Being as Cleveland as Possible
This is a story of what it’s like to create a soccer team out of thin air and get it ready to play competitively in 90 days. It involves Chipotle, four 43-foot high double-sided pylons carved out of sandstone, a popular new electrolyte-filled beer and a love for and devotion to the city of Cleveland that allowed this new club to be successful right from the start.
“We don’t do things easy here in Cleveland,” Cleveland SC defender Coletun Long said. “For us, it is always about doing it the hard way.”
Cleveland has a rich history when it comes to soccer. The Cleveland Stokers started it all with a single year in the North American Soccer League in the late 1960s before the Cleveland Stars/Cobras spent nine years in the American Soccer League, encompassing most of the 1970s. The Cleveland Force made its debut with the advent of the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1978. When the league changed to the National Professional Soccer League in 1989, Cleveland was right there with the Crunch. In fact, it was the Crunch that ended the city’s long championship drought, not LeBron’s Cavaliers. The Crunch won the NPSL in 1993-94 and added two more titles.
Other Cleveland soccer teams brought the city more titles. The Cleveland City Stars won the United Soccer League’s second division in 2008 and, as recently as 2016, AFC Cleveland won the National Professional Soccer League crown with a 4-2 victory over Sonoma County Sol.
Unfortunately, soccer success in Cleveland has eventually been accompanied by teams folding for one reason or another. It could involve the end of a whole league or, in AFC Cleveland’s case, having its “membership terminated because it was not in good financial standing with the league.” That quote came from a tweet by the NPSL’s official handle on December 12, 2017. Less than 18 months after hoisting the league’s trophy, AFC Cleveland would be no more.
That left the city without a team to root for.
“I love soccer and I did not want it to die here,” Long said. “I knew I would regret it if I did not at least try. I had to exhaust every resource. My teammate Chris Cvecko and I started having a conversation in the car and talked further in a Chipotle parking lot outside the city. We wrote down ideas and called teammates and others previously associated with AFC Cleveland.” One of those “others” ended up being Sam Seibert, who worked on AFC Cleveland’s media relations staff. A long-time resident of northeast Ohio and a Kent State grad, Seibert also could not abide by the loss of soccer at any level in Cleveland. “I was only about two or three days from contacting Coletun myself,” Seibert said. “I wanted to gauge his interest level in a new club and plans for the players. He contacted me on a Wednesday night and I was going to call him that weekend. Those two were so passionate about sticking together.”
Seibert worked with AFC Cleveland its final season in 2017 and got a good sense of the overall atmosphere and how the club itself worked. Combined with his professional business acumen outside the soccer arena, Seibert felt ready to take on the challenge of owning a new NPSL club in Cleveland. “When you play and work together, you cannot let a championship team die in Cleveland,” Seibert said. “These are talented guys and I am tired of seeing them leave. They need to be in Cleveland with their families. They need to have a business model for this success.” That confidence, combined with the determination of several AFC Cleveland veterans, led to the NPSL’s official announcement of the Cleveland SC club in February.
That was the easy part.
Seibert still had to secure professional partnerships, hire a coach, get a roster together, find a place to play, gain a social media footing, work with the local supporters and much, much more. “We first had to make sure that we were properly structured from a legal standpoint and we had many meetings in the first 30 days so that we knew what we were going to have,” Seibert said. “We had some great minds involved, including players and former players. The soccer community in Cleveland was fractured and we needed some unity to take place. Everything went lightning fast. It was a blur.”
Two weeks after the official team introductory announcement, the first domino fell. Cleveland SC announced that it would play its home games for the 2018 season on the campus of John Carroll University at Don Shula stadium. It is a great venue, located less than 10 miles from downtown, that holds more than 5,000. “We had to find a place to practice and a place to play pretty fast,” Seibert said. “I spoke with John Carroll coach Hector Marinaro, the former Crunch/Force standout, and Assistant AD Russell Houser. We came to terms in regard to the cost and availability.”
