that

June, be­fore con­tracts for the sea­son be­came guar­an­teed.

“I have noth­ing but great mem­o­ries. And, would I have liked to have stayed there longer? Ab­so­lutely,” Ukrop said. “But, for me, it pro­pelled me on a re­ally good path where I ended up com­ing back to my home­town and got to be part of a re­ally neat ex­pe­ri­ence here as the game was un­fold­ing in Rich­mond.”

Ukrop re­turned to Rich­mond to play for the Kick­ers, with whom he set records for ca­reer goals, as­sists, points and games played be­fore re­tir­ing in 2004.

In De­cem­ber 2018, Sawatzky was named the coach of FC Tuc­son, which plays in the Kick­ers’ league, USL League One. So he and Ukrop were in touch with each other last sea­son.

Af­ter the Kick­ers parted ways with coach David Bu­low last Oc­to­ber,

Sawatzky reached out to Ukrop and ex­pressed his in­ter­est in the po­si­tion. Ukrop con­nected Sawatzky with team pres­i­dent Matt Spear.

Spear and Saw­tazky talked, and Spear called Ukrop to say, “Hey, Darren might be the guy.”

“And I said, well, I love Darren, he’s one of my good soc­cer friends through the years,” Ukrop said. “And I’ve al­ways thought he had those qual­i­ties from a lead­er­ship stand­point.”

Sawtzky was even­tu­ally hired, a de­ci­sion that was an­nounced early last Novem­ber.

“It’s just re­ally cool to be re­united with Rob be­cause, from the first time I met him to even now, he’s a class guy who cares about peo­ple,” Sawatzky said.

“And those are the kind of peo­ple I want to sur­round my­self with.”

When Ukrop and Sawatzky were room­mates in 1996, play­ing in a blos­som­ing new league, they prob­a­bly couldn’t have imag­ined they’d one day be back to­gether in their cur­rent ca­pac­ity.

But, in the year of MLS’ 25th an­niver­sary, the two are once again on the same team.

“We had a lot of good laughs to­gether,” Ukrop said of the first Revo­lu­tion team. “A lot of us still stay in touch, whether it’s through text or catch­ing up by phone. And it’s just a great group ... that first year of MLS, a lot of guys that had short-lived ca­reers in MLS that have gone on to do re­ally cool things in the soc­cer world.

“And I’m just thank­ful that the pow­ers that be com­ing off the 1994 World Cup suc­cess here in the States re­ally used that to am­plify MLS. And just thank­ful it’s still here to­day for kids to as­pire to.”

“But we were just a bunch of young, care­free guys who had re­ally no cares in the world. We’re get­ting paid to play — not paid great — but we got paid enough to feel like we’re

a pro­fes­sional ath­lete.”

2019, ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Kick­ers chair­man and for­mer player Rob Ukrop set club records in goals, as­sists, points and games played be­fore re­tir­ing in 2004.

Darren Sawatzky roomed with Kick­ers chair­man Rob Ukrop when the pair played to­gether, and they’ve kept a close re­la­tion­ship.

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