AFC Ann Arbor joins USL League 2, set to start play in 2020

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
AFC Ann Arbor owners and staff celebrate the announcement of the club's move to USL League 2 Monday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

AFC Ann Arbor will play in USL League 2 next summer after competing in the National Premier Soccer League for the past four seasons, the club announced this week.

The NPSL and USL2 are both considered to in the fourth tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid, but the latter is sanctioned the United States Soccer Federation and attracts elite collegiate players. The NPSL is affiliated with the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

The Mighty Oak started play in 2015 in the former Great Lakes Premier League. 

"We're always exploring ways to advance the club and this move will give our men even more opportunity to push on to a professional contract," said Bilal Saeed, AFC Ann Arbor chairman. "We enjoyed our time in the Great Lakes Premier League (2015) as well as our four years in the NPSL (2016-2019) but feel that this is the best move for the club, specifically our players and supporters."

AFC Ann Arbor joins national champion Flint City Bucks FC as the state's two representatives in the circuit, which had 72 teams competiting this year in the U.S and Canada. 

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The USL2 schedule, like the NPSL, runs from May to July. AFC Ann Arbor, which plays its home matches at Concordia University, also fields a women's team in the United Womens' Soccer league.

The club's four-year reign in the NPSL was highly successful. 

AFC Ann Arbor won consecutive Great Lakes Conference Division titles in 2017 and '18, advancing to the regional final in both seasons. In 2017, the Mighty Oak fell to Detroit City FC 3-2 on a stoppage-time goal by Tyrone Mondi in the regional final.

The 2018 regional final, which AFC Ann Arbor hosted, ended in a penalty shootout loss to Duluth FC. 

A couple of former AFC Ann Arbor players are realizing their pro dreams.

Luminary Lars Eckenrode was the first Mighty Oaks taken in the MLS Super Draft, going to Toronto FC in the fourth round (No. 83 overall) in 2017, and Kenyan defender Joseph Stanley Okumu, who played with Ann Arbor in 2018, joined Swedish first division IF Elfsborg last month.

USL rules foster player homegrown development by limiting the number of players over age 22 to eight while restricting the 26-man roster to 10 foreign members.

“The move to USL2 is an exciting new chapter for our club,” said head coach Eric Rudland in a written statement. Rudland, who is entering his fifth year as Ann Arbor coach, recently agreed to a three-year extension with the team. 

“The competition will present a welcome new challenge for our players and staff in terms of preparing to play new rivals and shifting how we go about building our roster. The standard of play in the Midwest is extremely high, so we are working hard to enter the league on competitive terms.”

Twitter: @larryo1961