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Kicking Off Soccer in New Orleans

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Coach Kenny Farrell leads the 2016 New Orleans Jesters into a season filled with hope.

SportsApr2016The crowded traditional sports calendar in New Orleans in spring and summer is well known: the Saints engage in the off-season hot stove league; the Pelicans wind their season down in hopes of reaching the playoffs; and the Zephyrs begin hitting fungos in spring training and preparing for opening night. But one other sport has crept into local consciousness. The New Orleans Jesters, led by Coach Kenny Farrell, have been delivering the best sports entertainment in the city for some time now. Last year, at a mere $50, a New Orleans sports fan could get a front row seat to a season of sport at recently renovated Pan American Stadium in City Park. Playing in the Southeastern Conference of the National Premier Soccer League, the Jesters, led by Coach Farrell, who is also on the NPSL’s executive board and leads its scouting combine program, have been instilling a footballing tradition in the city since 2009, and gradually they are creating a two-pronged approach of developing home-grown talent both professionally and on the amateur level.

The Jesters have brought along youth soccer, including Under 10 (U10) and Under 20 (U20) teams in the traditional European football tradition, with great success. The U10s feature Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras and Easter camps, and elite and pre-elite programs, at the New Orleans Jesters Youth Academy in which local youth, boys and girls, are trained in all the soccer fundamentals. Such programs are important for the U.S.’s role in world soccer because youth development is the key to finding and training the best athletes in the world. The U20s also have shown remarkable success, and altogether the development of local soccer has continued apace as demonstrated by the fact that Jesters star goalkeeper from last season, Andrew Tarbell, from Mandeville, was just drafted eighth overall in the first round by Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes.

Tarbell first played with the Jesters as a 16-year-old and went on to all-conference status at NCAA national championship runner-up Clemson University. His achievement harkens back to another local star, Patrick Mullins, formerly of Jesuit, who also played for the Jesters and eventually climbed all the way to the MSL. The emergence of Tarbell, and before him, Mullins, is indicative of the goals that Farrell has set out in the past to build a team largely around local talent. This year is no exception as the Jesters will hold their yearly open tryouts for roster spots on the team. While obviously the team cannot succeed entirely with locals, Farrell has also strived year after year to infuse the roster with a good mix of veteran leadership from around the globe.

The Jesters enter 2016 in a rebuilding phase after a difficult season in 2015, in which the various components of the team seemed to play well in all phases of the game yet came up short on the scoreboard repeatedly.

Farrell’s teams are typically cerebral, focused on good midfield play, with players who are creative, quick and forward thinking. However, while the Jesters frequently moved the ball up the field well and created chances, they did not finish those opportunities in most games. Scoring was rare last year with only nine goals in 10 league games. Thus, despite having strong goalkeeping and backfield play, which led to a very good transition game, the team sometimes lacked a killer instinct, which would allow excellent scoring opportunities to lapse. There is no doubt that a good bit of that had to do with the youth of the squad and some sincerely poor fortune, but in order to improve this season, the Jesters will have to find a way to show better concentration and consistency for 90 minutes and take advantage of their chances at goal by simply finishing on their opportunities. However, as much as the team will need to improve on the field, it will also seek to boost its attendance on the side of the field in order to develop a real home pitch advantage.

The schedule is a familiar one stocked with home and away contests with Southeast Conference foes from Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Shreveport and Birmingham, but Nashville FC in particular has given the Jesters some very competitive matchups in the past. Yet Nashville also serves as an example of a team that has shown the ability to draw crowds of upwards of 2,000 spectators — something the Jesters surely strive for. No doubt finishing closer to their 2014 season — in which they went 6-2-2, and finished second and made an appearance in the conference finals — will certainly help.
New Orleans’ status as a center of the national sports industry once had an awaiting niche in soccer, which at one time badly needed filling. Coach Farrell has been a fixture here since at least 2003, when he brought his experience from having played in the Irish Premier League, and he has infused it and himself into the local sports scene by founding the city’s first pro soccer team. Since that time, he has endured the growing pains of leading an expansion franchise in what for the city was a brand new sport; the traumas of an epic natural disaster; and then a franchise rebranding to become a regional leader in the sport’s amateur and professional development.