Knoxville fans can’t get enough of the newly pro One Knox SC
In a 1-0 game against the Central Valley Fuego of Fresno, California, center back Dani “the Bull” Fernandez makes a big defensive play. To the tune of The Addams Family theme (with Super Scruff Kevin Carnes beating the bass drum), the fans known as the Scruffs in the supporters’ section chants, “Dani the Bull [boom boom] Dani the Bull [boom boom] Dani the Bull, Dani the Bull, Dani the Bull [boom boom].”
“Dani El Toro FerNANdez!” rapid-fires announcer Brian Canever, who delights in tapping his Argentinian heritage on Latino names like that of Fernandez, defensive midfielder Angelo “An-helo!” Kelly-Rosales, and his own, “CAN-eh-verr.”
When the exuberant El Toro scores a goal, he delights the crowd by sweeping an imaginary red cloth like a matador. In One Knox’s first pro season in United Soccer League (USL) League One, it’s been more defense and less goal-scoring than last year in amateur League Two, but the fans are all in.
“We have season tickets,” says City Council member Lynne Fugate. “I just like it,” says her husband, Scott. “I played in ship-to-ship rec leagues in the Navy. I once played for a British Club in Islamabad, Pakistan, the week before Osama Bin Laden was killed.” The Fugates’s kids grew up playing for the KFC Alliance. “We just want to support the club and make it be successful,” says Lynne. “On the political side, voting for the millions for the multi-use stadium. Well, this team is going to use it.”
Near the end of the first half the Fuego keeper taps midfielder Jimmy Villalobos’s strong shot over the bar. To the tune of “We Aren’t Going to Take It,” the Scruffs chant, “Glo-ry to One Knoxville. Go! Go, One Knoxville. Glory to One Knoxville. Here we go-o.” Sahalie Mann, 13, beats a black Djembe drum. She plays for Bearden Middle and the Crush A team, where her coach is right back Jimmy “Jamesie” Thomas, 25, a Cockney-accented native of Surrey, England. Some eight or 10 of Jamesie’s teammates coach youth teams.
With its nonprofit One Knox Collective, youth teams, USL academy, and 108 adult rec teams, One Knox Sporting Club is all about community involvement. That resonates with expectant parents Yona and Matthew Best. She is a nurse. He is a former UT decathlete who is addressing community needs as executive director of the Change Center and as a City Council candidate. “Liverpool has been my team since 2007,” says Matt, a Memphis native. “I had two older cousins who played high school in Kansas City. They like Arsenal and Chelsea, but I chose Liverpool. I watch the games on ESPN.”
Veteran center forward Jake Keegan drives and shoots. The Scruffs put out green smoke and sing, to the tune of “High on a Feelin’,” “I-I-I. I’m hooked on Jake Keegan, high on believing . . . that he will score for me.”
One Knox Coach Mark McKeever grew up in Motherwell, Scotland, about 15 miles southeast of Glasgow. He retains his lilting “Aye, laddie” accent despite 25 years in the US. He played for Christian Brothers University in Memphis and the USL Nashville Metros, then coached from 2005 to 2022 at Young Harris College in Georgia, as well as the USL summer development league teams Mississippi Brilla and Des Moines Menace. One Knox is the realization of his lifelong goal of coaching in the pros. Before the season opener, podcaster Canever asked McKeever how it felt to be days away from achieving his dream. “I haven’t one day since preseason thought about myself,” McKeever replied. “This is not me and my dreams. This is about me helping the club, helping the players represent the city, represent the club. So, my thoughts have been with everybody else. I want the players to achieve. I want to excite the fans. I want to make the ownership proud. I want to make the city of Knoxville proud.”
How One Knox Came About
One Knox came about in part because of several thirtysomething women from Knoxville. Chicago native Drew McKenna, a third-generation Notre Damer with sports and entrepreneurialism in his blood, was working in Fighting Irish football operations when he met Knoxville native Maria Taylor, a Marriott International sales rep, through their mutual friend Marie Conaty. Drew and Maria married and had three kids.
In 2013, Drew had an idea with a friend for a dry-cleaning service—sort of an Uber for dirty clothes—picking up laundry from lockers in high-end residential buildings. By 2018, Pressbox had 100,000 customers and 150 employees in four cities. P&G bought it and renamed it Tide Cleaners. “After we sold Pressbox,” says McKenna, “we wanted to move to Knoxville. We started talking to friends socially about what sports existed in Knoxville—UT, minor league hockey, AA baseball. But it was one of only three top 65 markets that didn’t have a version of pro soccer. Chattanooga has two pro soccer teams.” Those friends included Nadim Jubran and Kevin O’Brien, husbands of Maria’s old friends Callie McCamy and Annie Taylor (no relation to Maria). Jubran and O’Brien became part of the ownership team. The McKennas moved in 2020, and One Knox launched its amateur season in 2021.
Names like Hellbenders, Salamanders, Sunspheres were thrown around, but the name One Knox reflected the commitment to being a ground-up community club. For imaging, they hired Nike branding guru Matt Wolff, who had created the LAFC Crest and the 2018 French national World Cup team logo. “He’s by far the best in American soccer in creating these from-scratch brands,” said McKenna on a podcast. “He came down for a hike on Sharp’s Ridge, could see the Smokies and absorbed the community culture. He said the biggest strength was the mountains, water, and nature. The sun (or a soccer ball) is an abstract element on the jersey that can be what the viewer wants it to be.”
