The rebranded National Professional Soccer League Members Cup has six teams after the rebirth of a Pontiac-based outfit that was dormant only a year earlier received the stamp of approval this week.
And for that, independent soccer aficionados can thank their lucky stars.
The Michigan Stars, who finished 3-6-5 in NPSL's Great Lakes Conference play this month after taking a year off, were named as the final member of the first Members Cup. The announcement came after the original Founders Cup was scrapped when five teams bolted a month before the competition even kicked off.
The Stars were a late entry but owner George Juncaj, who also coaches the team, assures the soccer community he's in it for the long run. The Metro Detroit business owner sees the Members Cup as a launchpad to a galaxy of bigger things, namely a Detroit entry into U.S. soccer's pro third tier with a USL League One franchise.
"Michigan Stars will have one owner; I'm not going to bring in any investors or any partnerships," said Juncaj, who owns Fraser-based HTC Tool Cutter Manufacturing, among other companies. "Thanks to my hard work, I own a very successful company and we will have the funds. ... I think from where I am standing there will be no problems.
"That will be a good resume for me so when I go to the next level I can tell them, 'We have a team, we have a club.'"
Juncaj has made a sonic re-emergence in Detroit area soccer circles. In 2010, the former semi-professional player from Montenegro coached amateur side Detroit United to U.S. Open Cup qualification. The Michigan Premier Soccer League side advanced to the first round proper, where it lost to the USL pro's Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Recently, Juncaj has been involved with son Steven Juncaj's development. The midfielder played at the U19 level with Switzerland's Grasshopper Club Zürich and considered an offer with Germany's Stuttgart, which would have meant playing with the reserve side.
Steven returned stateside instead. The midfielder was an NPSL XI Midwest Great Lakes Conference selection this season.
Last November, the father approached Michigan Stars owner Ned Fawaz and offered to buy a 50 percent stake in the club. The Stars, who sat out 2018, have played in Dearborn and Berkley in previous seasons.
This term, under George Juncaj's stewardship, the Stars held their own. The club finished fifth in the NPSL eight-team Great Lakes Lakes Conference Division, posting wins over Grand Rapids FC, Indiana FC and Toledo Villa.
The Stars were never blown out in any of their six losses as their minus-3 goal differential indicates. Part of the credit goes for that goes to the club's Zimbabwe international goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva, who previously played for Cape Town FC in South Africa's Premier Soccer League.
Juncaj plans to bring seven or so players back from this spring's Stars team. Last weekend, 67 hopefuls turned out for tryouts in Washington Township. Of those, about 14 candidates were invited for practice on Friday, Juncaj said.
"That's pretty good," he said.
The vetting process for the Stars and Juncaj was quicker than usual, said Cindy Spera, NPSL managing director. NPSL board president Ken Farrell and Spera met with Juncaj during last weekend's NPSL Midwest Region championships, which were hosted by Detroit City FC at Keyworth Stadium.
"It will be a great fit," Spera said.
Juncaj is increasing his ownership in the Stars by 50 percent and then offering Fawaz 20 percent as a stock option, he said. Terms are expected to finalized within a week.
The leap from being a dormant squad a year ago to one seeking entry into a showcase circuit was a concern but mollified by Juncaj's commitment, Spera said.
"They had some changes in management," Spera said. "When we have some teams go dormant, it can be a negative indication, that they are struggling and they won't come back. But in many cases, we see the teams go dormant for a year to regroup, reorganize, maybe have a change in management and come back stronger.
"We have high expectations that is what will happen with Michigan Stars. We think the leadership team is good. They met all their responsibilities this year. We don't really have a concern about that."
NPSL officials are not bothered by Juncaj's USL League One aspirations, either. Lansing Ignite debuted as a USL League One team this season.
"We know there is competition out there," Spera said. "We internally know that the NPSL also needs to evolve and grow and provide other options for our members, so that is something we are working on currently at the board level."
Juncaj estimates he's poured $250,000 into the club so far, which includes getting furnished apartments and vehicles for players. His biggest outlay going forward will be travel expenses, noting a road trip to Napa, California, on Oct. 26 where the Stars play Napa Valley 1839 FC at Dodd Stadium will run $20,000 due to airfare.
Stars 2019 Members Cup schedule
Saturday, Aug. 24, at Chattanooga FC, 7:30
Saturday, Aug. 31, vs. New York Cosmos, 7
Saturday, Sept. 14, at New York Cosmos, 7
Saturday, Sept. 21, at Chattanooga FC, 7
Thursday, Sept. 26, vs. Napa Valley 1839 FC, 7
Saturday, Sept. 28, vs. Milwaukee Torrent, 7
Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Detroit City FC, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 12, at Milwaukee Torrent, 7
Wednesday, Oct. 16, vs. Detroit City FC
Saturday, Oct. 26, at Napa Valley 1839 FC, 7
Home matches at Ultimate Soccer Arenas, Pontiac