Jonathan Wardlaw hoped at least 500 people would show up for the first Little Rock Rangers soccer game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock in 2016.
"There were 4,000," recalls Babs Wardlaw, Jonathan's wife. "We were blown away."
The food trucks Jonathan Wardlaw had arranged for were ready, and there was craft beer available in the concession stands.
"I always thought it would just be so cool to have, like you see on TV, the supporter groups at games, the people painting their faces and doing the smoke and beating drums and things like that," he says.
And there was the Red Watch, the independent group of fans that showed up with red face paint, plumes of red smoke, drums and, for good measure, a slew of chants and cheers to stir up crowd support.
The lower division Rangers team started out in the National Premier Soccer League. In 2018, they were South Region Finalists in the league and in 2019 qualified for the national Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Last month, the club moved to the United Soccer League [USL] Two.
"They have a league structure that's a true pathway to the MLS [Major League Soccer], and the league also has affiliations with the MLS," Wardlaw says. "The thing about the USL that's so exciting to me is that they're starting a youth academy league, and it's basically giving us a product that we can offer that no other youth clubs here in town can."
Mayor Frank Scott calls himself a "new" soccer fan and says he enjoys the game as well as the soccer jersey options.
"A person like Jonathan Wardlaw demonstrates what every mayor wants -- someone that's on the playing field with you, doing whatever possible to attract more talent, more opportunity, to ensure that the state's capital city grows, and he's doing it in his own way and form through his passion for soccer," Scott says. "We know not only are we going to do well, at USL Two, but there's great opportunity to move up to USL one, and that's going to be because of the heart and the tenacity, and the will of Jonathan Wardlaw."
To move up a notch to USL One, the Rangers need to show, among other things, that a bigger stadium is in the works or that War Memorial would be renovated to accommodate a larger playing field.
"We're still working to find some investors to take us to USL One," Scott says. "But we are working to take it to the next level."
The Rangers, as a concept, were created out of conversations Wardlaw and friends had while watching their sons at soccer practice.
"A bunch of us dads were at Riverdale just kind of complaining that the youth soccer scene here just kind wasn't that different than when I grew up playing here," says Wardlaw, who played through high school and, until this spring, in an adult league on Sundays.
Wardlaw noticed that several youth soccer players were leaving between the ages of 9 and 12 to concentrate on other sports, like football and baseball.
"I just thought that perhaps by coming up with a minor league soccer team of sorts, maybe we could keep a handful of those kids in the sport, just by creating role models for them," he says. "At the same time, maybe some of these players that we bring in from out of town would stay and, boom, there's an improvement in our coaching scene."
The Rangers' Little Rock Youth Soccer Academy started in 2018 with a Young Bucks program for ages 4 to 6, and in 2019 added competitive teams for older boys. There are plans to add girls teams in the future.
On a more fundamental level, Wardlaw wanted to cultivate a statewide passion for soccer.
"I just wanted to create it for the love of the game, just to grow it and introduce people here in the state," he says.
Blane Rasch was one of the dads who helped hash out the early details. His son Zeke is a friend and teammate of Wardlaw's oldest son, Abe, 15.
"Jonathan's whole thing is about building the culture of soccer as opposed to just building winning teams," Rasch says. "A bunch of us went in on this together, but he took it and ran with it at that point."
Rasch has been surprised by how well it has caught on.
"In the back of your mind, you're not sure it's really going to happen. He had to put a lot of work in early just on a shoestring budget with not a lot of help," Rasch says. "He was kind of an army of one of getting this together and really holding it together. I think it could have fallen apart early on pretty easily. He was driven, and he's such a neat guy. He's operating at such a high level on this big view of what soccer should be like in the U.S."
A BIG VISION
Charlie Roberts of Frisco, Texas, recruited Wardlaw to the board of Arkansas Rush Soccer Club, a youth soccer club based in Conway, back in 2012 and 2013. He was skeptical when Wardlaw shared his vision for the Rangers over beers at the Town Pump. Roberts wasn't sure the Little Rock market could support such an endeavor.
"A big part of it was coming up with the funds to make it all work. I mean, at the time I just was diehard dead set on trying to figure out youth soccer, and I thought man, if you can have an academy or a youth program that's attached to a semi-pro team, that's about as good as it's ever going to get for a market like Little Rock. He definitely surprised me, for sure."
