As someone born and raised in Holland, Trent Ramos noticed a divide among fellow residents.
“Holland has a really diverse population,” said Ramos, a 23-year-old manufacturing associate with Herman Miller. “The Hispanic cultures kind of stick together. The Dutch cultures stick together. There is an Asian population that usually sticks together. You don’t really see all these groups come together, other than maybe during Tulip Time (Festival).”
That helps explain why Ramos and some colleagues set out on their mission to create a new sports venture.
Ramos now serves as the general manager of Tulip City United, a semi-professional soccer club that was unveiled in late October and will kick off its inaugural season in May 2020.
Formed as a 501(c)(7) nonprofit organization, Tulip City United was co-founded by Ramos, Rebecca LeClaire and Matt Davis, and is operated by a board of directors, which is led by president John Dacloush.
Hope College men’s soccer coach Dave Brandt will take the helm as the team’s first coach.
Tulip City United will use Holland High School’s facilities as its home, while the team competes in the United Premier Soccer League’s (UPSL) Midwest Conference Division 1.
The UPSL, headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif., is one of the lowest developmental leagues of the United States soccer hierarchy (Major League Soccer being at the top) and features hundreds of teams spread throughout the country, divided into four different men’s divisions, but also including women’s and youth divisions.
While filling the stands come game time and building a healthy pool of corporate sponsors will be important to keep the venture afloat, Ramos said the focus remains firmly on the mission of bringing the community together through soccer.
“We believe that this is going to be a club that is completely for the community — they will play for the community and they will represent the community,” Ramos said. “That type of atmosphere will be what drives the success of this club.”
In that spirit, Tulip City United has already introduced official community partners that include the likes of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland, Latin Americans United For Progress (LAUP), Kids’ Food Basket, Pedal Holland, Community Action House and Grant Me Hope.
“With those partners, we support them and they support us,” Ramos said. “We will be able to do some different volunteer work and we’ve done some already with Kids’ Food Basket.”
The UPSL is a logical first step for Tulip City United. While more established West Michigan-based clubs Grand Rapids FC and Kalamazoo FC compete in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), which is considered a rung higher on the United States soccer hierarchy, the UPSL provides an opportunity to establish and operate a club without back-breaking financial overhead.
Operational budgets for a typical UPSL team generally fall comfortably under $50,000 per year.
While Tulip City United did not disclose the yearly budget for its inaugural season, the largest line items for these clubs tend to be uniforms/equipment, coaching/training, facilities and, for a newcomer like Tulip City, the time of filing necessary league paperwork for an expansion.
“The overhead of the UPSL just depends on how big you want (your club) to be,” Ramos said. “They have different levels and put you into a higher bracket if you want, but when you go into the NPSL, there is a little more overhead.”
Without paying or housing players, Tulip City United is left to rely on prospects within roughly a 50-mile radius of Holland. That can include current college soccer players looking to stay sharp during the summer months while retaining their amateur status, or graduates looking to gain visibility in the United States soccer hierarchy.
Ramos said the club will look into building a network of host families and forming partnerships with local businesses to provide job prospects for players, which would allow Tulip City to cast a wider net while recruiting.
The travel schedule also is easier in the UPSL. Tulip City United’s road game schedule will keep the club almost exclusively inside the state.
Ramos said that the organization does hope to eventually make the next step up to the NPSL.
For now, Tulip City United must embark on the challenging task of selling corporate sponsors on an idea, rather than a proven concept.
“(Potential sponsors) have been very receptive and positive,” Ramos said. “I think we’re chugging along pretty well. One thing that I have heard from other UPSL and NPSL clubs is that it is hard to sell the team when it’s not there yet.”
While the club has inked a handful of corporate sponsors and business partners, it is still searching for a title sponsor, whose branding will be featured on the front of the club’s kits, like Grand Rapids FC has with Spectrum Health.
Mike Freestone, who manages all Michigan business for Wisconsin-based The Promo Agency, has signed the firm on as a corporate sponsor.
“You want to support something for the community, but you also want to hitch your wagon to something that goes places,” said Freestone, who has been in the promotional products business since 1987. “I can see that with the support they have so far. The community support — (Dacloush) is out there in the press, and social media, and he’s promoting their desire to make Holland a better place.”
Freestone and his family already had a casual interest in professional soccer, traveling to watch an occasional MLS game, which helped him see the value in such a sponsorship.
“I want them to succeed and sponsors are always looking for good places to expose their brand,” Freestone said. “I think that the type of supporters for (Tulip City United) are good for our business, as well.”
A soccer renaissance?
With Grand Rapids FC and Kalamazoo FC both having a few years under their belts, and the Muskegon Risers making the jump from the UPSL to the NPSL in 2020, there is certainly a surge of semi-pro soccer in West Michigan.
“I think it’s a trendy thing right now,” said Chad Wiseman, who has served as head men’s soccer coach at Western Michigan University since 2013. He has spent a decade and a half heavily involved with soccer at both the youth and collegiate levels.
“I think you see one club do it and all of a sudden we have four or five teams within a 60 mile area,” he said.
West Michigan is seemingly on its way to resembling the east side of the state, where soccer clubs have become prevalent in recent years.
The east side features AFC Ann Arbor, Michigan Stars FC (Metro Detroit) and Detroit FC of the NPSL, as well as Inter Detroit, Detroit Waza Flo FC, Sporting Detroit FC, Michigan Jaguars (Novi), Wayne County Sporting and AAFC Lumberjacks/Lumberjills (Saline) of the UPSL.
In Wiseman’s assessment, one way these semi-pro clubs find sustainability is through strong marketing and rallying their communities.
“They do a good job creating a fan base,” he said. “Grand Rapids has been really good at that.
“One of the main reasons any of these clubs have teams is because they need a community to come out and watch them. It’s nice for those summer months, when families are looking to do some things. I think they have the clientele in each community and the clientele is growing.”
However, clubs of this nature might not necessarily be the best option for budding prospects.
“One of the major problems I have is it seems like the athlete is the last one to be taken care of,” Wiseman said. “Most of them don’t house or feed them. They’re not paying for their school — they market them and try to fill the stands. It is what it is.”
Despite the popularity of these smaller community clubs, local soccer fans who might be thirsting for higher-level soccer will likely be kept waiting.
The latest case study to examine the sustainability of high-level professional soccer ended with a whimper in Lansing this fall, as the Lansing Ignite shut down operations after just one season.
In media reports, the club’s ownership cited financial strain and poor attendance as the primary causes that doomed the club, which competed in the United Soccer League – League One, just one step below Major League Soccer.
Even before the Ignite, the former Kalamazoo Outrage competed in the USL Premier Development League — now called USL League Two — from 2007 to 2010. The club, under the same ownership as the current Kalamazoo FC, folded due to financial problems.
“When you go higher up on the food chain, you’re talking about paying your players,” Wiseman said. “That’s why you see these lower-level summer teams survive, because they don’t provide the player with much.”
Still, soccer’s popularity continues to surge with youth, both in high schools and clubs. This comes during a time when some schools struggle to field a football team, which used to be the marquee sport.
“Youth soccer is crushing it — we have a whole bunch of really talented youth soccer coaches in this area and really good club organizations,” Wiseman said. “What they do is put forward a really good product. If you want to play in a certain club, they map it out really well and kids enjoy that and their families do, too.
“With some of the injuries that happen in football, I think you’re seeing less participation at (high school) level. I don’t have numbers for that, but it seems to be the trend.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Tulip City United is a 501(c)(7) nonprofit organization.