The Fight For American Soccer: The Story of FC Davis
Starting a semi-pro soccer team from absolutely nothing isn’t the easiest of tasks. It requires a million emails, hours of phone calls, contracts, lawyers, suppliers and a lot of sleepless nights.
“Start-up soccer” is a concept gaining momentum around the country as a growing number of communities are looking to break from the current mold of US Soccer and build a more intimate and organic soccer experience in their hometowns.
Due to the constraints of the US soccer pyramid (no promotion/relegation), you don’t start a semi-pro team for money or notoriety. You do it to create a vehicle for helping thousands of players in your community and to provide soccer crazy fans in your local area a team they can call their own.
That's exactly why this project was started.
I’ve been involved in soccer my entire life. It began in Illinois and carried to California.
During my travels as a player and coach, only a handful of communities I visited were equally as invested in soccer than Yolo and Solono counties.
Most of these soccer crazed communities had their own teams.
We didn’t and it made no sense.
In small corners throughout our country, Saturday nights are soccer nights. A quick YouTube search generates pages of videos showing towns across America drawing a thousand plus fans to intimate venues. These fans create an atmosphere complete with flags, drums, chants and flares that resemble a South American game rather than one in the US.
In response, these clubs reinvested back into their local communities, providing fans and players a chance at what they’ve been longing for: Opportunity.
American soccer has found itself in a sticky situation. We’ve thumbed our noses at the structure which produces global superstars and tried our own experiment that has no resemblance to the proven system practiced around the world.
What did we change?
In every single soccer playing country except the United States, you, and I mean YOU, can start a soccer team. With hard work, determination and sound planning, the amateur team you and your buddies started on a napkin can rise to the highest levels of world soccer.
For example, if you live in England, a structure exists so you can go from a pub team to the English Premier League (the most lucrative league in the world) by building a club from the ground up. Get to work!
This “open system” is based off merit (winning) and promotes its best teams and relegates its worst teams. The more you win, the higher you go. The more you lose, the lower you go. It’s an OPEN pyramid.
The movement within this pyramid is known as promotion and relegation, also known as ProRel.
Within ProRel, the stakes are much higher due to the threat of being dropped to a lower division. This fear drives clubs to construct better facilities, train better coaches and scout and develop better players. If clubs don’t improve, they get passed by. As a result, the game flourishes.
A picture of the ProRel pyramid in England can be seen below:
Now let's look at the US version of the soccer pyramid:
Unlike the rest of the world, the United States has a “closed system”.
The only way to enter our top flight is to buy-in. Nothing to do with merit (winning), only money (hello billionaires).
Our closed system was marshaled in by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) alongside Major League Soccer (MLS). It's the number one reason attributed to the current state of the game in America.
In order to have a closed system, two organizations needed to work together.
The first organization is Major League Soccer, our top division. Major League Soccer, is a single entity. They allow investors to buy into the league and in return, these investors gain rights to operate a team owned by the league.
Second is the USSF. The USSF is our countries soccer governing body. Its purpose is to uphold FIFA law and preside over the game as a neutral actor.
While a natural relationship exsits between the two parties, at no point should they be operating in sync to lock out competition, especially if that relationship breaks FIFA law and suppresses the game for the financial gain of a closed group of individuals.
However over the past 16 years, this is exactly what has happened.
The bond between the USSF and MLS took off under a man named Sunil Gulati.
Sunil Gulati is viewed as the Darth Vader of American soccer. He is the former President of the USSF who after a lot of resistance, decided not to run for re-election. This was due to the 2018 World Cup debacle.
Prior to being the USSF President, Sunil served as MLS’ deputy commissioner. This made him a close ally to leaders at Major League Soccer.
Under Sunil's watch, the USSF and MLS furthered a cozy financial relationship. As President, he pledged to Major League Soccer the USSF would make commitments on the commercial and competitive side so MLS would become the leader of soccer in America. An unprecedented step and idea frowned upon across the soccer spectrum.
As time went on, both Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation needed each other to succeed but there was one big problem, the majority of MLS teams didn't (and still don't) make money. Some even labeled the league a ponzi scheme.
Sill, the price tag to buy into MLS kept going up. The most recent round was held at an astonishing $150 million dollars.
How did Major League Soccer get ownership groups to invest a significant amount of cash into a money losing venture?
Three words: Soccer United Marketing, commonly referred to as SUM.
SUM is the for profit marketing arm of Major League Soccer. They have marketing and TV deals all over the soccer landscape, including with MLS and US Soccer Federation.
SUM is currently valued at over $2 billion and with each passing year increases in value.
