It is, as its frequent news releases note, “Asbury Park’s most storied sports franchise and New Jersey’s second-best football club.” What those announcements fail to note, however, is that it is also Asbury Park’s only sports franchise and one of only two professional men’s soccer teams in New Jersey.
The hints to the joke are everywhere in the marketing copy. The club was “founded in 2014,” according to the literature, yet is “best-known for a string of trophies and hit singles in the 1950s.” The club was built, it proudly declares, “around putting the performance art into the art of football.”
In fact, Asbury Park Football Club is a parody of a modern pro soccer team made flesh — or made cloth, to be precise. The entire operation is the residue of a long-running quip between the social media professional and soccer tastemaker Shawn Francis and his friend Ian Perkins, an English guitarist who plays with the rock band the Gaslight Anthem. When Perkins, a besotted soccer fan, moved to Asbury Park in 2013, he wondered on Twitter where the actual Park was so that he might find a pickup game. Francis, then a stranger, responded that soccer isn’t for playing anymore, only for consuming.
“And then it kind of just became this joke,” Francis said. “It’s Asbury Park. Park is in the name. But there’s not one place you could actually play soccer in this town. In New York, all these downtown creative kids have all these really cool teams. We’re like, ‘We should start a team!’ But there’s no place to play. ‘Well, screw it, what if we don’t actually ever play?’ And we had a good laugh.
“And then we said: ‘Hang on. There’s something there.’”
The gag got ever more elaborate, as Francis and Perkins created all the trappings of modern soccer, except for anything that resembled actually kicking a ball at a goal on a grass field. They made a logo featuring Tillie, a smiling face on a famous mural at a bar by the Asbury Park boardwalk and the city’s unofficial mascot. Through a contact, A.P.F.C. landed a jersey deal with Umbro, which made 100 jerseys that quickly sold out as word of the club spread organically through Francis and Perkins’s networks in the soccer and music industries.
Next, they put out a retro jersey with a “heritage logo” that “draws on our rich history of nonexistence,” Francis said with a chuckle. It depicts Morro Castle, a ship that caught fire and ran aground in the waters near Asbury Park in 1934. That jersey quickly sold out as well.
They found an architecture student in Sri Lanka on the internet, who, for $50, mocked up computer renderings of a small soccer stadium atop the city’s famous waterfront Convention Hall. Several news outlets picked up the story and reported it seriously.
More recently, a faux news release announced the signing of Benjamin Geaux-Homme, who “has been on trial with the club since May 12.”
“Prior to his time with A.P.F.C.,” the statement went on, “he was on trial with the State of New York. Those charges have since been dropped.”
The nonplayer’s name was a nod to a local Asbury saying, “Benny go home,” aimed at the out-of-towners — “bennies,” in the parlance — who flood its beaches each summer. But six days later, the club abruptly tweeted that it had released him amid what it said were reports of “a bust-up” with fan club members outside a bar.
From the start, the team had blended earnestness with foolishness. Anyone who followed the Twitter account got an “official membership card” for the pretend supporters’ club. After the first night, there were 600 card-carrying A.P.F.C. fans. A man in England has gotten a tattoo of the logo on his forearm.
The club has accidentally plugged into a local pride that had gone unrepresented, as most New Jersey-based sports teams brand themselves as being from New York instead.
“If you’re a soccer fan in New Jersey, this is your team,” Francis said. “It’s not real, but who cares?”
Yet before anything else, A.P.F.C. is a parody of what soccer has become, created by two lifelong fans. In a nod to the Against Modern Football movement, a loosely affiliated band of soccer purists who lament the globalization and growing commercialization of the game, A.P.F.C.’s social bios boldly declare it to be “For Modern Football.”
“This whole thing, this little joke, is a sendup of modern football and how absurd it is,” Francis said. “Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. It’s there and it’s not going anywhere.”
Perkins said: “We love it as much as we hate it. It’s just a part of the game. If you didn’t like that, you couldn’t like football right now.”
So if they ever fielded an actual team, it would, of course, need some modern football spin. “We have an idea,” Francis said. “What if we actually played a game, but it was a closed-door intrasquad scrimmage?
“But, again, where could we play it?”
Yet their imitation of a soccer club is so uncanny — Francis once ran Major League Soccer’s social media accounts, after all — that it is easily (and often) mistaken for the real article. Francis and Perkins are often informed that their fake jersey sponsor, Samesong, is spelled wrong. Prospective fans regularly reach out about where they can buy season tickets. Last month, Francis said, “someone hit me up if we do open tryouts.”
“What you don’t say, people fill in the blanks,” Perkins said. “You say, ‘Here’s the new kit.’ And in their minds, they think, Oh, cool. It’s a football team. And it’s just me and him. In his basement. Talking about not playing.”
Even some Umbro employees didn’t quite understand that they had signed a club that wasn’t a real club. “There was this panic in the London office,” Francis said. “We tricked the people that were paying for it.”
Still, A.P.F.C. remains more of a quirky hobby than a business, let alone a soccer club. Its founders say it doesn’t make a profit, and only recently stopped costing them money.
Revenue isn’t the point anyway. Rather, Francis said, their driver is “boredom in the winter at the Jersey Shore; there’s nothing to do.”
To spice things up, Francis and Perkins are toying with the idea of creating a fake rival club for neighboring Neptune City. All big clubs have a rival, after all. But for now, A.P.F.C. will remain, as one of its T-shirts reads: “Undefeated. Today. Tomorrow. Forever.”
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