Roberts moved out of Little Rock right before the Rangers' first season to watch his son, Thomas Roberts, play professionally for FC Dallas, but he has watched games online and in Texas.
"It's just amazing what he's done with it, how he's tried to incorporate a family atmosphere," Roberts says. "I'll go to [National Premier Soccer League] games here, teams in the Dallas area, and the environment that Jonathan has created compared to this, it's night and day. I mean, with the food trucks and the craft beer and everything, man, there's nothing like that here. He's doing it right. He's doing it a lot better than they're doing it in the Dallas/Fort Worth area."
Wardlaw played soccer through high school and, until covid-19 hit, in an adult league on Sundays.
Ante Jazic, who played for the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA before retiring from Major League Soccer in 2012, is Wardlaw's partner.
"We've started the Little Rock Rangers Youth Soccer Academy, so that's taking up a lot of our time. He's basically in charge of all logistics. He's out at that field all day doing everything for the kids and lining the fields, mowing the grass, feeding the grass and whatever he has to do so the fields are ready so the kids can play on them," says Jazic, who is also an assistant for the U.S. U17 men's national team. "I'm more the technical guy; I do all the soccer-related stuff."
Jazic's wife, Annemarie Dillard Jazic, is a Little Rock native, and she wanted to move back home to be near her family when he stopped playing and started traveling as a coach for a Canadian national team. Wardlaw heard he was in town shortly after the team's first season.
"I went to a Rangers match, and the game day experience that Jonathan created, with the food trucks and the stuff that he had, how professional it was at War Memorial, it was on par with the professional soccer where I've been in terms of the game day experience in the structure of the games," Jazic says. "That's one of the reasons I really got involved, just because Jonathan had this amazing ability to create this atmosphere, and now we have the support with the fans. It's something that's still in the early stages, but there is so much more room to grow."
Wardlaw grew up in Little Rock, going to Miss Selma's School and then Forest Heights Junior High and then spent his sophomore year at Hall High, where the coach from his soccer club coached the school team. Most of his friends were at Central High School, though, so he transferred there for his junior and senior years.
The sudden departure of the Central soccer coach, however, put his high school soccer career in jeopardy.
He and a friend convinced the fine arts teacher, a woman whose soccer knowledge came from watching her two small children play for recreation, to take on the role of high school soccer coach. She initially depended on Wardlaw and another player for technical advice during the games.
"Our senior year, we literally made the soccer lineups," Wardlaw says. "That was a pretty funny story. But she ended up becoming a soccer fanatic."
Wardlaw and one of his friends had planned to go to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., after graduation in 1993.
"We just wanted to be doctors," Wardlaw says.
They had friends at Westminster, he says, and he had talked with the soccer coach about playing for the team.
His friend toured Ole Miss, and he visited the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and those bustling campuses held more allure for them both than tiny Westminster.
Wardlaw started out pursuing a business degree, with the intention of returning to Little Rock to work in his father's vending machine business.
A summer job on a landscape crew with the Good Earth Garden Center opened a new possibility for him, though. He realized he had an eye for design and started looking into courses at the University of Arkansas.
LIVING IN A DUMP
After college, he got a job with a landscape architecture firm, but transitioned fairly quickly into real estate. That started after his father helped him buy his first house.
"It was a dump. At the time I had no clue he had any knowledge, but we just started tearing out walls, rebuilding them, we put tile down ourselves, and this was back before YouTube or anything like that," he says. "My dad really taught me not to ever be afraid of jumping into something that you're unfamiliar with. Something I got from him is just be optimistic about a project and try to do it yourself first, and then if you have to call in experts or whatever, do that. That's kind of the way, I guess, I approached the soccer thing. You know, why wouldn't it work here if it's worked everywhere else, right?"
Wardlaw's father was not thrilled when he left the landscape architecture firm after about three years to flip houses and sell real estate, preferring his son use the college degree he financed. But he ultimately supported his son's decision, just as he did with the Rangers. He and Wardlaw's mother, Linda, and a family friend run the ticket booth at the Rangers games.
In 2007, Wardlaw and his wife bought out the contracts of the small audiology firm where she worked. Through that business, Portable Audiometrics, they travel around the state to do hearing screenings for children in clinics and therapy centers.
When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a downturn in the real estate business, Wardlaw entered the mortgage industry. He worked his way up to vice president at a small agency and then moved to OneBanc, now First National Bank, where he was vice president of the mortgage department when he resigned shortly after his second child, Murphy, now 10, was born.