The only known way to get a piece of the company is buying your way into MLS, as the owners of SUM are MLS investors. Knowing this, a groups $150 million investment looks more like a buy into a marketing company rather than a soccer team. It also produces a conflict of interest so obvious it's almost comical.
Where is the USSF in all of this?
After all, the reason they exist is to stop a situation exactly like this from occurring.
What if I told you the CEO of Soccer United Marketing was also the Commissioner of Major League Soccer and sat on the USSF Board of Directors?
Regulation alarm bells would be shooting off, right?
This is exactly the case.
His name is Don Garber. A former NFL VP who in 1999, took over MLS to make it the NFL of soccer.
Welcome to the twilight zone.
By now it should be clear why the decision to keep our pyramid closed was on purpose. The USSF was willing to sacrifice the quality of our game to give protection to MLS investors, their financial partners. By shutting out competition, they cornered the soccer market and all their special interests were shielded against punishment for losing (relegation). A brilliant decision for MLS owners and an absolutely horrific move for the game by the USSF.
This “protection” comes at a cost. Currently, there is no penalty for being a terrible franchise. Without a threat to make sure teams keep improving, franchises can lose year after year without a worry. In the end, the entire US soccer system suffers. Most MLS teams just float in mediocrity and as a result, so does American soccer.
In addition, as MLS tries to become the NFL of soccer through expansion locations, they are completely missing what makes the game so popular around the world; the tribal, community focused, local clubs that connect with people from all sized towns and creates the culture that produces world class players and fans. The reach and connection of these clubs would truly spread the popularity of the game. Imagine if Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, West Sac, Winters, Woodland and Fairfield all had their own teams in an open pyramid!
While the USSF keeps telling us the United States is making tremendous strides at catching the world powers of the game, in reality, the recent events of US Soccer are a circus of missteps and failings at every level of its organization. It culminated this year with multiple antitrust lawsuits and the US missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A feat once thought unimaginable.
A quick survey of the soccer landscape in America paints a clear picture that the current model of soccer in our country doesn't work. Not for players. Not for coaches. Not for fans. Not for the game.
I want to try and change that.
It’s why I started a semi-pro soccer team.
An alternative model that is a shift towards opportunity. One that puts thousands of youth players, their families, coaches, referees and fans of the game first.
As this model continues to grow around the country, so will our ability to initiate the change needed to help our game.
But how exactly did our semi-pro soccer team come to be?
I remember coming home from San Diego around 1:00am, bursting through the front door and immediately confessing to my fiance (now wife) “I’m going to start a semi-pro soccer team”.
I hadn’t seen her in four days.
She tilted her head, briefly stared at me, got off the couch and said “goodnight Adam” as she brushed passed and went upstairs to bed.
Minus five points for hubby.
We all have moments in life where we say to ourselves “That has to be done.”
Sometimes, it's a business idea.
Sometimes it’s a trip we want to go on.
Rarely if ever are those ideas acted upon.
But a semi-pro team?
What on earth does it take to get that done?
At the time I was coaching one of the best groups of college players I’ve ever been around. Not only were they stewards off the field (now doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and engineers), they were beating EVERYBODY on the field, including being 8 minutes away from becoming the first team ever in our area to qualify for the US Open Cup.
For those that don’t know, the US Open Cup is a massive tournament that amateur to MLS teams enter in. That's right, we could have been on the field with the LA Galaxy. As you could imagine, I reached the point of “What’s Next” for the group.
When the FC Davis project first began, I had little to go off and just a hunch I couldn’t be the only one in the country looking to take a group of talented players and create an awesome sustainable asset for the community. But where does that journey begin?
While at the airport in San Diego, I saw a man wearing an eye catching t-shirt that read Detroit City FC. He was a burly fellow around 30 years old that most people would associate with a good ole Midwest boy (Sidenote: I’m from the Midwest. Go Illini!)
My eyebrows went up, I took out my phone and went to Google to find out exactly what this club was all about. I knew it wasn’t an MLS franchise and let's face it, rarely if ever do you see a minor league team being represented in any fashion around the country regardless of the sport.
After typing in “Detroit City FC”, I came across an article titled “The Future of Soccer In America”.
Ignoring the hyperbol, I clicked on it.
What I saw next was half scary and half excitement.
While only a short clip, it showed a rabid group of roughly 6,000 fans cheering on a semi-pro soccer team in a town best known for shuttered car factories and throwing octopuses onto the ice at pro hockey games. If a fanbase like that can exist in Detroit, it can exist anywhere. (you can see a video of their supporters at an away game HERE. See a home game HERE)
As I approached Sam (luckily I knew his name as it was spelled out on his belt buckle), I had a million questions running through my head.
