Kalamazoo FC banking on USL 2 move to be shot in the arm to boost club's fortunes
In a city where they’re busy shipping out tons of vaccines to ward off a global deadly virus, Kalamazoo FC is counting on a switch to USL 2 as a single shot in the arm to boost the five-year pro-am soccer franchise's profile.
The team is the latest Michigan-based outfit making the transition to the fourth-tier circuit from the National Premier Soccer League, joining Grand Rapids FC and AFC Ann Arbor. Kalamazoo FC joins 2019 champion Flint City Bucks and Clawson’s Oakland County FC as USL Michigan members.
Though a lateral move in the U.S. Soccer’s unofficial fourth tier, Kalamazoo FC's jump hails a new chapter for the sport in the pharmaceutical hub.
USL 2, which plays a May to August schedule, draws elite college players who see the league as a viable pathway to the pros. More than 700 former USL 2 players are plying their trade in MLS, second-division USL Championship and third-division USL 1 as well as European pro leagues.
“It's clear the competition's tougher, which means that we are bringing a higher level of soccer to our fans here in Kalamazoo,” said David Shufelt, Kalamazoo FC owner and president. “It also helps with recruiting. Whatever the perception is the difference between USL 2 and NPSL, from a player's standpoint, the players perceive USL as a step up from the NPSL.
“Our coach Shane Lyons, who is the assistant at Western Michigan, he mentioned it a few times during his recruiting for our season that didn't happen in the spring, that he lost some players because we were playing NPSL instead of USL.”
The high-profile league could also help recognize Kalamazoo as something akin to the Midwest’s Kearny, New Jersey, where U.S. national team stars Tony Meola, John Harkes and Tab Ramos all hail.
Numerous players and coaches in the pro ranks have ties to the Kazoo area, notably Caleb Porter (Richland Gull Lake High), coach of the MLS champion Columbus Crew and New England Revolution winger Brandon Bye (Portage/Western Michigan).
With USL 2’s cachet, Kalamazoo FC at least has the potential to improve on the 1,000 to 1,500 or so crowds it has averaged at 2,200-capacity Mayor’s Riverfront Park. A number of pro-am clubs have laid the groundwork.
The American Indoor Soccer Association Kalamazoo Kangaroos played at Wings Stadium in the mid-1980s (Shufelt says he’s working on putting together an indoor team — possibly using Wings Stadium as a venue — to make Kalamazoo FC a year-round entity).
The Kalamazoo Kingdom competed from 1996-2006 in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, the precursor of the USL Premier Development League. In the Kingdom’s wake, the Kalamazoo Outrage represented the city in the PDL from 2007-10.
“Soccer’s big over here and I think that they would look to support the team, for sure,” said Chris Keenan, who owns Kingdom Sports, a 60,000-square-foot indoor soccer facility in Portage. He also coached the USISL’s Kingdom and played with the pro indoor’s Detroit Rockers and Detroit Neon, also serving as the latter’s coach.
“I think that they have some local people involved, which as you've seen in places like Detroit has been successful. They've had some local players who have a little bit of flavor, too, so that people can relate to the team.”
Kalamazoo FC debuted in 2015, competing in the NPSL Great Lakes Division with rivals Detroit City FC (now in the third division pro NISA), Lansing United, AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC. The club’s best season came in 2019, finishing 6-3-5 and in fourth place.
Until now, Kalamazoo FC has drawn talent from the highly successful Western Michigan program, which won the 2017 Mid-American Conference regular-season title, and nearby schools.
“You have to be locked and loaded in that league (USL 2) right now,” Keenan said. “That's going to be the question for Lyons in terms of coaching. I think they're gonna have to get out beyond Kalamazoo to find the players.”
The club’s off-field benevolence is just as much a source of pride as its on-field presence. A dollar from every Kalamazoo FC sold goes to a local charity.
In 2019, the team donated $8,345 to nonprofits. The NPSL season was called off due to the pandemic. West Michigan Cancer Center, Bronson's Children's Hospital and Special Olympics Area 16 have been among beneficiaries.
“I thought to myself, ‘Man, I'm gonna have trouble writing these checks to these charities, (but) I'll be honest with you: It’s the best thing that's ever happened to me,” said Shufelt, who owns 700 apartment units in the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek area as well as HVAC and carpet cleaning businesses. “I'm a 54-year-old man. It's the best thing I've ever done in my lifetime. So it's very rewarding.
“And that's the main reason for moving to USL is trying to get a higher level of soccer and getting that excitement out there. By getting better players and better competition invariably only attracts more people.”