Vinny Bell, an All American at nearby Case Western University and the first player ever signed by AFC Cleveland, felt all this was business as usual. “At the level we play and the type of team we are, this whirlwind approach was nothing new to us,” said Bell, who scored twice in AFC Cleveland’s title victory over Sonoma. “We played in five stadiums in six years with AFC. This is a hectic league and it was hectic getting this together on such short notice, but that was just how we had to do it.” Bell was part of the initial group chat established by former AFC Cleveland players. Now that they had a stadium, who was going to be their coach?
When you’re a native of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, England and you play as a youth for Barnsley FC, you grow up either a fan of the Tykes, or the more illustrious club 20 minutes north, Leeds United. But Ryan Osborne always fancied himself a member of the Toon Army. “I am Newcastle all the way.” That seems appropriate, as Newcastle is that large English Premier League side in northeast England that fancies itself more of an intimate club, even though St. James’ Park holds more than 50,000. In that respect, Newcastle is a lot like Cleveland. Big, but accessible.
“Cleveland is a market that supports soccer, no matter the level,” Osborne said. “The big city helps attract players. It is a brilliant place to be.” Osborne helped the University of Charleston to four consecutive West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles, splitting his time between forward and attacking midfielder. He followed that up by playing one season with the West Virginia Chaos in the Premier Development League, helping lead the club to the final eight in 2014. During this time, Osborne was already whetting his coaching whistle. He started the first men’s program at University of Charleston-Beckley in 2014 and then served as an assistant at Marietta College for two years before joining the men’s soccer staff as both an assistant and recruiter at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio in 2016.
“I was in Cincinnati at a showcase and bumped into Declan McGivern, who had played with AFC Cleveland,” Osborne said. “He was looking to play with the new Cleveland club and I was told they thought I might be a good fit. To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive. I had seen how the owners were in the PDL and I also wanted to put my own stamp on the club. I wanted to make sure there were opportunities for new players as well. I called Sam up to see what he had to say.” Seibert met Osborne at a pub in East Cleveland and the two believed in each other right away. Osborne was officially announced on March 13th and he, Seibert and Seibert’s staff set out on putting together a roster. There was a one-day tryout, which took place over two two-hour sessions at Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst. Close to 60 tried out for the 21 roster spots. “My first impression of Ozzy? Why is he making me run so damned much,” said Bell with a laugh. “It was the longest preseason that I have had in my seven years. He got this team serious quickly and that was a big reason for our success.”
“Ryan and I met at the pub for about an hour and really hit it off,” Seibert said. “He is passionate and he knew how to connect with the players. That was big for us.”
“I always want to be directly tied to the city; this needs to be known as a city club,” Seibert said. “I want to be as Cleveland as possible.” That philosophy led to the development of several strong local relationships from the start. Seibert and his staff secured NovaCare Rehabilitation, Admiral Products (OTF manufacturer), the Old Angle Tavern and others as local, Cleveland-based partners for different club needs. They got Planet Fitness to sponsor the jerseys and they worked with two newer Cleveland staples to get heightened exposure. Cleveland Clothing Company, which prides itself on “spreading Cleveland pride, one t-shirt at a time,” according to its website, was founded in 2008 and now features five locations and a bustling online presence. Seibert worked with the company to get Cleveland SC merchandise out there, inspiring supporters and potential supporters to get excited about the club’s brand. “This merchandise platform really helped get brand out there in terms of exposure,” Osborne said. “You need to thank those companies for helping our club, which had less than three months of existence. It was huge.”
And then there was the beer.
Justin Carson, one of Platform Beer’s founders, has played soccer his entire life and grew up and avid fan of the Crunch and Force. He still competes at the Michael Zone Recreation Center on Lorain Avenue and tries to play three times a week between indoor and outdoor. Platform Beer has a location on Lorain Avenue as well. “I know how much soccer means to me and the impact it has had on my life, so when I read about this new club in The Plain Dealer, I was curious,” Carson said.
