Overhauled Michigan Stars shooting for tactical efficiency in jump to pro league
Washington Township — The Michigan Stars enter their first season as a professional team with few fans to call their own and a temporary outdoor stadium at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac.
The team, which kicks off play in the new third-tier National Independent Soccer Association this month, has taken a low-key approach to establishing a foothold in the sporting landscape but hardly can be labeled as disorganized.
Owner and manager George Juncaj is intent on developing a polished product on the field first before fully marketing to the masses.
The Fraser businessman is still in search for a long-term home to fulfill his aspiration of one day having a professional team representing the state of Michigan. Negotiations with the city of Warren for a parcel of land at 14 Mile and Mound appear stalled.
“My dream is to bring 20,000 fans,” said Juncaj, who took over sole ownership of the club this winter. “I really think Michigan has that and deserves that.
“Now it’s going to be up to us if we can bring pro guys and a pro team.”
Only five players return from the Stars’ side that finished fifth (2-6-2) in the six-team National Premier Soccer League Members Cup competition won by Detroit City FC. The Stars’ NISA roster so far is an eclectic mix of players, representing Iran, Venezuela, England and Zimbabwe.
Defenders Kyle Nuel and Cameron Schneider, as well as Zachary Reynolds, all played on the Philadelphia Fury, which went on hiatus after briefly playing in NISA’s fall showcase. Midfielder Adil Gowani suited up for NISA’s Atlanta SC, which is not taking part in the fledgling league’s 10-team spring competition.
To whip them into shape, Juncaj hired two German coaches, Alexander Strehmel and Dennis Spiegel, who both have impressive resumes.
Strehmel, 51, played 19 years as defender and midfielder in the German game, making 157 appearances with VfB Stuttgart of the Bundesliga. He’s coached at lower-division German clubs, most recently serving as an assistant at fourth-tier VfL Wolfsburg II.
Strehmel’s commands boomed through the cavernous Total Sports Park indoor facility in Washington Township as Stars players ran around the width of the pitch during a recent training session.
The Stars spent nearly four weeks in Bradenton, Florida, preparing for the upcoming NISA season, which kicks off Saturday, Feb. 29, against the California United Strikers in Irvine, California. Stars coaches put players through two-a-day training sessions.
“(Strehmel is) a typical old-day coach where it is the way it is,” Juncaj said. “You better give him 100 percent or you’re going to hear it. It’s actually a good fit for my organization because I pretty much like that discipline. I like the guys to get to that next level.”
Spiegel previously worked seven years in various coaching roles at Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga.
Despite the additional technical expertise, Juncaj is not relinquishing managerial control. The owner will remain on the sideline and select the starting 11.
“I'm the guy … I'm making all the decisions,” he said.
When it comes to the Stars, the term father knows best is more than applicable.
Son Steven is a midfielder who accounted for two goals and an assist in 810 minutes during Members Cup play. Younger brother Robert is a defender on the team.
Family extends beyond blood, players say.
Nuel recalls he and other Fury players were “rattled” when the Philadelphia team went dormant after a major pulled out after only playing two matches — including a 1-0 exhibition defeat at Detroit City FC — last fall. Juncaj's hands-on approach puts them at ease.
“To me, the most significant thing is he is a family guy,” said Nuel, who made 29 appearances with TuS Ennepetal in Germany’s fifth tier before returning stateside to play with the Fury and then the Stars in the Members Cup.
“He is fueled by his family and he’s a successful guy, and so in terms of financials he has his own backing. So, obviously he wants his own success in what he’s doing. He handles us like he would his own kids. People can say that to you but to actually see it is something else.”
Liberian defender Joseph Aidoo agrees.
“Whatever we need, he provides for us,” said Aidoo, who played briefly for the Stars in the Members Cup and previously had stints with lower-league outfits Germany and Sweden. “He believes in us, so he’s always encouraging us.”
NISA’s schedule makers probably thought the Stars were more interested in frequent flyer miles than points. Six of the team’s first eight regular-season matches are on the road, with three of those taking place on the West Coast.
The Stars also face USL Championship’s Indy Eleven April 8 in the second round of U.S. Open. The senior Juncaj is suspended from the encounter due to a red card received while coaching Michigan Premier Soccer League’s Detroit United in a 2010 U.S. Open Cup match against Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
The Montenegro native protested too vociferously when the USL second division side was allowed to take a free-kick before Detroit United was adequately set up a wall, which led to the second goal in a 2-0 result.
“You are never going to win arguing with the referee,” Juncaj said.
Michigan Stars 2020 schedule
Feb. 29, at Cal United Strikers, Championship Stadium, 10 p.m.
March 7, at Oakland Roots, Laney Football Stadium, 8:10 p.m.
March 14, at Chattanooga FC, Finley Stadium, 3 p.m.
March 21, vs. LA Force, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 3 p.m.
March 28, at Detroit City FC, Keyworth Stadium, 3 p.m.
April 4, vs. Cal United Strikers, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 3 p.m.
*April 8, at Indy Eleven, Michael Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium, 7 p.m.
April 11, at Stumptown Athletic, OrthoCarolina Soccer Complex, 7:04 p.m.
April 18, at 1904 FC, Lincoln High School, San Diego, 10:04 p.m.
May 2, vs. Oakland Roots, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 7 p.m.
May 9, vs. Stumptown Athletic, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 7 p.m.
May 17, vs. 1904 FC, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 7 p.m.
May 23, vs. Detroit City FC, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 7 p.m.
May 29, vs. Chattanooga FC, Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium, 7 p.m.
June 5, at LA Force, Jesse Owens Stadium, Cal State LA, 10:30 p.m.
*-U.S. Open Cup second round; all times Eastern