The game of soccer keeps being stated as being somewhat "new" in the United States, and many ask, especially every four years when the World Cup comes around, "Do you think soccer will really catch on now?"
Some argue as to when soccer, or football as it's known in the rest of the world, really came to the United States. Per Wikipedia, the beginnings date as far back as the 1850s with the first match however that followed FA rules was "between Princeton University and Rutgers University on November 6, 1869, which was won by Rutgers 6-4." The highest professional level of soccer in this country, the Major League Soccer (MLS) began in 1996 with only 10 teams. Many of us played as kids however whether it was in our backyards, on the school playgrounds or for a local or travel team. Now, the majority of today's youth play soccer at least at some point in their childhood.
The talent of the players, the competition of the game, the atmosphere it provides and the bringing together of a community has kept soccer around and is why we now have so many communities in Michigan hoping to get involved in their own backyards as well.
A few of those are AFC Ann Arbor, Oakland United and Grand Rapids FC who recently created teams within Michigan and were hoping to be a part of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) for the upcoming 2015 season. The teams each tried to raise the funds necessary within their communities through local businesses, donations and campaigns to be able to get into the league. Oakland United ended up not being able to be considered, and while AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC got into the review process with the NPSL, both were declined. There was some talk and efforts from Kalamazoo to have a team as well but the process was not completed.
The teams that Michigan currently has with the National Premier League in the Midwest Region and the Great Lakes West Conference are Detroit City FC, Lansing United and Michigan Stars FC.
The NPSL is the 4th tier soccer league in the United States comprised of over 80 teams around the country and made up of 4 regions with each having multiple conferences. They are sanctioned by United State Soccer Federation (USSF), are the largest national soccer league in US soccer development and operate and manage as a team-run league. The league is a successor to the men's premier soccer league (MPSL) and the levels above it in the country are the Professional Development League (PDL) (Michigan Bucks), the Unites Soccer League (USL) which is the first step in the pro level and the Major League Soccer (MLS) which is the top professional level.
Last year alone, there were 30 teams added to the NPSL without much financial review into their funds and backing and about the management for the teams. The league a few teams last year that were unable to keep up with the demands financially and even watched a team like Pensacola City FC fold mid-season. Internally fighting among owners and players ensued and other NPSL teams saw the closing as embarrassing. Now, the league looks into the amount of capital each team has in its reserves.
NPSL Chairman Joe Barone, who is from Brooklyn Italians SC, is proud of the way the NPSL is run and how they have made adjustments to make sure potential teams have their applications filled out thoroughly and have their finances in order and at the end of the process, "this is a league where the members vote and each team gets a vote" stated Barone.
"The NPSL received many applications from teams in Michigan but only 2 were considered by the Executive Board," Barone explains and further states "the process for the 2015 season was the collection of data reviewed by the committee which was then passed onto the Executive Board who would also review the financial side." At this point is when, AFC Ann Arbor owner Jamey Amrine explains that they "spoke with the board, who decided to say no."
The process of selection was further explained by Barone "Once passed by the Board, there would be a conference call with the ownership group. The conference and the vote at that time is then the ultimate decider."
The financial requirements, despite impressive efforts in the amount of time both AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC had in collecting and receiving donations, sponsors and funds, there was still not enough for the league to feel confident in approving applications and voting in the teams for the 2015 season.
Amrine, along with AFC Ann Arbor Head Coach Dave Hebestreit, the University of Michigan men's club soccer coach and former 2013 NPSL Michigan Stars coach, decided to continue to form, train and development this team. Coach Hebestreit explains, "We have a lot of loyalty from our players who have already committed and those who are interested in doing so, they want to play and train for Ann Arbor." He goes on to say, "there is a collective consciousness here in Ann Arbor for this team."
Amrine discusses what their new direction is for the team in 2015 now that plans have changed with the NPSL, "We have regional league hopes but it may be in the form of exhibition friendlies with other teams that also applied for NPSL and maybe with some that are a few hours drive of the Great Lakes area." As far as trying again for the league the following year, they are open ended on that for now. He continues stating that "Our sponsors are local businesses that give support and are staying as of today and so far everyone is supportive."