Cleveland SC signed a partnership deal with Platform Beer in May, and in late August, Carson and his colleagues released a beer devoted to the club. It’s called Orangeaid and Carson said it was a limited 30-barrel (300 cases) release. The beer, which sold out within the first week, was described by the Akron Beacon Journal as a “sour session brewed with fresh orange and electrolyte salts.”
That’s right… electrolytes.
“We were a bit apprehensive at first with the beer idea being a low-calorie electrolyte sour beer,” Carson said. “But it made sense developing something that goes hand-in-hand with soccer. You want something light. I did not know what to expect, but people loved it. We have a lemon lime version coming soon.” The can even has a Gatorade-look to it, but more importantly, it has Cleveland SC’s crest on it.
That crest features the “Guardians of Transportation,” four 43-foot tall pylons watching over both ends of the Hope Memorial Bridge, a 5,865-foot long viaduct over the Cuyahoga River that connects Lorain and Carnegie Avenues and serves as a major entrance into the heart of Cleveland. “The bridge is kind of an iconic thing. It is the passage into downtown. You can’t miss it,” Bell said. “It leads you right into the heart of Jacobs and the Q and West Side Market. I love the crest. It invokes nostalgia and the importance of connecting with each other.”
6TH CITY SYNDICATE
Osborne hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the importance of supporters.
“From England, you appreciate this at a younger age as a player. Fans are the lifeblood of a club,” Osborne said. “Those guys gave us energy when we needed it, and they are definitely a loud bunch.” Seibert was even more effusive in praise: “They (6th City Syndicate) was here from the beginning. They provided support through email and texts and they got the word out through social media,” Seibert said. “These are supporters who will live and die with you, and that helped a lot.”
The supporters’ group has been around for several years and was looking for someone to cheer on once AFC Cleveland folded. “There are a core group of us and we never got an official response as to why AFC Cleveland stopped being a club,” said RJ Pooch, one of the leaders of 6th City Syndicate. “As we were coming to grips with that, we knew the guys who played for AFC Cleveland would not quit. And then Sam got involved. In 90 days, they went from inception to kickoff. How do you not support that?” Pooch and his fellow supporters brought the drums and smoke and painted banners and made Shula Stadium their own.
“All of us are really different, but it does not matter. If you support Cleveland soccer, we are happy to have you. For me, it’s the only team I support. You don’t find your club; your club finds you. I’m here for anything NPSL. It is much more intimate here.”
Fellow supporter Jonathan Dale, who also serves as a capo (vocal leaders for songs and chants) for the Columbus Crew, agrees. “I have played and supported Cleveland soccer since I was 6-or-7. I love it,” Dale said. “I went to Force and Crunch games, but AFC Cleveland never really fit my schedule. Now, we have to keep doing what we are doing. RJ made tons of banners when the season first started. We know we have something special, so let’s make it as Cleveland as possible.”
Pooch, Dale and fellow supporter Ed Zelaski have been impressed with Seibert’s transparency and communication. “It is really helpful for us that we have an owner who wants this and is willing to work with us,” Zelaski said. “He knows the things that we like. Sam stepped up. It was really important and it just shows how big of a difference it can be when an owner who understands the market is there.”
Seibert had his team and a stadium to put them in, and supporters to rally behind them. He had his partnerships in place and a strong social media presence to get the word out about all of it.
Now, it was time to play. Cleveland SC was placed in the seven-team East Conference Division of the Midwest Region Conference. Fellow NPSL debutante FC Columbus was placed in the Great Lakes Conference Division. The two sides played friendlies in mid-April with both teams winning at home. They jokingly referred to it as the Grandpa’s Cheesebarn Derby, named after the cheese, smoked meats and candies business located almost perfectly between the two cities in Ashland, Ohio.
The regular season began on May 19th, 90 days since the club was officially announced as the last of 98 NPSL clubs to receive membership for the 2018 season. Cleveland SC blanked the Rochester Lancers, 2-0, and posted four straight clean sheets to open the season.
Everyone played a role in the team team’s early success.
