Maryland Bobcats FC president-owner Jide Saba and co-owners Peter Mwanti, Sam Oluleye and Ankur Patel met one another 15 years ago at UMBC.
The four UMBC grads are now the owners of Maryland’s only professional men’s outdoor soccer club, which participates in the third tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid in the National Independent Soccer Association. They are the first men’s soccer team to call the state home since Crystal Palace Baltimore dissolved in 2010.
Saba graduated from UMBC in 2009, and Mwanti, Oluleye and Patel each graduated in 2010. Their idea came to fruition in 2009, when they created a program mostly composed of Black and other minority players, and decided to have the team play in amateur competitions.
“We played on Sundays in the Maryland Major Soccer League and we’ve gone through several name changes before we got to the Bobcats,” Saba said. “One thing that we realized is that we wanted to create something — not being biased in any way, shape or form. That’s why our motto is ’For All.’ We wanted to create a situation where everyone could feel comfortable to play in and we’re also able to put our brothers on the platform as well.
“Because it’s an open system for everyone, we felt the need for our minority brothers to have a platform to showcase their talents and if they really work hard, they can be shown on a higher standard or a higher stage.”
The importance of building an opportunity for minority players, coaches and staff members has been central to the team’s rise. Nine of the team’s 10 front office members are people of color, and both coaches are Black.
In a time when representation of Black people has come to the forefront of the public discourse, Saba wants his program to be a source of pride and promotion for athletes and other involved parties who share that background.
“It’s a big deal for us because what we’ve noticed over the years — I mean to be politically correct — most of our top Black or minority players go to play for these top-notch clubs, but when they put their names on the map, they’re nowhere to be seen on any platform at all,” Saba said. “You don’t even hear about them. So, we wanted to showcase that Black and minority people can come together and come together and create something that is just as powerful and just as talented, if they’re given that opportunity and platform.”
The team kneeled in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against the New York Cosmos on Aug. 12. Each player raised a fist to show unity before the game, strength and support for the families and Black Americans who have been victims of police brutality.
A local, family-like culture is important to Saba. That culture has attracted McDaniel College graduates Calvin Benevento, 27, and David Motok, 27, who root for the team and hold a bond with one of its players.
“[I] basically was hoping to find a local lower-division team and maybe watch their rise to the bigs — Motok just likes jerseys,” Benevento said with a chuckle. “I was also [pretty hyped] when I learned that Richard Forka, who played at McDaniel, was on the squad. So, [it was] another cool connection.”
The uniforms drew Motok because of their golden colors and the bobcat slash marks across the chest. Maryland Bobcats FC sports a black-and-gold color scheme similar to the alma mater of its ownership group.
“Nah, I do like jerseys, but also like Calvin said — the fact that Rich is on the team, and it’s someone I went to school with,” Motok said. “Someone I watched play in college. It’s really neat. Plus having a local team to go watch is really cool.”
The club played under the name World Class Premier Elite in 2010 and was based in Montgomery County, with two men’s amateur teams and a private academy to train youth players.
WCPE became Maryland Bobcats FC in 2016, before joining the amateur United Premier Soccer League in 2018.
The club switched to the fourth-tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid National Premier Soccer League last September and was set to play in the Mid-Atlantic Division against in-state rival FC Baltimore Christos before the coronavirus pandemic forced the season to be canceled.
The Bobcats won the region, finishing 1-0-2 with five points.
“The Independent Cup was supposed to be our first foray into playing against the pro teams,” said Evan Raimist, the general manager and director of operations. “We’ve been working with NISA in a non-Independent Cup way, joining the league prior to the month [of August].
“This was definitely not a quick process, and there [was] a lot of behind-the-scenes [work] both from the league and our club to make sure that this was the right time for us as a club. Then, making sure what we wanted from our club and what we wanted to do with soccer lined up with the goals of the league.”
The type of soccer that is presented in NISA is ideal for the club. There are no territory rights, such as the ones in Major League Soccer, and no franchises, and the youth programs are run similarly to those in the South American and European leagues. The Bobcats also have an amateur side that continues to play in UPSL.
Their reserve teams will play in the UPSL and Eastern Premier Soccer League during Spring 2021. The Bobcats have practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week. The program’s move to NISA will be complete in the fall of 2021.