On Monday morning, some breaking football news hit the shores of Cleveland. No, it wasn’t thankfully wasn’t about the Cleveland Browns for once. Instead, it was about proper football, or soccer as Americans call it. Amongst an excited crowd at Pins Mechanical in Ohio City, MLS NEXT Pro announced the addition of a third independent club to the League. Cleveland, Ohio will launch a new team that plans to begin to play in 2025, joining Rochester New York FC and the recently established Carolina Core FC as independent teams within MLS NEXT Pro, contingent upon U.S. Soccer Federation sanctioning.
“We’re thrilled to have Cleveland as the newest expansion club in MLS NEXT Pro,” said Charles Altchek, President of MLS NEXT Pro. “Cleveland Soccer Group cofounders Michael Murphy and Nolan Gallagher’s plan to build a club focused on winning championships while serving the community and entertaining their fans perfectly aligns with our vision. The addition of another strong independent club continues the momentum coming off our historic inaugural season as we look ahead to 2023 and beyond. The pride and passion Clevelanders have for their city speaks for itself and we look forward to the fans embracing the sport of soccer in the leadup to the World Cup being played in North America in 2026.”
In addition to preparing for the team’s inaugural 2025 season, Cleveland Soccer Group has established the Cleveland Soccer Group Foundation, which will be dedicated to creating positive outcomes for Northeast Ohioans through sport, community, art, nature and unity. The Foundation will focus on doing so through community and corporate collaborations, including the development and installation of mini-pitches and other projects to provide public access to the game of soccer.
Cleveland native and former MLS All-Star and U.S. Men’s National Team player Justin Morrow has been involved in bringing professional soccer to his hometown while helping shape Cleveland Soccer Group’s community-driven strategy as part of its Advisory Board. Morrow, who was an All-American while attending Cleveland’s Saint Ignatius High School, was named MLS’ 2021 Humanitarian of the Year after founding Black Players for Change in 2020, an independent organization consisting of over 170 players, coaches and staff from MLS working to bridge the racial equality gap that exists in society.
“Like most Clevelanders, my affinity for the city runs deep, and I’m committed to partnering with leaders like Michael and Nolan to have a positive impact,” said Morrow. “Having devoted most of my life to the game, I know that if we bring professional soccer to Cleveland with a ‘community-first’ mindset, it will bring about many positive changes to the region.”
For those who may not know, Cleveland actually has a very rich professional soccer history. Professional soccer was first introduced to Cleveland in the autumn of 1929 when the Midwest Professional Soccer League was launched under the leadership of Joseph Triner, a Chicago businessman. Two Cleveland teams, Bruell Insurance and Slavia, were joined by two clubs from Detroit and two from Chicago. The league survived for a season playing a double round-robin format, with a double elimination competition for the Triner Cup in the spring and summer. Bruell Insurance was Triner Cup Champion and was the last time Cleveland would get a taste of professional soccer for 37 years.
In 1967 prominent Cleveland businessman Vernon Stouffer obtained a franchise for Cleveland in the United Soccer Association. The Stoke City Stokers from England’s First Division represented Cleveland and played a schedule that began in mid-June and ended in September. In 1968, the Cleveland Stokers became a charter member of the North American Soccer League and were assigned to the Lakes Division of the Eastern Conference. The franchise failed after 2 years and, in their wake, was replaced by the Cleveland Stars, who eventually became better known as the Cleveland Cobras.
The Cobras kept alive a long-standing Cleveland tradition of bringing to the city top-tier professional and amateur soccer clubs from around the world. Teams visiting under their auspices were the Canadian and Israeli Olympic teams, Eintracht Braunschweig (Germany), Partisan Belgrade (Yugoslavia), Jerusalem Betar (Israel), Arka Gdynia (Poland), Shannon Rovers (Ireland), and the Polish National team. Crowds of up to 10,000 witnessed some of these games. These visits kept alive a practice that began in 1906 when the Corinthians came to Cleveland. Other teams to appear in Cleveland included Sparta A.C. (Czechoslovakia), Uruguay National Team (World Cup Champion in 1930), Hakoah (Austria), Maccabees (Palestine), Preston North End (England), Kilmarnock (Scotland), Glasgow Rangers (Scotland), Audax Italiano (Chili), Marte (Mexico), Hungaria (Hungary), Rapid Vienna (Austria), Israeli (Israel), Red Stars (Yugoslavia), F.C. Saarbruecken (Germany), M.T.K. (Hungary), Elfsborg (Sweden), Santos (Brazil), Deportivo Cruz Azul (Mexico), K.S. Ruch-Chorzow (Poland), Dinamo (Yugoslavia), and Ujpest (Hungary) as well. After the 1981 season, Cobras ownership sold its American Soccer League rights to a group that moved the club to Atlanta and became the Georgia Generals.
Once the Cobras left, the only time Cleveland saw professional soccer was played inside. Indoor soccer was introduced to Cleveland in 1928 but, in 1978, the Cleveland Force were established to play in the Major Indoor Soccer League. When the franchise and the league were terminated after the 1990 season, George Hoffman, an Akron stockbroker, saved professional indoor soccer in Cleveland by organizing the Cleveland Crunch. While the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA title in 2016, they technically weren’t the first team to break Cleveland’s infamous championship drought. The honors went to the Crunch, who won the championship in 1994.
It’s a long-winded history, but, again, it further crystallizes the fact that the history from the distant to the near past crystalizes how important professional soccer is to the greater-Cleveland community historically. That’s why the city returning to the pitch, along with the club and organization investing so significantly into the city is so important. Sure, MLS Next Pro, created as a bridge between MLS and MLS youth academies, is a third-tier league. But, more than anything, it’s a possible start in sparking a passionate and untapped fanbase in Northeastern Ohio.
Not only that but, bringing professional soccer that has an opportunity to expand and eventually compete with the likes of the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati one day. That would just add to an even brighter footnote in Cleveland’s rich soccer history, and, in turn, motivate children all throughout Northeastern Ohio to try soccer out for themselves and grow the sport’s foothold within the community.
The next steps in order to make that happen to require a stadium being built for Cleveland’s new soccer club. Cleveland Soccer Group has identified a number of potential sites for a soccer stadium and training facility in Cleveland. Frankly, their bid wouldn’t have been approved without a stadium plan in place so, for now, it feels all but certain it will happen. A new stadium would also be essential to achieving the Cleveland Soccer Group’s other goals, including bringing professional women’s soccer to Cleveland. They submitted a bid this month for a National Women’s Soccer League team, which will expand in 2024 and again a few years after that.
If that were to happen, Cleveland could be part of a global sport and community that is open and inclusive to anyone and everyone. Based on the initial reaction, the community is more than excited about the opportunity. It’s hard to fathom what the vibes will be like come 2025.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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