Muskegon Risers: Community Centered
“The team’s history follows my personal history.” That’s how Matt Schmitt, owner of Muskegon Risers began our interview. Schmitt’s soccer story begins in Muskegon, Michigan. Born and raised in the small town in the farthest western side of the state, Schmitt was good at soccer. Good enough to win his high school’s team MVP. Certainly good enough to play soccer at his home state's most well-known university, the University of Michigan. His college career was capped with his final and most successful statistical season, where he scored 4 goals and 3 assists. Graduating with his degree in bio psychology, he went to work for a sports psychology company. His work put him all over the map, traveling wherever he was needed, but his hometown was always in the back of his mind.
Like many midwest towns, Muskegon has had to re-imagine itself in the face of changing economics. With the departure of many old manufacturing jobs, towns, once dependent on those solid, good paying jobs and the stability they bring, either wither and die or change themselves to fit the modern reality. What Matt saw was a city “reinventing itself, with positive momentum. And I wanted to get involved. With my experience in the world of soccer and professional sports, thought it was the right time to create a team and really brand the team around all the positive momentum that was happening in the area of Muskegon. I wanted to create something that is promoting the city of Muskegon through soccer.”
The team was founded in 2014, playing two seasons as an independent club. Due to their quick following, in the winter of 2015, the city invited them to play a friendly indoors as an exhibition. It went well, so a second match was scheduled. By the time the club arrived in the spring, they had “essentially created two teams, one indoor and one outdoor.” Both teams have played in various leagues over the last two years, actively participating in different environments. And 2019 seemed like the perfect time to apply to the NPSL - the team was ready. “It’s a lot easier summarized, than the complexities of actually going through it.”
But being ready on the field doesn’t necessarily mean ready as a club. “We’ve demonstrated in the past couple of seasons a really strong ability to operate the gameday experience. We want to see consistency with that. We want to identify people who will be involved at an operations level. Anyone from point of contact with referees, to when the other club arrives at the facility. In the past, I’ve handled all that, but, as we grow, it’s important to be able to delegate. This summer is about delegation and quality control.” So the club is holding off league play in 2019 and will instead be independent for a final season before joining the NPSL in the Midwest Region.
Entering into the Midwest Region - Great Lakes Conference in 2020 will be an interesting trip for Muskegon Risers. That season will be the first for the conference without Detroit City FC, who will in the yet-unnamed professional league that emerges from the Founders Cup. While DCFC has been the headline grabber out of the conference, with their high-profile friendlies and massive fan support, the new club will have to contend with the two-time conference winner AFC Ann Arbor, as well as Grand Rapids FC, who won the conference three years ago and was the runner up last season. Grand Rapids is less than an hour away from Muskegon, which sets up for a great rivalry. But in a state with so many other high-profile NPSL sides, how does Schmitt plan to position the Risers? “We’ve really developed a unique identity. We’ve grown from the grassroots - we’ve played two seasons as an independent. The Risers brand is well known in the state and the region. We’re going to keep doing what we do, be ourselves.”
Already, though, the club has begun to make the necessary changes to, as Schmitt repeatedly says, “win championships.” They’ve added a new coach to split the club management and allow the indoor team to remain independent from the NPSL operations. Stuart Collins will take over the outdoor club and, as the former captain of the Risers, knows the club well. Schmitt expanded on his head coach - “he’s a strong recruiter who understands the history of the club. One of the best soccer minds in this area.” The Risers also announced the formation of a women’s team, which Schmitt will head until a permanent coach is found.
Plans are already in place for home and away friendlies with Milwaukee Torrent in July. A trophy will be given to the winner to commemorate the series and both sides are hopeful to make this competition an annual event. “It’s a great opportunity for our players to compete against a really strong side and Milwaukee has actually recruited a couple of our players in the past.” While the two cities are in different states, they are only a two-hour ferry ride apart. If that mode of travel wasn’t available, it would be a four hour drive that winds through the center of Chicago. Schmitt laughed when I mentioned Chicago - “You’ve got to avoid the Chicago traffic!”
One thing that is clear, in every sentence and statement made by Schmitt, he sees his club as a reflection of his community and he takes that very seriously. “The purpose of the club is community-centered. It’s a sports entertainment experience that represents the culture of the Muskegon area. The belief is that sports, athletes, teams, have a very defined role in society and my belief is that that role is to represent your community...you have a unique platform as an athlete, people pay attention to you. You have to project the right values to represent the community that you’re in.”
- Dan Vaughn