Kickers’ Ukrop, Sawatzky back on same team
In year of MLS’ 25th anniversary, former New England Revolution teammates are reunited
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
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.”
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.