How did the team come to be?
What league do they play in?
Is this for real?
Before I got a word out, he smiled, stood up (around 6’3” 300 pounds) and said, “You want to know about the shirt don’t chu”.
I nodded, we made our way to the bar for a beer, and he proceeded to tell me a story about how a small team captured the hearts of the community and built a brand centered around togetherness and hope for the soccer loving fans of Detroit.
Instead of going upstairs that night, I got out a pen and piece of paper, sat down at my table and started to write the framework for what would one day be FC Davis.
Maybe this is was the future of soccer in America.
(Original notes - I doodle)
America, We Have A Problem!
The most common question I get asked is “Why’d you do it?”.
That question is usually followed by “How did you do it?”. More on this later.
Taking on a night and weekend project most people do as full time jobs can be a bit daunting. In essence, you are trying to accomplish the work of a team of people by yourself in a fraction of the available time.
Within that process things go wrong (a lot!). Victories are had. Partnerships are forged. Friends are made. And you learn a ton about the people in your community and surrounding towns (what’s up Dixon and Woodland!).
Unless you are insanely committed to the mission and little bit crazy, there is no way you’d ever make it out of the first month.
So why did I do it?
For me, it boiled it down to three items:
1. I love our community and the people in it. We live in a soccer mad area yet have no team we can call our own. I felt we should all be able to get together, chat about the game, have a couple beers and watch a hometown team just like every other country in the world. The fact this didn’t exist made no sense.
2. The team could be used as a platform to help kids change their lives on and off the field. From fundraisers for local clubs to helping kids make tangible goals for playing and studying at the next level, the game has a unique pull for many reasons other than just soccer. This includes education, diet, fitness, internships, you name it. In addition, it could be used as a unifier for the adult playing community, providing a social outlet and even a chance to represent our town on FC Davis.
3. Soccer in America is completely broken. It has been for quite some time. While the USA not making the World Cup was shocking, many people who are involved in the game were not shocked. Adding salt to the wound, CONCACAF is essentially set up for the US and Mexico to make the World Cup every year due to the money they bring in. When you fail in a system that is made for your to succeed, well, lets just say it's time to stop and reevaluate. Until a massive structural change takes place and laws are revised, the best and most effective way to help the game in our country is local semi-pro soccer teams. That goes for guys and girls. I wanted to be apart of that change the best way I knew how.
To expand upon the third reason, for a country that prides itself on opportunity, there is no darker path in sports than the journey of a soccer player living in America.
While tackling what is wrong with American soccer is a debate that rages on across all corners of the internet, at the heart of every argument is opportunity.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
First, youth soccer has come a long way, but increasingly alienates more players every season due to rapidly rising costs. With a pay to play structure (not the fault of the clubs), kids and their families are priced out of playing the game at clubs with proper facilities and experienced coaches. Some of the sacrifices you hear parents making for their kids will hurt your heart. I want to try and help change that by using the team to raise money for scholarship programs.
Secondly, for many of our most talented players, college is the destination they will go to develop and hone their skills. However, most teams only play competitive soccer for 2 - 2.5 months out of the entire year. You read that right, 2 - 2.5 months a year! Compare that with kids the same age in other parts of the world who play up to 10 months a year and it's no wonder we are failing as a soccer nation. Our 18 to 23 year old potential stars are playing a season that is less than almost every adult rec league. DARSL plays a longer season! Semi-pro leagues help put these players in a competitive environment for a portion of the year they were once idle. It's an important step in the right direction to keep the players in this age segment developing on the pitch.
Third, as covered earlier, due to the failures of the USSF, our pro system is the laughing stock of the world. It’s not set up for the benefit of the players. Only the owners and executives. We are the only soccer playing nation that does not adhere to Pro/Rel. This poisons the ecosystem where tens of thousands of soccer players have a chance to truly develop.
A perfect example of this problem can be seen in our ever-evolving DII ranks. Even the USL, our second division in the US, has players who need two, sometimes three jobs to support themselves. These players can be on part-time contracts far below minimum wage. Some are even playing for free. Once again, these results (casualties) are a product of the current system. It's not the fault of USL teams or their ownership. They are caged by they current system like everyone else outside of Major League Soccer.
And the female side of the equation?
The failure of the US Soccer Federation on the women’s front leaves most people shaking their heads.
Just this year one of NWSL’s big market teams folded, the Boston Breakers, leaving the top US women's league with only 9 teams. How is this possible with the popularity of women's soccer in the US? Better yet, why is this even allowed to happen?
