As the inaugural version of The Soccer Tournament prepares to kick off in Cary this week, dozens of players from World Cup champions to European league veterans to MLS professionals will be vying for the winner-take-all $1 million purse.
And right there with them will be former Wilson resident Jamil Gracia. The 2016 Fike High graduate who played at UNC Wilmington after starring for the Golden Demons is on one of the 32 teams in the field – Raleigh Rebels FC, a group of mostly former North Carolina collegiate players who have been participating in the pay-to-play soccer events for the past several years – for the 7v7 tournament.
“We started pulling strings together, put in an application and it’s just crazy that we’re one of the top 32 teams in the world who gets to compete in this inaugural event, which is wild,” Gracia, now an account executive for a technology company in Raleigh.
The Soccer Tournament is a creation of the producers of highly successful The Basketball Tournament, a 3-on-3, made-for-TV summer sports hit since it debuted in 2014. Former Greenfield School star Aaron Rountree III, a Wake Forest and Iona alumnus, played in two TBT events after his college basketball career ended. The success of TBT, which counts NBA star and Winston-Salem native Chris Paul as one of its owners, led it to starting a soccer tournament under the same premise – stripped down teams battle it out for a big purse in a sort of soccer version of “Cannonball Run,” in which famous players and celebrities along with everyday folks compete against each other for a nice cash prize.
It’s got a similar quirk to TBT’s Elam ending in the Target Score Time, which is tacked on after two 20-minute halves. The target score is one goal more than the team in the lead has, which means the games will always end with a goal.
Gracia said the event was tailor-made for the Rebels, who have been playing in whatever cash tourneys for which they could scrounge up the entry fees. The Soccer Tournament buy-in is $20,000 per team, which Gracia said came from a few different sponsors.
“We ended up with a really solid group and, like most of the guys, we all knew each other,’ said Gracia, who was an all-state forward as a junior at Fike in 2014. “When you get to the higher levels of soccer, the world is really small. So we know all the top players in North Carolina, so we just started teaming together by making our own teams. That was probably two or three years ago when I graduated, and now we play together every weekend in all these paid leagues. I’m just making extra money on the weekends. And then when they announced this tournament in September, that was happening Cary, we were like, ‘Oh no, we have to be a part of it! It’s in our backyard!’”
The event is sponsored by the Town of Cary with the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance pitching in to help bring this national event to the Triangle. WakeMed Soccer Complex, which has hosted numerous NCAA championships, will be the site of all the games, from pool play to the million-dollar final Sunday, June 4.
“The Soccer Tournament is one of the most unique sporting events ever hosted in the Triangle region,” said GRSA executive director Scott Dupree, a 1982 Hunt High graduate who credited his staff for pulling off the legwork for TST. “It’s going to be fantastic 7-on-7 soccer, of course, in a fan-friendly format, but it’s also going to be surrounded by tremendous marketing and social media interest. It’s getting a ton of attention in the days leading up to the event. Tickets are going fast and the anticipation is incredible. This is tremendous opportunity for Cary and WakeMed Soccer Park in terms of national and even international exposure, and also in regards to branding and publicity … helping to further establish Cary as the premier soccer destination in the U.S.”
Gracia said that he believes The Soccer Tournament could be an even bigger draw around the world than The Basketball Tournament.
“I think how this is a little bit different from The Basketball Tournament is that just because of the nature of the sport of soccer, this one’s literally got teams from all over the world,” he said. “I mean, there’s a team from Israel coming, teams from Mexico; whereas, The Basketball Tournament they do have some European guys who enter, but I think it’s mostly United States players. Also the fact that this is at WakeMed, you see WakeMed now really become ingrained in kind of the US Soccer culture. You’re having big events there. U.S. Soccer is looking at making WakeMed one of their headquarters. So it really just speaks to the growth of soccer, not only in the country, but really in this area too.”
Gracia rattled off the names of such international players as Cesc Fabregas, a member of Spain’s World Cup champion in 2010, and Brazilian star Luis Gustavo as well as actor Ryan Reynold, who is sponsoring a team. The U.S. Women’s National Team is putting in an entry as well as teams backed by Premier League clubs West Ham United and Wolves FC. The Raleigh Rebels are in the group with the host club, North Carolina Football Club (NCFC), Charlotte FC and Duke Sevens, a club of former Blue Devils players.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got a group of guys who like to compete and guys who just never stopped competing,” Gracia said. “So, we all have day jobs now, but we just never stopped playing because we all love it. We loved growing up, we still love it. I don’t know, I guess that’s really the difference. We’ve been doing this for a while and every team there has been doing it, right? You look at every roster. These are all people who are past their playing careers. Some of them are even still in their professional careers but just never stopped playing and when you hear a million dollars, they’re gonna jump at the opportunity to play. That’s just the fact of the matter. I mean, that’s really it. We’ve just got a bunch of guys who are hungry. We’ve been at it three times a week for the last month and a half.”
Gracia grew up playing the sport in Wilson and then at Fike where he was named to the North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association 3-A all-state team as a high-scoring forward after his junior year in 2014. But that would be his last as he played for Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) RailHawks Academy team as a senior, forgoing high school soccer. Gracia signed with UNC Wilmington and flourished in the Port City.
“UNCW was great for me,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get in as a freshman, play right away, started all four years on the back line, usually as a right back. So I played right back all four years at UNCW and it was great. Got to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, won a conference championship, played in almost every game, almost every minute of my college career. So I couldn’t have asked for much more, got a job straight out of college, been working so Wilmington was great. It was great for me, from a soccer aspect from a social aspect. I wouldn’t take any of that time back and I still get back as much as possible.”
But this week Gracia’s business will be in Cary and he continues to chase that dream of playing soccer and getting paid.
“I mean, it’s a dream come true, really,” he said. “This is what you still play for. It’s kind of the reason I’ve never pumped up the boots or why I keep making forays out of retirement to do stuff like this.”