In August, Detroit City FC joined the new third-tier professional National Independent Soccer Association. Nearly two months later, the Pontiac-based Michigan Stars are trying to follow suit.
Is this a case of trying to keep up with Joneses? Not at all, says Stars owner and coach George Juncaj.
The Fraser businessman is steadfast in the belief he can build the Michigan Stars into the premier pro club of Metro Detroit, if not the state.
The Stars (2-3-1) play DCFC (5-0-1) on Tuesday in NPSL Members Cup play at Keyworth Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.
"I think we are on the right track,” said Juncaj, who took over controlling interest in the team this year. “Is it going to happen tomorrow? No. Is it going to be easy? No, because everybody would have a team.
“Our intentions are good. We know we have the finances to do it.”
The Stars’ move to NISA, which still has to be approved by U.S. Soccer, is the latest in an accelerated growth plan for a club that only last year was on hiatus.
Juncaj, who played on the semi-pro circuit in his native Montenegro, coached the Stars to a 3-6-5 mark during the NPSL regular season, which was good for fifth place in the Great Lakes Conference Division. His son Steven, a midfielder, was named to the NPSL XI Midwest Great Lakes Conference Team.
The Stars became a last-minute entry into the six-team NPSL Members Cup after the league’s 10-member Founder Cup went bust as several teams dropped out.
At the time, Juncaj said his plans were to eventually field a team in the third-tier USL League 1 circuit but opted for NISA due to its ties with FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.
NISA also doesn’t require franchise fees and allows clubs to keep their intellectual property.
“It looks like NISA and USL want the same third pro division in the U.S.,” he said. “NISA is under FIFA, and like I said, you always want to be under FIFA.”
All three USL leagues — Championship, 1 and 2 — are also under FIFA. a
Juncaj, who owns HTC Tool Cutter Manufacturing in Fraser, among other companies, has been told operating a third-division team could run upwards of $10 million a year. The businessman believes he can do it for $1 million.
The Stars will have to move from their indoor home at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac to play in the spring-fall outdoor NISA. Cities of Warren, Sterling Heights and Troy have expressed interest in hosting the club, Juncaj said.
If those offers don’t pan out, the Stars will play on the adjoining outdoor field at Ultimate Soccer Arenas, which seats 600-700. Bleachers can be added to boost seating by 500, Juncaj said.
He’s adding staff, including a technical director. The club has redone its website and tweaked its logo, incorporating blue for a more patriotic feel.
A rivalry down Interstate 75 would seem ready to ignite. All that is lacking is Stars fans to act as an accelerant.
DCFC defeated the Stars twice in the NPSL regular season, 1-0 and 2-0. Tuesday will be the clubs’ first meeting in Members Cup play.
“Don't get me wrong. I think they do a good job,” Juncaj said of DCFC. “With the number of the fans, I think it was not that hard because the fans have to go somewhere. … They claim they're getting for each game 5,000 to 7,000 fans, I think that's very good.
“I hope I can do something like that. I hope I can bring a good team, a good club, a good organization. ...I need fans, I need support and again everybody has the right to do their own stuff. I really believe I will be the right owner to represent the state of Michigan with this Michigan Stars.”
DCFC co-owner and CEO Sean Mann said the Stars acceptance into NISA reflects the open-for-business landscape of U.S. pro soccer. DCFC is a community soccer organization that has grown over eight years.
“NISA is a bunch of supporters of an ethos that it is an open system,” Mann said. “So Michigan Stars expressed interest, and they meet the criteria, and so that's where it is.
“It's a team in our backyard, which for us I think is more of a positive than a negative.”
The Stars owner doesn’t hide that family is motivating his push to take the club pro. Son Steven played with Swiss side Grasshoppers at the U19 level and had an offer to join Germany Stuttgart’s reserve side.
The midfielder tried out for DCFC, but the club wouldn’t agree to play him in his preferred role, the father said. Steven’s younger brother, Robert Juncaj, is a defender on the Stars.
“I'm a father: Who doesn't want their sons to make it in their lives?” he said. “If it's sports, business or whatever it is, I want it.”
The team’s Zimbabwe international goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva believes Juncaj is taking the Stars to bigger places.
Mkuruva, 23, who’s played with pro teams in South Africa, Zambia and his native Zimbabwe, has been with the Stars since the beginning of the regular NPSL season.
He lives in an apartment in Clinton Township with wife Amanda and 11-month-old daughter Amorieo. Juncaj treats him and all the players well, he said.
The netminder aspires to play in Major League Soccer or the second-tier USL Championship, and he’s hitched his wagon to Juncaj and the Stars to make that happen.
“I feel like we are going somewhere,” Mkuruva said. “We are doing things in the right way and hopefully everything we want to achieve I think we are going to achieve it.”
Michigan Stars at Detroit City FC
Kickoff:7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck
Tickets: $15 at the gate
Outlook: DCFC (5-0-1) is unbeaten is Members Cup play, but still trails New York Cosmos B (6-0-2) by four points. The two clubs meet Saturday in New York. The Stars have won two in a row, including a 1-0 victory over Milwaukee on Sept. 28 with Michael Mayberry scoring the winner.