So how do we solve these problems?
How can we do our part to change the course of the game in our country?
My vision was to create opportunity at every turn using a single organization as the vehicle. That vehicle is FC Davis.
There are dozens of plans to use the team to help our local area. That goes from trying to reach college soccer (look out for our recruiting center coming soon!) to creating a women's team (be on the lookout for the Lady Lions!)
With the barriers to entry low enough for most communities to build a team, getting the right blueprint down that can spread to other areas of the country will help secure the foundation needed to provide opportunities to players and fans of all walks of life. This process has already started with some great documents flying around the soccer fourms. We want to add to it.
While I was in college working on a political campaign, I was sitting in a MEGA donors backyard. It was plush with trees, a lake, shooting range and had one of the most elaborate pool waterfalls I’ve ever seen. We’d come to find out I played ice hockey with his grandson years back so he took to me. In his remaining years, his drive was helping disenfranchised kids make a better life for themselves as he used to be one.
As the sun was setting and conversations came to an end, he got up and left to attend to his wife of 67 years who’d been battling pneumonia. While walking out, he said something I’ll never forget. I asked him in all his years, what was the one thing you learned about helping people?
He turned slowly, took off his glasses, paused and replied back in a thick southern accent:
“Most people live their life with the cards they got dealt rather than moving to a different table”.
He turned back around, walked in his house and shut the door.
I never saw him again.
It’s time for soccer in the US to move to a different table.
But is there a place to sit down?
Where there is nothing, you can build anything
When people first heard about FC Davis, their faces looked liked a million questions mix with confusion just collided in their brains.
It’s for a good reason.
If you heard a new semi-pro team arrived in your home town, you’d probably stop and squint.
The most common question I get is, “How did you do this?”
Well, here is the short breakdown:
1. Find a League
The first step when starting a semi-pro soccer team is obvious, find a league! When searching for a league to join, I had a couple boxes that needed to be checked off:
The league had to be a national league
The league had to be in favor and working towards promotion/relegation
The league needed regionalized competition within the national structure
The league needed an appropriate playoff format.
The league needed a set of minimum standards
The league’s schedule needed to make sense for player attraction
The league needed to have a track record of success that lent itself to long term viability.
Where did I find all of this?
Enter the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
The NPSL is comprised of nearly 100 teams that span from California to New York and everywhere in between. With four regions and fourteen conferences within those regions, it was a perfect match.
The season spanned from March to the beginning of August, which allowed for two months of pre-season training and a regular season long enough to keep interest in the team.
From an awesome playoff format to a conference comprised of teams just in Northern California (Golden Gate Conference), we pretty much hit the jackpot. Add in the Sacramento Gold (Causeway Clasico!) as a local rival and all lights showed green.
Find a league: Check.
2. The Minimum Standards
Minimum standards exist to make sure players and fans who attend games can expect a certain product.
Different leagues have different standards, but most usually fall into three different pots.
Full professional (MLS)
Semi professional (NPSL)
Sunday/Rec Leagues (Local City League)
We fall within the semi-professional standards. Some of the long list of requirements include items such as:
Match streaming equipment
Obviously, it's a big step up from the next level down. At the Sunday/Adult Rec levels, you essentially only need a lined field, goals, a ball and refs to play.
Some city leagues do an awesome job.
Others not so much.
With the additional items, venues become harder to find. Most towns only have one (if lucky) that are available to play at. More on this below.
Survey for Minimum Standards that can be met: Check
3. Create a Business Plan for Sustainability
At the heart of every successful venture is a sustainable business plan. While this section is only going to be a couple sentences, it is the most important. What isn’t sustainable doesn’t last. Be on the lookout for our Complete Guide to Building A Semi-Pro Soccer Team! (coming soon).
4. Finding a Venue - the hardest part of all!
By far, the most common place semi-pro soccer dreams go to die is trying to secure a venue. When you combine minimum standards with available fields, you're lucky if there is one option.
Within these options, you are usually working with three entities: school districts, a university, or a city owned complex.
Without teams owning their own facilities, most if not all operations are subject to the availability of complexes that have priorities which typically do not align with an outside vendor.
For example, if you want to play at a high school, most have school sports going on at the same time. These sports take priority over any outside vendor. Same goes for a university. Since so many fields are multi-use pitches (soccer, football, field hockey, lacrosse), there simply isn’t enough time to fit everyone on the schedule. In the end, the differences are usually too great to overcome.
We looked at three venues and were able to secure Aggie Stadium.
While it is nice and shiny, nearly every fan we surveyed wanted a more intimate environment.
