Just for kicks: Cleveland's soccer scene is on the rise

Mention Cleveland sports and the Browns, Cavs, or Indians probably spring to mind. But, if the weeks ahead are any indication, soccer might be ready to join that list. Everywhere you look, the beautiful game is taking off in Northeast Ohio.


Cleveland Soccer Club kicks off its second season with an eye-catching Cinco de Mayo friendly. The Cleveland Ambassadors women look to repeat their undefeated 2018 season. Oh, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup returns on Saturday, June 22, for a Group D doubleheader.


Jason Lansdale, Erin Duran 2019 Gold Cup Trophy Tour event at Platform Beer Just two years after the United States Men’s National Team beat Nicaragua at FirstEnergy Stadium, they’re back for a group-stage grudge match with Trinidad and Tobago. The biennial Gold Cup crowns the soccer champion of North and Central America, making this match an important one for the stars and stripes on their road to defend the 2017 title—and an important one for Cleveland, too.


“We’re well-positioned geographically to have a lot of people come into Cleveland for this Gold Cup weekend,” says Michael Mulhall of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. “In 2017, there were ticket buyers from 44 states. That really blew us away.”


Imagine out-of-town fans booking hotel rooms, eating at our restaurants, and shopping from one end of Cleveland to the other. That jolt to the local economy is exactly why the Sports Commission prioritizes events like the Gold Cup. In all, Mulhall estimates a $4-5 million boost from soccer fans this June.


Going for the Gold


Soccer in Cleveland really turned a corner when the Haslam family purchased the Browns in 2012 and threw open the stadium doors to U.S. Soccer. Friendlies for both the men’s and women’s national teams followed, inspiring Cleveland to take its shot at the Gold Cup.


“We were definitely an underdog,” Mulhall admits. “Most of the cities bidding on Gold Cup matches were established Major League Soccer cities. But they were very impressed with our bid and the facility. They saw that our relationship with the Browns was really strong—and that helps.”


The gamble paid off on both ends. Says Mulhall, “Quite frankly, they took a chance on Cleveland. And, ultimately, they were glad that they did. We delivered everything that we promised and then some.”


Nearly 28,000 fans flocked to the first Gold Cup match in Cleveland, a solid number that left all sides pleased. Crowds should be even higher this summer, not only due to the sport’s surging popularity, but because this USMNT match promises to be a memorable one.


In short, it’s all about revenge. The last time the U.S. played Trinidad & Tobago, the match ended in American heartbreak. That 2-1 loss eliminated the men from World Cup qualifying and inspired a year of soul-searching and reflection at U.S. Soccer. Enter new manager Gregg Berhalter, a whole raft of young players, and a longing for redemption—starting with the rematch against Trinidad.


“Everyone knows this is the big game,” says Mulhall. “That’s the stuff you can’t control, but it’s pretty cool when it works in your favor.”


And now for our second act…


In the meantime, Cleveland SC of the National Premier Soccer League is ready to follow up on a stunningly successful debut season. Launched just 90 days before the 2018 season, the semi-pro club qualified for the playoffs and nearly advanced to the regional championship. Now, they kick off 2019 with a tantalizing international matchup of their own.


Cleveland Soccer ClubOn May 5, Cleveland SC will host Monarcas Morelia Reserves (Mexico) in the inaugural Neighbor Nations Showdown this Sunday, May 5, on the fitting date of Cinco de Mayo.


“This is one of the first club international friendlies in Cleveland in years,” points out Gary Wiggins, Cleveland SC’s marketing director.


Quite a coup for a club that didn’t even exist eighteen months ago. When AFC Cleveland folded in late 2017, the sport’s future here looked bleak. But neither players nor staff were ready to say die.


“I met with [AFC Cleveland players] Coletun Long and Chris Cvecko at an Applebee’s in Sagamore Hills,” remembers club owner Samuel Siebert. “I asked them, ‘If we had practice in two months, could we make it work?’ Everyone was all hands on deck. Everything just fell in line and it took off from there.”


Breaking into the crowded Cleveland sports market remains easier said than done, leading Siebert and company to seek a little outside help. He fired off an email to the general CLE Clothing Co. inbox, hoping to set up a meeting. With a shop on East 4th, a rabid fanbase, and some of the city’s top design talent, CLE was his top choice.


“We started talking about branding and how to get our stuff out there,” Siebert says. “They’ve been amazing since day one. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”


Besides signing on as the club’s official merchandiser, CLE Clothing Co. also designed their logo. The end result honors the iconic guardian statuary on Hope Memorial Bridge, gifting Cleveland with one of the classiest crests in the NPSL.


“The formation of our partnership with CLE Clothing Co. was what really helped us get going in 2018,” Siebert says.


Still, even with CLE’s social media megaphone, getting the word out about the team takes time and money that Cleveland SC doesn’t have. This is no one’s full-time job. In fact, everyone at the club works 9-5 elsewhere, making for very long days full of text messages and after-hours meetings. It’s a true labor of love.


“They say marketing pays for itself,” Siebert says, “but you really have to have a good budget to do that.”


One planned initiative will see the club become more active in the thriving Cleveland youth scene, distributing ticket vouchers to the next generation of soccer fans. Considering the sport ranks #1 for the 18-34 age group, this seems a smart bet.


Unlike many other teams, Cleveland SC faces more uncertainty off the field than on it. Under the steady management of Ryan Osborne, the club boasts an impressive collection of local talent.


“The budget might be tight, but our product on the field is amazing,” says Siebert. “It’s kind of a ‘If you build it, they will come’ situation because we’re going to be good.”