"Something had to give," he says. "The hearing thing had really taken off. There were some changes to Medicaid, so kids were needing to get more tests, and they were needing to get tested more frequently. We had a brand new baby, and Abe was 3."
He and his wife travel for the business together often. He completes paperwork while she conducts the tests, and the schedule affords flexibility for parenting -- and for starting a minor league soccer club.
When Babs Wardlaw first heard of his plans to do that, she wasn't terribly surprised.
"Jonathan is a dreamer. He always has been," she says. "He kind of comes up with ideas, and I'm always like, 'Well, I'm not sure, but I'll go along with it, see how it goes.'"
They created the Rangers crest, prominently featuring whitetail deer, over morning coffee at their kitchen table, still clad in robes.
"We wanted to come up with something that was a brand that related to people here in Arkansas, even if they weren't soccer fans," he says. "You know, if a wife was to see one of our T-shirts and have no idea about soccer, she might still go 'My husband hunts deer, so I'm going to grab him that shirt.' It was just kind of a marketing stunt, I guess, but it's really seemed to work."
Heath Harper is married to Babs Wardlaw's longtime friend and former college roommate.
"We used to call him Bob Vila because he literally would take what looks like the ugliest house on the street and turn it into the most awesome fixer-upper you've ever seen," Harper says of his longtime friend. "So before Chip and Joanna got famous, Jonathan was doing it in the Heights."
Harper says Wardlaw has given him advice on every house he has lived in over the years, quietly suggesting changes that might make their living spaces work best for them. He marvels that he has the creative vision to imagine what a house should look like as well as the skill to do most of the work himself -- plumbing, electrical, carpentry and the like.
"The right side of his brain is obviously the very creative architect side that says, 'OK, here's what to do with the yard and lay this out differently,' or 'Here's what I'm going make my uniforms look like,' but he also has the technical ability to execute on it, which is a very rare trait," Harper says. "He's quiet sometimes, and you don't realize what all he's working on and thinking about doing. I think, obviously, the Rangers is a great example of the manifestation of an idea that came to life,"
The Rangers' 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, and Wardlaw is eager to get the team back on the field in 2021, in a new league with new potential -- maybe even, down the road, in a brand new stadium built for Rangers soccer.
"There's definitely stuff that keeps you motivated and keeps you going, to see if you can achieve those things," Wardlaw says. "They may seem like pipe dreams now, but, gosh, this whole thing was a pipe dream to begin with."
Jonathan David Wardlaw
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 15, 1975, Little Rock
A BOOK/MOVIE/SHOW/PODCAST I RECENTLY READ/SAW/HEARD AND LIKED: “Good to Great” by James Collins.
MY FAVORITE SOCCER JERSEY IS: Oh man, the ones I own I have for so many different reasons. Sentimental, good design, quirky story behind the club, etc. I usually wear a Rangers or US jersey though.
IF I HAD TO EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY IT WOULD BE: Cheeseburger and fries, no question about it.
MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: I grew up in Hillcrest. I remember having tons of kids in the neighborhood and playing outside every night until dark (when the street light came on we were to go home). Even back then it was such a cool/eclectic/diverse neighborhood, and I’m still in touch with many of the families.
TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY, I WOULD INVITE: Johan Cruyff, Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and an interpreter.
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and try new things outside your comfort zone.
MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: I love riding ski lifts when the resorts aren’t crowded and it’s snowing. When you can almost hear the snow falling.
I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW: I hope you will forgive me if I don’t speak to you first. I’m really a pretty shy person.
SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Be able to sit down and watch a Rangers game from start to finish.
I KNEW I WAS AN ADULT WHEN: I changed my first son’s first diaper in the hospital after his birth.
MY PET PEEVE IS: That would be a tie: Slow drivers in the left lane, and loud parents coaching their kids from the sideline.
THE MOST FUN I’VE EVER HAD: I went to England for five weeks my senior year of college with the landscape architecture program. I’ll never forget that trip. When my wife and I got married, our wedding reception was a blast. The very first Rangers game was so much chaos, but so fun experiencing the success of the night.
I WISH I COULD: Clone myself, I could really use some help.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Hardworking.
CORRECTION: The name of Heath Harper was misspelled in a previous version of this story.