Clawson — The purple-clad Oakland County FC has made the climb through the semi-professional soccer ranks by offering an entertaining brand of the sport to fans at less than a princely sum.
This May, the Clawson-based outfit is taking the biggest leap of its six-year existence when the team begins play in USL League 2, which is a sizeable step up after competing in two seasons in the United Premier Soccer League, considered to be the unofficial fifth tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid.
The club has been a passion project for Theo Foutris and Nick Morana, who started Oakland County FC in their 20s. Savvy marketing and a genuine love for the game has been their guiding light.
“It’s easy to get in,” said Foutris, 31, a self-described entrepreneur who runs a trucking company and Lefty’s Cheesesteaks in White Lake. “It’s hard to do well.”
The purple-and-gold cloaked outfit has called Stoney Creek High in Rochester and Royal Oak High home before settling at 2,000-capacity Clawson Stadium two years ago. OCFC draws roughly 300-400 fans a match but the pair believes the numbers will increase with the jump to USL League 2.
OCFC, taking a page from Bayern Munich, Panathinaikos, Wycombe Wanderers and FC United of Manchester, has a 157-member strong supporters trust.
On the field, OCFC has seen mixed results. Last year, the club (3-2-5) finished fifth in the six-team UPSL Midwest Division but were co-winners of the Michigan Milk Cup with the Flint City Bucks after the final between the clubs was canceled due to weather.
OCFC will play the USL League 2 national champion Bucks twice this season as part of a compact 14-game regular-season schedule, which runs from May to July.
Also in the mix are home-and-away matches against in-state rivals AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC, which are making a more lateral move to USL2 this season after competing in the National Premier Soccer League.
Though the USL2 and NPSL are both fourth-tier circuits, USL2 tends to attract more elite college talent since it is a showcase league for the MLS draft.
Vinnie Vasilevski, who is Romeo High head coach and served as an assistant at Northwood and UM-Dearborn, will guide OCFC in its maiden USL2 season. The former player with Sweden’s IFK Trelleborg is looking to mine overlooked talent at Division II and III schools.
The club is hosting open tryouts 3-6 p.m. March 22 and 29 at Clawson Stadium. Cost is $50, which includes a 2020 season ticket and training top. Vasilevski, who works in sales, has a recruiting pitch fine-tuned.
“We’re the new guy on the block,” said Vasilevski, who played at Tiffin, Northwood and Saginaw Valley. “The guys that are coming to help us, they are really going to help us make history.
“’Hey, you can easily be a total game-changer for a new club.’”
Morana and Foutris have focused on delivering a family-friendly atmosphere at Clawson Stadium.
They’ve embedded themselves in the community, reaching out to local businesses and by starting a youth soccer program that includes an under-9 team.
“There are things for kids to do,” said Clawson interim city manager Kathy Leenhouts, who has attended a match. “They have bounce houses, they have little games where the kids kick the ball into a goal. They have face-painting for kids. They provide reasonably priced food for families … They just make it a really sort of an all-around appealing event.”
The affordable formula has been trial and error, Foutris said.
The club initially invited food trucks to matches but found some of the menu items nearly exceeded the $10 admission for adults and $5 kids. So they took the food concessions inhouse, providing hot dogs for a $1 and brats for $3. Their Backyard Bistro operation is county health inspected.
Marketing is another home-spun specialty. Morana, who is a senior account executive at MRM/McCann, takes particular pride in OCFC’s digital presence.
For the club’s inaugural USL2 schedule release, social media manager Ben Krzywicki produced a retro rollout that incorporates touches of Super Mario brothers, Adventures of Zelda and Pokemon. Also in the works is a weekly YouTube show, which will not only feature match highlights and interviews but also skits.
The club’s oak leaf crest was designed by Matthew Wolff, who also created logos for Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC and New York City FC.
“A lot of teams want to spew content for the sake of it,” said Morana, who has a graduate degree in marketing from Oakland University. “We make sure everything we push out is very polished.”
The move to USL2 will increase team operating costs. OCFC's operating budget runs $50,000-$75,000.
The club relies heavily on interns for game-day operations. Players who live out of the area bunk at Foutris' house.
The owners are enthusiastically embracing the club's move upward.
"The soccer industry as a whole is kind of in a vacuum," Foutris said. "So it's is kind of like if you don't move forward, you can almost fall behind. You can't become stagnant.
"So, anytime that we have an opportunity to move forward and it doesn't hinder our sustainability we usually take the bite."
Oakland County FC 2020 schedule
Day, Date, Opponent, Venue, Time
►Saturday, May 9, Cincy Dutch Lions at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 4 p.m.
►Saturday, May 16, Oakland County FC at Cincy Dutch Lions, Northern Kentucky University, 3 p.m.
►Sunday, May 24, Louisville City U23 at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 3 p.m.
►Sunday, May 31, South Bend Lions at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 5 p.m.
►Friday, June 5, Grand Rapids FC at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 7 p.m.
►Sunday, June 7, Oakland County FC at AFC Ann Arbor, Concordia University, 3 p.m.
►Friday, June 12, Oakland County FC at Flint City Bucks, Atwood Stadium, 7:30 p.m.
►Sunday, June 14, Dayton Dutch Lions at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 3 p.m.
►Friday, June 19, Flint City Bucks at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 7 p.m.
►Tuesday, June 23, Oakland County FC at Dayton Dutch Lions, DOC Stadium, 7 p.m.
►Friday, June 26, Oakland County FC at Grand Rapids FC, Housman Field, 7:30 p.m.
►Saturday, July 4, AFC Ann Arbor at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 6 p.m.
►Tuesday, July 7, Oakland County FC at Louisville City U23, Woehrle Stadium, 7 p.m.
►Saturday, July 11, Oakland County FC at South Bend Lions, TCU School Field, 5 p.m.
►*Saturday, July 25, Inter Detroit at Oakland County FC, Clawson Stadium, 7 p.m.