MEMPHIS, Tenn. — From startup to smash success.
"We saw a need in the marketplace, and we were able to fill that," Memphis 901 FC club president Craig Unger said. "And it's been successful."
Just over three years removed from their first match, Memphis 901 FC sits at the top of the table in the USL Championship and is attracting an ever-evolving core of supporters.
"We'll see where we're at in October," head coach Ben Pirmann said. "Right now, our focus is improving, improving, improving."
To get here was no easy feat. In their inaugural season in 2019, the club boasted an average attendance of over 6,600 fans. Six days after a sellout crowd for their 2020 season opener, the COVID-19 shutdown began - putting the season on hold for four months
"I think just stepping back during COVID, there was just uncertainty with everything," head coach Ben Pirmann said. "Take sport, take soccer out of it. There was uncertainty all over the world."
"We felt that we needed to relaunch a little bit," Unger said. "There had to be a reset. But I don't think there was ever a concern. We knew that 2019 showed that this is going to work."
Part of that re-launch included a coaching change. 901 FC named then-assistant coach Ben Pirmann the interim head coach at the end of the 2020 campaign. The interim tag was removed ahead of last season.
"We knew that he could lead a team," Unger said of the USL Championship's reigning coach of the month. "We knew that was something that was right in his wheelhouse. So even back in 2020 we felt comfortable turning things over to him."
"Budgets were tight, things were tough," Pirmann said to describe the 2021 season. "The league was still getting back from that COVID year. All we wanted to do was take it one step at a time. And we started off okay. We got a big win in Indy, and we just kept going, going, going. Then that last 8-10 matches of the year we were really good. We were a really good team."
In his first full season at the helm, Pirmann led 901 FC to their first playoff appearance.
As the wins have piled up this year, the crowd has slowly returned. Over 6,000 fans were on hand for the club's June 4 victory over Atlanta United 2 - their largest crowd since the pandemic began.
"I think we have a niche fanbase that keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Louder and louder," Pirmann said. "This is a place where I want teams to come and say I don't want to play at AutoZone. I don't like playing in Memphis. I don't want to go there. It's because of the animals behind the goal every single weekend."
"We like being the ones that people are gunning for," Unger said. "We have the smoke bombs, we'll take all the smoke."