“We had six interns this year and they did a hell of a job,” Seibert said. “Being exposed to minor league baseball, as I have, allows you to do it something like this. We need to fill spots, no matter what your job title is. My fiancé was doing the announcements at the first game. We had guys acting as a ball boy, taking stats, getting rain gear out. We all had to do a little bit of everything.”
After a three-game winless streak, Cleveland SC caught fire, winning four in a row, including a 3-2 affair over Erie Commodores FC, their rivals. AFC Cleveland had Detroit FC early in the club’s career, but Erie, located just more than 90 minutes and 100 miles away, has become the club’s biggest rival. Over the last few years, AFC Cleveland, and now Cleveland SC, players have developed a healthy hatred for the Commodores.
“Their owner, John Melody, actually helped us when we were first starting to think about forming a new club,” Long said. “He was great. But, it’s also great in any sport when you have a rivalry. Since I started six years ago, sentiment has grown to the point that I hate Erie. The games have gotten bigger and bigger. There have been red cards and fights. It is great for us and the NPSL that there are two teams that care that much about beating one another.”
Osborne, who knows a good rivalry in Newcastle-Sunderland, concurred. “Those are the games you want to play in,” Osborne said. “Fans are getting into it. The drums are playing. Everything is loud.”
Erie got the better of Cleveland SC in the regular season finale to win the division, but Vinny Bell and his teammates got revenge in the round of 32 playoffs. Bell scored twice and provoked an own goal in the 79th minute as Erie advanced with a 4-0 victory.
Cleveland SC traveled to Ann Arbor the next round and lost, 1-0, ending a successful inaugural season at 8-3-3 overall. The club was comprised primarily of AFC Cleveland guys (about 16 of the 21 players on the roster), but a newcomer with a familiar name had his first experience representing the city.
“Cleveland soccer is one of the biggest aspects of my life. Being from Cleveland gave us that fire and passion and that love of representing the city,” Jesse Marinaro said.
Marinaro is the son of Cleveland legend Hector Marinaro, who scored more than 1,000 combined goals for the Crunch and Force over 16 seasons. Jesse Marinaro played for his father at John Carroll and now, a year after graduation, is part of the fledging group charged with reigniting the soccer flame in Cleveland. “All my friends have asked about it. It is high quality soccer and will not disappoint,” Jesse Marinaro said. “We have all spread the word around. It is awesome to watch this thing grow. It is a humbling feeling to put that jersey on and represent this city.”
Seibert’s first nine plus months, including his first competitive season, have been a success. Those around him credit his professionalism, passion and personality. Crowds at Shula were modest, 200 to 300 a game, but Cleveland weather and possible skepticism regarding the club’s long-term viability may have played a role.
“The NPSL has a low floor and a high ceiling,” Seibert said. “On the field, we can match up with everybody we play. We found our identity and relied on our chemistry. It is going to continue to be tough, but Ohio would not have it any other way. We are not going to do something unless we do it the right way. We did not invite anyone out who did not come back again.”
Osborne provided an honest evaluation of the first year.
“Playing at Shula was great and the playoff game at Erie was magic,” Seibert said. “A lot of clubs have come and gone and, when you are a new team, there is always a level of skepticism. People want to know that the team is going to stay. It can be hard to adjust on the fly. Volunteers handled some thankless tasks that they will never get proper recognition for. We did a pretty good job, considering. For me, it is nice knowing that the players coming back understand the culture we have, and the fact that we went all the way to the final 16 in our first go of it.”
Seibert gave his administrative staff, including Gary Wiggins (Head of Marketing) an extended break after the season concluded. “A lot of guys were committing a lot of time away from families, studies and jobs,” Seibert said. “After about 30 days, everyone got back in it. We want to capitalize on this opportunity out here.”
Seibert is currently out in Minnesota attending the NPSL’s ownership meeting [at the time of writing]. He never stops working for a club he wishes to see rise as high as possible. “It has been a dream of mine to be a part of this in Cleveland,” Seibert said. “I accomplished more the last eight months than the rest of my entire life. Cleveland SC is a diamond in the rough buoyed by our previous entities. We have this great passion for sports here. We need to continue on with it.”
- Brian Burden