We plan to try and deliver that alongside some other special home game locations next season.
5. Build a roster
Let's face it, we are extremely lucky to live in an area with plenty of willing and able body soccer players.
To date, we’ve had over 117 players pass through our program. These include college All-Americans, all-conference selections, former pros, current pros, high school standouts and a host of high level players that need a platform to showcase their skills.
Building a roster is NOT EASY. It took three years to do.
We keep a roster of around 30 players. These include current and former DI - DIII players, NAIA players, college club players, former/aspiring pros, local adult players and reserve two spots for high school standouts.
Our first year, we held invite tryouts only.
This coming year, we will have open tryouts. Be on the lookout for dates being announced soon!
The current plan is to have them in December or early January.
If you sign up for our newsletter, all updates will be sent to your inbox.
6. Apply and get accepted to the league
So, you have everything in place and now all you have to do is get accepted to the league!
In the NPSL, you have to jump two hurdles.
The first is getting the league OK. This deals with legal and financial formalities.
The second is getting accepted by the owners into your conference.
After discussions with the NPSL were complete, Golden Gate Conference owners OK’d the bid and Davis received its first semi-pro soccer team, FC Davis.
Welcome to the NPSL Golden Lions!
FC Davis’ initial season in the NPSL was, like many other soccer teams around the world, a roller coaster.
From three goal comebacks to blown halftime leads, we dealt with every emotion imaginable.
Our Fan Favorite moment of the season was Allan Espinoza's 90th minute equalizer vs. Academica SC:
Here are some more highlights:
1. March 24th, 2018 we hosted the first semi-pro game ever held in Davis and had over 1,400 people come out from the soccer community.
2. We had our first All-Conference player. Miguel Acevedo. Miguel was the teams leading scorer and an integral part of the success we had this season. He motored up and down the field while playing a massive amount of minutes for the team. We are proud of Miguel!
3. We set a conference attendance record with over 10,000 fans for the first season. That's big numbers for our league.
4. We had the highest attended game of the season with over 1,900 people coming to see the Causeway Classico (FC Davis vs Sacramento Gold).
5. We had 2 players on our team make it to the USL. One of the players, Onah Power, has been apart of our group since 2014.
Obviously, we missed out on the playoffs after a poor June. Next year, our priority is to not only make the playoffs, but be ranked high enough to host at least one home match. We will do it!
A Look Forward
Our first season came and went faster than I could ever imagine. When you're caught up in the day-to-day activities, you tend to just create a big TO DO list for the coming season.
The list for 2019 was about four pages long, but was melted into ten action items:
FC Davis College Recruiting Center: FC Davis will have a recruiting center on our website for players and parents to use as a resource for all their needs. The content on the website will focus on schools in California and everything a player needs to do in order to play at the next level. This will be launched in late 2019! Be on the look out!
High School Awards: FC Davis will be working with local area high schools to bring recognition to our areas stand out players! We'll have a ceremony for each individual award at our first home game of the season.
Women’s Team: Hello Lady Lions! We are exploring bringing a women's team to the pitch to provide our female players a new platform. Just like the men’s side, we want to offer elite youth players the opportunity to train with advanced players prior to taking the field in college.
Supporters Club: One of our most common questions is do you have a supporters club? The answer is YES! The Lion’s Den is looking to build membership as we move into next season. Information will be out soon on how to join!
Pre-Season Match-Up: We are working to have a couple big names come in for pre-season friendlies. Keep. Your. Eyes. Peeled.
Tryouts: This year, we will have FC Davis tryouts in December or early January! This is open to ALL players regardless of age. Information on tryouts will be released in November.
Davis Adult League: FC Davis partnered with Davis Adult Recreational Soccer League, better known as DARSL, to expand the footprint of the league in Davis. Working with league leadership, we are going to grow the league into a 2 tier promotion/relegation league. We are also looking to expand the social footprint of DARSL and create an awesome community around the league so all soccer lovers have a home. Many members will be part of the FC Davis Supporters Club! If you are interested in joining DARSL, please go HERE to the new web page. Spread the word!
Let's Start a Community College Team: Ever wonder why Davis, Dixon, Woodland, and Winters don't have a community college team for our boys and girls soccer players? I did. Recently I met with Woodland Community College President Dr. Michael White, a true champion for our youth athletes. It won’t be easy, but we are exploring ways to get this project done. We feel the opportunities a team can provide our local youth are too great to pass up! We hope to have plans in place by 2021..
As we move into the 2019 season, we hope you will join our movement to help shape the future of soccer in our area.
To join our team, sign up below!