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GRFC soccer team explodes onto the scene in Midtown's Houseman Field

The Grand Rapids Football Club is preparing to begin its second year, following a wildly successful inaugural season in 2015, with even higher hopes for the 2016 season.
Members of the Grand Army, the fan support group of Grand Rapids Football Club, march to a game at Houseman Field.

Members of the Grand Army, the fan support group of Grand Rapids Football Club, march to a game at Houseman Field. /Steven Fox

Grand Rapids Football Club members model the 2016 uniforms during a fan event at SpeakEZ Lounge in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Football Club members model the 2016 uniforms during a fan event at SpeakEZ Lounge in Grand Rapids. /Steven Fox

Matthew Roberts sits behind a desk in a sparsely decorated office behind Centerpointe Mall. Most of the décor includes stacks of nicely folded blue “Founding Members” scarves, “One City, One Club” wrist bands and miscellaneous T-shirts, soccer balls and supplies like corner flags.

The 36-year-old youth soccer coach is also President of the second-year Grand Rapids Football Club. He was just back from a weekend trip to Portland, Oregon, scouting the environment of the Major League Soccer franchise Portland Timbers.

Roberts distractedly responded to e-mails, checked text messages and answered phone calls. His fourth-tier soccer team that took Grand Rapids by storm last spring won’t begin play until a scrimmage April 15 at Grand Valley State University, but the work to improve on the inaugural campaign is daunting.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Roberts said with a pause and a smile. “We love it. My girlfriend gets mad because I work all the time. I’m here all the time. A lot goes into behind the scenes.”

That’s because the dream that started between a couple youth soccer coaches, Roberts and Christopher Deiss, is well ahead of anyone’s wildest – well – dreams.

The fledgling founders of an adult soccer team didn’t know exactly what they were getting into when they launched GRFC as a crowd-funded venture similar to a recently formed team in Nashville, Tenn. GRFC had initial goals to sell 250 of the “Founding Members” packages for $100. That would generate $25,000 to get things rolling.

After their application to join the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) was rejected in fall 2014 – the NPSL didn’t like the instability of the crowd-sourcing model – GRFC founders found themselves in a scramble to find another option. They started a new league: The Great Lakes Premier League was born.


The Dream Takes Shape

With the first-year schedule in place, facing teams from Ann Arbor, Lansing, Muskegin, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago, the dream was taking form.

Following a pair of scrimmages against college teams, then a road game to Southeast Michigan, Roberts and Deiss were pinching themselves on May 30, 2015. That’s when homegrown star Domenic Barone scored goal after goal after goal on his way to a hat trick and a 5-1 victory for GRFC in their home opener at Houseman Field.

It was an unseasonably cold, windy night, with persistent rain. Despite the poor conditions, the gate was recorded at 2,409 fans in attendance.

Soaked fans endured the conditions, celebrating as Barone, a product of East Kentwood High School and Michigan State University, produced the fireworks against AFC Ann Arbor. The Barone twins, Marc is the midfield magician who sets up his brother, was an immediate success and led to one of many chants embraced by the team’s raucous supporters: “We have more Barones than you!”

Matthew Post, a 28-year-old real estate agent in Grand Rapids, is co-founder and president of the Grand Army, the supporter group of GRFC. Modeled after successful supporter groups in places like Seattle and Portland, Post said there are about 500 people who are involved in the Grand Army.

“We’ve tried to model ourselves after them in terms of chants and use of Tifo, which are those large hand-painted banners unveiled just before the game starts,” Post said.

By the end of the 2015 season, Roberts said they had sold 750 season ticket packages. That’s well above any of their projections and provided the funding base to keep things not only moving forward, but growing.

Now the NPSL couldn’t help but to take notice of the game-day attendance figures and the success on the field. Roberts said the league came asking them to join at that point.

“I think we knew it was there, I just didn’t know how quickly we could put it together,” Roberts said. “It went very well last year. There were growing pains, but we’ve learned a lot.”


Locally Grown Product

Roberts is a graduate of Aquinas College. He moved to Grand Rapids from his hometown of Indianapolis to attend school and play soccer in 1998. He never left.

The local support goes beyond the team’s leadership to players, sponsors and even the stadium. Houseman Field is strongly Grand Rapids.

Located in Midtown, in a large city block surrounded by Fountain, Diamond, Lyon and Houseman streets, Houseman Field is an 8,000-seat Grand Rapids Public Schools facility built in 1923. It is named after former Grand Rapids mayor, state representative and U.S. Congressman Julius Houseman, who died in 1891.

It is likely fate that the home field of GRFC is named after a German immigrant, who surely would be proud to know a successful soccer team plays there today. Julius Houseman’s daughter, Hattie Houseman Amberg, donated the land for use as athletic fields in memory of her father in 1907.

The primary use of the facility was high school football and track. In 2009, GRPS invested a $6 million renovation in the stadium, including new artificial turf, a new press box, concession and restroom facilities, as well as other structural improvements.

“We knew it was the perfect place to do it,” Roberts said of playing at Houseman Field. “We were right in a neighborhood. Everyone was caught off guard by how many people were coming to games. Everyone was blown away.”

GRFC went on to post a successful season on the field, taking second place in the Great Lakes Premier League with 3 wins, 2 ties and 3 losses. The overall record was 5-3-5.

Perhaps more importantly, the season-opening attendance was only the beginning. Filling the south grandstand with more than 5,000 fans in back-to-back home games, attendance exploded for the July 31 home finale.

Using only the south bleachers of Houseman Field to that point, the north side was opened up and it was a good thing.  A record 6,651 fans poured in for the match against the Muskegon Risers.

“It was an absolute game-changer,” Post said of opening the north bleachers. “The north stand sits closer to the field, allowing the players to come celebrate goals with us. Also being on the opposite side of the general public allowed us to display our Tifo for them and get them involved in cross-field chants. It helped us create a better atmosphere.”

Improving the game-day atmosphere is important to Roberts and Post, who work hand-in-hand. With an average attendance the first season reported at 4,500, it’s not a surprise the Grand Rapids fan base would be a priority.

Find more information on the upcoming 2016 season on the Grand Rapids Football Club website or follow the Grand Rapids FC Facebook page.

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