It is so much more than a tagline, a slogan, or a hashtag to those of us in Western New York who have been clamoring to be able to root for a local football team. “Believe Impossible” stands for what we are and what we are capable of doing. Football in Rochester is back, which is something that we did not know if we would ever again see.
When news rang out that a professional Rochester soccer club was back under a new name, badge, and ownership group, athletes from all over the world wanted to be a part of the project and help rebuild the reputation of Rochester soccer. It helps too that the ownership group included Mr. Jamie Vardy, a world-renowned striker with a natural instinct for the back of the net.
Seven hundred miles away, in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was a young Canadian striker who was creating a name for himself who would eventually become the first signing of this new era: Preston Popp.
Popp had an excellent college campaign, and came out of the Covid lockdown with something to prove almost every game. Touting back-to-back Golden Boots for his conference in the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, he went on to be selected to be a part of the 2022 MLS Draft.
“I feel like Charlotte was a good place for me to develop before starting my professional career,” Popp said. “We had a very serious culture. If you aren’t familiar with college soccer, the season is very short and games come about every three days so. It is easy to let a season get away from you if you aren’t performing. So when it’s time for the season, you have to be ready physically and mentally to not let it slip by. Oddly enough, I think that will help me throughout my career because it taught me that there is no time to waste once the season starts.”
“I had like a decent freshman year at Charlotte: I made All-Freshman and All-Region teams, but of course I wanted to be more than that, better than that. My sophomore year I got injured early on in the season and that put me in kind of a funk and I really didn't score too many goals. I felt like the pressure was on after my sophomore year, with two seasons left I needed to finish out my college career on a high. Once Covid hit, I was really working super hard, hitting the fields every day and just working out things and getting better at certain things. Our season started in the spring, not in the fall, and I just kinda took off from there. I was scoring every game it felt like in the shortened season.”
Preston went on to add that the quick turnaround into the 2021 season helped him keep up his excellent league performances: “Right away we had another season and I kept my form. I got named an All-American and got another Golden Boot.”
Once Preston had caught wind of what would soon be known as RNYFC, his interest was piqued and he was quite curious to see what the team had in store.
“My season ended in Charlotte, and Rochester was one of the first clubs to contact my agent,” Popp said. “When they first contacted me, they knew I was in the draft so they poked their head in saying ‘We’re really interested, but we know you have other opportunities, fingers crossed you don't get drafted!’ My agent told me about the offer and the coach was coming from Nottingham Forest and Vardy was going to be the owner, so it definitely sparked my interest right away.”
Popp did not hear his name called on draft night, but he didn't let that diminish his spirits.
“The other teams? Personally, I can't wait to play any of them” Popp said. “They all could have drafted me and they didn’t. That was one of the reasons I came here instead of an MLS II team, their first team didn't want me. I want to play them and I want to beat them.”
Preston was eager to discuss the impact of the welcome he has already felt from the staff and his teammates upon his arrival
“It is definitely different,” Popp said “I have been to a couple different places to play prior to college. It’s nothing new to me to be moving around by myself and adjusting to a new place. Here was a little different because I came into it having surgery before the season so it felt good to just finally get here.
“Of course, I feel really blessed for this opportunity thanks to Lee, the coaching staff and the owners, for believing in me even though I had to get that minor surgery. It’s pretty good to know everyone believes in me and they trust in me to recover.”
When asked about what his reception was like with his teammates, Popp happily lit up, describing the first few weeks he has experienced with the men he will share the pitch with throughout this season
“I got here when only a couple guys had been here, just adjusting to my rehab, meeting the guys really helped ease my transition onto the pitch,” Popp said. “I was already hanging out with the guys, so when it came to being on the field it felt natural.”
Talking about his first impressions and experiences with this brand new city, Popp was excited to see what Rochester the city had to offer just as much as Rochester the team.
“We’ve hit Neno’s a couple times,” Popp said. “The guys like to go to Ninos. Just us being back: it's nice to see our fans home and away. It's super cool to be a part of something new here in Rochester- a reboot but also something new. Just being in the new league and being the only independent team, we have the extra edge on everyone else; we get a lot of attention.”
Popp was happy to note how the reception the fans had given him specifically made the move become that much easier.
“As soon as I signed, I got a bunch of messages from fans and people in the community,” Popp said “In the games we’ve played the fans have shown up to every game no matter how far it is. It really means something that they care that much and wanna be there to support us. Of course, we wanna play well for them and that means a lot to us too. I even have a chant! That was really cool, the first time I’ve ever heard something like that.”
Preston wanted to stress that he and his team were ready for whatever the season may throw at them and they were up for any challenge.
“Of course we wanna win it all, but for right now, we just take it game by game,” Popp said. “We won our first open cup game and our first league game. I think everyone’s goal here is to win it all. I know it's a big ask with it being our first season, but I think everyone here believes we can do it. I think we can make the playoffs and make a run there and make a run in the Open Cup. As long as we’re giving it our all I think we’ll end up happy with the result. The motto is ‘Believe Impossible’ for a reason.”
He went on to further stress the importance of the Open Cup, noting Rochester’s place in the history books as the only non-MLS team to ever win the trophy back in the ‘99 season
“That win is what kind of built our whole story,” Popp said. “I think the Open Cup is a little extra special when we play in it due to our history. It’s also just a cool experience in general for a lot of us guys, playing knockout games and getting used to that early in the season.”
As the season progresses and Preston Popp continues his healing process, Rochester New York Football Club will be creating their own chapter in the storied history books of football in Western New York. The former Golden Boot winner hopes to etch his name in those same books and add on to his own legacy, citing in his first time addressing the fans that he and the team share the same goals and ambitions and both couldn't be hungrier.