Herebstreit is currently working hard on preparing his team to compete in the men's annual Christmas tournament this month which is held at Winstar in Pontiac. Coach is anxious to have his group of players be able to compete against other teams in the spring and summer that will be at the same level of play as them since they too had aspirations of NPSL and also for other possible teams that will be just as competitive.
Coach says that "We would have loved getting into the NPSL, but in the long run, it might end up being a much better option, with that better option being a new independent league that would allow them to proceed as they agree upon amongst themselves rather than under the constraints of the NPSL, especially in areas such as the US Open Cup where only a few teams are able to participate."
One of the Grand Rapids FC owners, Matt Roberts, who is also a coach at GR Crew Juniors also wants to continue and move forward explaining that "We are currently looking into a few options as to how to grow the game here in Grand Rapids and the Midwest. We have been in contact with other clubs around Michigan who were not accepted by the NPSL about starting a grassroots men's league so that more communities can experience live football. We have not made any decisions as to what we will ultimately do but in speaking with our members the overwhelming response has been positive as they want to have a team in the city that they can support. "
"If we do start a team in 2015", continued Roberts, "we will attempt to set up friendlies with the current NPSL teams as well."
Most teams within the NPSL league have found great success with fan base, competition and potential for current players to move up in the soccer development tier. Many teams would like to emulate the success of some NPSL teams including that of DCFC and Lansing United. DCFC with their record of talent and excellence standings under Head Coach Ben Pirmann as well as their loved, copied and hated, just as soccer supporter groups should be, fan base, the Northern Guard Supporters (NGS). Lansing United came out strong as well and in just their first year won the Conference title under Head Coach Eric Rudland when they ended the season with just one more point that DCFC with the support of the Sons of Ransom fans.
An exciting new facet of the NPSL is now the creation of a professional combine for players that has been established this year which will take place January 9-12, 2015 in Fort Lauderdale Florida and be hosted by Broward Community College. The combine will consist of 18 representatives from each region which were nominated by coaches and selected by the designated NPSL chairmen. The players were then notified by November 26, 2014 of their nomination and have until December 8th to accept or decline. If any decline, then those chosen as alternates will then be notified of their invite.
Chairman Barone feels that this "scouting system figures out a way for the players to be seen and for the NPSL to be recognized as to who we are". He goes on to explain that the NPSL has a "very unique business model and that they have a goal of trying to get at least 1 player into the professional level from this initial combine".
"We have very talented players in our conference and I feel that we are able to put quality players in any of the pro leagues in the United States" proudly stated Barone, continuing, "The league has done their due diligence, all professional coaches have been invited while at the MLS conference to the combine."
The NPSL Chairman explains that "we have a great relationship with the Commissioner Bill Peterson of the North American Soccer League and we have had communication with him during our annual AGM meeting and also at the soccer bowl final in San Antonio." "Not only are all of the MLS teams aware, but there has also been numerous conversations with MLS officials and coaches about the combine."
The 4th tier National Premier Soccer League must be doing something right with such a growth in just a few years of national competition since 2011. They have also already had a few players go on to USL and MLS professional contracts just from exposure from the NPSL games alone. Now with the combine, there will be even more of a chance to display their talent. This league has solidified its place in United States soccer and expects to be a prominent stage where the youth in America will seek to play and where they can also have the chance to move onto the next level.
Most in the NPSL, the owners, players and supporters, will tell you however that their league is the place to be. Where else can you showcase your talent, in front of your family and friends while the fans can also feel like a part of the team while sitting within feet of the pitch during the match and sharing in the excitement shoulder to shoulder with the players at your local pub.
The loyalty, appreciation, desire, talent, home town pride and love for the game within the NPSL is why so many want to be a part of it, be just like it or work to compete against it.
The NPSL in Michigan is in YOUR backyard. Support your teams, help them to grow and get to a game and have fun. It is an experience like no other and it's here to stay.
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