Dekalb County United
Soccer in the Midwest has a great history and a great future—DeKalb County FC, of the UPSL Midwest, is a newer club but has long-vision. Club President John Hall helps us get to the roots of non-profit organization; he explains how they aren’t here to plow down the competition, but instead, nurture meaningful soccer relationships and other clubs bear the fruit of their labors. We put DeKalb County United in the spotlight, added a UV bulb, and can’t wait to see the results…
You were established in 2017 as a 501(c)-4, why is it important to be set up as a non-profit? Dekalb County has no ownership and is volunteer managed—tell us about the club culture this creates.
When we formed the club, not only did we have no money to start it, but we had no intent of ever taking any money out of it IF it became profitable. Our status as a non-profit was not only about our corporate business structure but also of our intent. The goal was never about making money, and that has not changed. Being a non-profit, with a working Board of Directors and volunteer staff members shows our community and players that we do it because we love it, not because someone is paying us to love it. We have events where we have 10 to 15 volunteers show up to help and I think that really meshes with our goal of bringing people together in support of a club that represents us all, and it will go as far as we each contribute to it. I have repeatedly said that if the community decides at some point that it doesn't need a soccer club like this, or can't afford to support it through sponsors, ticket sales, etc… then we don't need to exist. So far, the community, the people and the passionate volunteers have been excited about having a local club to support so it's really started off well.
There’s plenty of teams in and around Chicago, what led you to set up Dekalb County? How does it help a neighborhood or community to have a club of its own?
DeKalb County is about 60 miles west of Chicago and DeKalb/Sycamore is separated by about 25 miles of corn fields from the nearest suburbs. We're on a bit of an island geographically which can be a benefit and also a challenge. With 70,000 people or so, we're big enough to support a club like this, but assuming we can sustain through the first five years will may plateau in terms of growth potential. Within 45 minutes there are a number of large, strong youth clubs closer to the city and we're hoping to draw a few of those youth players, parents and coaches west in support of our program over time. The Board is currently made up of five people who grew up in DeKalb County, so representing this community was the only option.
There seems to be a remarkable amount of soccer clubs in Illinois, and close-in to the Chicago area, are any of them rivals? Some of them even play in regional leagues you might not ever compete in—what kind of relationships do you have, or hope to form, with these clubs?
I've said it many times before, the more teams the better. In our first season in the UPSL in 2018, we had four division opponents under 75 minutes away in the Chicago area. Our farthest road trip was 2.5 hours to play Union Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa. We were spoiled, and yet as you said, Chicago has the population to support 50 teams. I'm not sure why more have not made the jump to a national league, although I expect the costs associated with operating are a big factor.
As for relationships with other clubs, this is a never-ending process. Our club is trying to sort out our identity between being a club that can help young players develop and get to the next level, and a club that allows local talent to feature for their hometown club and keep scratching that itch to compete. I'd like to see us find a place in the middle so a 19-year-old can come play a few years and then we can help them get a trial with a USL club and go pro. But we saw it last year too that players who may be a bit closer to the end of their careers, but who are from DeKalb County, dig a little deeper in the late minutes of a match. There's something romantic about the hometown kid, now a grown up with a family, being able to wear the shirt for us. So finding a way to serve both types of players will be an important balance for us and it will take time to really figure out our identity.
You’re an hour or so away from Chicago, which has a rich history of soccer, do you plug into that history? Do you feel like Dekalb County is a part of Chicago’s pedigree?
I don't think we're "Chicago-based" but we have plenty of players tryout and play for our club that travel from the city so maybe I'm too close to it to really know. We want to be known by the Chicago masses for a number of reasons, but we're focused more on growing our awareness in our own community first.
You have one of the most unique badges in American soccer, could you explain the elements of its design?
Thank you. We had a local artist named Michael Figueroa (@figsigarts on twitter) design it. We just told him we wanted the design to incorporate the corn fields and soccer. He came up with some sketches and it didn't take long to sort it out. The green and yellow is obviously a corn field color scheme and he was able to throw in a bit of barbed wire which was invented in DeKalb. The big yellow ball, aside from being corn, shows that the club is literally growing from nothing. DKCU was a grass-roots effort to start it, it takes time and effort to maintain the club and it reminds me that it'll all be worth it when we harvest (lift trophies.) Yes, it's very cliche but it hits home.
Dekalb County is a new club, what have you accomplished in the past two seasons and where do you see yourself by 2020—what are you competing for, what are the incentives for competing?
A few things come to mind by 2020 for me.
1. Sustain. We've read the articles, we've seen clubs come and go and we know that there is nothing promised for tomorrow in life or with this club. We have to understand our situation, know the limits of what we can do, and focus on things that move us forward even if that means sacrificing something today so that we can be here tomorrow. We opted not to participate in the Open Cup qualifying this past fall. I've been excited to see us participate and let our players have that experience since the beginning. But when we stepped back and took the romance out, participation in the US Open Cup does nothing for our club other than cost us money. The appeal of the tournament is to get to play an MLS team, but we aren't ready as a program to win 3 or 4 qualifying fixtures yet and we can't afford to spend $10,000 to do it. I can argue the Open Cup like anyone, but it doesn't move us forward at this point so we passed. To make a true impact on our community, our youth players, our supporters or our players, we have to exist.
2. Financial independence. In our opening season we relied heavily on sponsors to help cover operating costs as we were getting our feet wet. This worked out for us in year one, but I don't expect, or want to rely on those contributions for the long term. In the next 12-18 months I want to find ways to create our own revenue through camps, clinics, tournaments and other soccer related projects.
3. Find our place. We enjoyed the UPSL last season and from a cost standpoint, there's not a better option in a national league. But we found the varying levels of professionalism to be a challenge. This is not a knock on other programs, but we were passionate about our game day experience where as others just had a field to play on. We don't want to be a recreational program and we want full stands of supporters. We want, and need, supporters to pay money for the experience of watching us play and enjoying our game day experience and we want them to feel they've got great value in doing so. We want other clubs to do the same so that our fans want to travel and support our team. There may have been better teams out there, but we'd put our professionalism up there with anyone. I'd like to see all clubs put their best foot forward so that this level of soccer is something to be valued and appreciated by our communities.
Bonus - My last two points I'd like to make on your platform are these...there is a need for the UPSL and NPSL to work together. There can be a common ground by which both can meet league objectives and grow. I've shared those with the UPSL leadership as a member club and I hope that somehow, they can get in a room and sort it out. For the next 5-10 years, there should be both a drive to grow the number of clubs so that geographical areas can have cost effective travel, and an initiative to listen to and assist clubs in ways that help them sustain. If that stats run true then we'll see hundreds of clubs shut down in the next five years, and new one start, then shut down, etc. Our iconic clubs that last a hundred years will be few and far between. UPSL and NPSL have different business models but I think those differences can be overcome and actually complement each other very nicely if there is a desire to work together.
Bonus 2 - If you are in this semi-pro, non-league, division 4, 5, 6 level of soccer for money then take a step back. I'd love to hear from a club that makes money consistently from running these teams. Truthfully, because you have knowledge that needs to be shared. For most, I suspect the clock is ticking before current owners decide enough is enough. Any club that folds is a loss for us all. We need to find value to helping each other, sharing ideas, networking and promoting each other. I'll share anything I can with anyone, just as Dennis Crowley did for many of us, because this isn't about me. It's about soccer and the smiles on the kids’ faces who come and watch DKCU play.
- Josh Duder