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The Scruffs: No Hooliganism!
From the beginning, McKenna wanted a vibrant supporters’ group. The name Scruffs comes, of course, from the 1980 pre-World’s Fair Wall Street Journal article that condescendingly referred to the “scruffy little city,” a slur embraced thereafter and forever as a badge of honor. Dakota Booth of Johnson City founded the Scruffs. “I was the spark that started the fire,” he says. “But there was a lot of kindling.” You could say that Butch Jones made him a soccer fan. “At football games, I was one of the guys with my shirt off. But in 2017 I was tired of watching the Vols suck. What do I love? Pageantry. Tribalism. I found all that in soccer.” Last year Booth earned his degree from ETSU with a thesis on “Soccer as a Religion.”
Bearden High AP English teacher Tim Vacek and Pilot senior IT manager Kevin Carnes, (the one on the bass drum) are key Scrufftenants. Vacek wrote the Scruffs handbook, including the songs, and website. “I am a huge soccer fan,” he says. “My favorite team is Hotspur out of England because I am an English teacher and the name is rooted in Shakespeare.”
Carnes, who moved from Nashville two years ago, followed the familiar path of the soccer dad: he signed his son Justin up for U6 soccer and was drafted as the coach. “I became part of the sport,” he says, watching Justin play for Erin Academy and reffing for 10 years. When the Nashville Soccer Club came in, Carnes and his wife, Susan, got season tickets: “I saw the supporters, the Roadies, and I said, ‘We want to be a part of that.’” Carnes wrote the Scruffs’ code of conduct. “I plagiarized a part of it from the Nashville Roadies,” he admits. “We want to be a nice, welcoming group. People from out of town can come and hang out with us.” In other words: no hooliganism! Like Matt Best, he roots for Liverpool. He likes to watch games at the Jig & Reel Saturday mornings at 7:30.
The Punishment Wheel and Karaoke on the Bus
“It’s been a long journey,” said gaffer McKeever on the podcast. “We started in the beginning of February, creatin’ the culture, expectations, the training ground environment, and the locker room environment. We are building our identity on and off the ball.”
For infractions, there’s the punishment wheel—come late to practice and you spin. You may have to bake cookies for the team or gather the balls after practice. For team cohesion, McKeever favors karaoke on the bus and icebreakers. Norwegian 6’4” center forward Sebastian Andreassen’s karaoke songs are “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley and “Down” by Jay Sean. “I’m a horrible singer,” admits Andreassen, a country music fan who played for McKeever at Young Harris, with the Des Moines Menace, and in Knoxville last year. With his imposing physique and shoulder-length blond hair, he is called Thor by fans. Last fall two Scruffs drove to watch his college games with One Knox flags dressed in One Knox gear. “On the 23rd of December,” recalls Thor, “Mike called to offer me a contract. It was the best Christmas present I could ever have gotten.”
Three Tiers of Experience
“It was always our plan to make sure we have a good balance of various tiers within the group,” said McKeever on the podcast. “That higher tier would be the lads at the back end of their careers—like Angelo Kelly, Jake Keegan, and Illija Ilic—who have spent many years as pros and are providing their experience.”
Ilic, 32, a Serbian forward, played for Louisville City when it jumped to the pro level in 2015 and won USL titles in 2017-18. “One of the first things I noticed when I got here was there are lots of similarities to that Louisville City team,” he told Al Lesar of the News Sentinel. “The first time I spoke to the team, I pointed that out. We have a really, really good group of players, a coach that’s a leader, and an ownership group that cares.” A captain and assistant coach, Ilic hopes to become a coach.
“We also have many players who have played in the USL One league,” continued McKeever. “Derek Waldeck, Jimmy Villalobos, Jordan Skelton, and Jalen Crisler are very well accomplished players.
Skelton, a 26-year-old captain and center back from Newcastle, England, is one of the top defenders in the league. He was somewhat miffed at getting a “soft” yellow card against Fuego. About avoiding a second yellow, hence a red, he said, “You’ve got to be smart. If it’s an iffy moment, choose the safer option. On the yellow, you rein in the stallions, so to speak.”
Crisler, 28, a 6’4” center back from Everett, Washington, who looks a bit like Roy Kent from Ted Lasso, was an All-USL League One defender with the Richmond Kickers last year.
“Then we have our new tier of players,” said gaffer McKeever, “the One Knox guys like Dani the Bull and Seb Andreassen who have come to join us from USL Two. They are providing masses and masses of energy.”
Jamesie Thomas played for McKeever at Young Harris, the University of New Hampshire, and won a USL League Two title with the Des Moines Menace. Midfielder Yesin van der Pluijm, 24, a Netherlands native and another former Young Harris player, scored his first pro goal with a minute left in stoppage time for a 1-0 win over Central Valley in Fresno on April 30.
“So we have a really good balance,” concluded McKeever. “Everybody’s chasin’ something. Everybody’s teachin’ something. Everybody’s bringin’ something to the table. Everybody is playing a massive role.”