AFC Ann Arbor's Surprising Move to USL League Two

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The news took everyone a little off-guard, but, in retrospect, considering the way this year has been, maybe we should have seen it coming. AFC Ann Arbor, formerly of the NPSL, is headed to USL League 2 in 2020. The club, originally founded in 2015, began its existence in the Great Lakes Premier League. In 2016, AFCAA jumped the NPSL and has been a fixture in the Great Lakes Division, finishing either first or second in the division every season. We reached out to club chairperson, Bilal Saeed, to discuss the move and his responses were surprising and insightful.

For Bilal, the move shouldn’t be seen as surprising because grassroots soccer in a constant state of flux. “One thing I always tell people who aren’t familiar with lower league soccer, whatever you’re thinking about one season can change next season. It’s so fluid. It’s ever-evolving at a rapid rate. You’ve got to stay on top of it and we were looking for whatever the best option is for our club and it’s something we’ve always looked at, because of what the USL has to offer in terms of opportunity for pushing players on. We’ve become a player centric club who likes to create opportunities for our guys. We started exploring it a couple years ago, but the timing was right now. And it just all came together... In general, we’re always trying to make sure our club is in the best position to be around as long as possible, to have a sustainable platform.”

But why the USL over the other options for the club. The decision was all about the players. “It comes down to opportunity for the players. The USL has quite a reputation as being a path for players to push on and open some doors. It’s going to open even more doors for our players and we’ve been attracting the kind of players who have the ability to step up and actually have an opportunity to step into their next gig which is hopefully a professional contract.” While that contract and being a pro is what every player wants, Saeed doesn’t feel his club is ready for that move as an organization. “We’re not in a position yet where we could explore being a professional club, we’re still trying to operate in the same time frame, and in that regard there’s not a lot of change, timing of the season, resources to run a club.”

But Ann Arbor’s exit, synced with so many other exits by other big name clubs in the division sparks the idea that there must be a root problem for the NPSL or the Great Lakes Division specifically. That view isn’t correct, at least from Saeed’s perspective. “I don’t think it all happened completely in one off-season. I mean, Grand Rapids is still around. Lansing made a move previously, two years ago. There was a time we had even more teams. Like I said, it changes every year, I think the only thing that’s becoming very apparent this year, with this new division three, with NISA, that’s obviously a platform that Detroit had been looking for for a long time and it seems to fit their model. I think Stars are the surprising one, for sure. But I think Michigan is an interesting state, we’ve got so many clubs that are not only active, but have different DNA and different goals, but still do a lot on a bigger scale. So it’s pretty impressive to see what our state has going on as a whole. All the clubs are just trying to find the best platform for their identity. I think with the way things are going it was more like coincidence, just because of timing. What’s not a coincidence, every year, call it a off-season, things are changing rapidly, things are so fluid. To me, having been in the lower league landscape for quite a while now, it’s not surprising.”

And while some might point to last season’s strange exit from the playoffs (the coin flip match) as sparking this move, DCFC’s exit from the league, or the general changes in the NPSL, Bilal is quick to point out that that isn’t the case. Joining a big entity like the USL takes time and effort, so maybe just chalk the timing up to serendipity? “I think the NPSL has been looking for a change in their identity, and it’s been interesting to see how that’s all unfolded. Quite honestly, we weren’t really reacting to that, we had begun working on these changes way before that. But I do think, regardless, whatever they are offering with their extended season, it’s not something that would fit our club. So I think we’ve actually ended up in the right scenario here.”

- Dan Vaughn