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AFC Ann Arbor: A new local startup with big goals

AFC Ann Arbor practicing on Mitchell Field

AFC Ann Arbor on field before the game

AFC Ann Arbor owners at Hollway Field

Coach David Hebestreit leading a practice

Ross Huff plays the national anthem at Hollway Field

AFC Ann Arbor owners at Hollway Field

Jay McIntosh scoring the winning goal against Muskegon

AFC Ann Arbor co-owner Jamey Amrine

Chris DuPont playing at Hollway Field

AFC Ann Arbor vs The Muskegon Risers at Hollway Field

The stands get rowdy at Hollway Field

AFC Ann Arbor signing autographs for fans after the game

The hometown crowd at Hollway Field

Hello Ice Cream amongst the food trucks at Hollway Field

AFC Ann Arbor walks on to field for a match

AFC Ann Arbor Coach David Hebestreit

The stands get rowdy at Hollway Field

On May 1, more than 2,000 people gathered at Pioneer High School's Hollway Field. With them were food trucks, live music, kids activities and a skydiver who had ceremoniously descended upon the field to kick off the festivities. 

Not a bad first day for new local business. 

After all, in some ways, the city's new minor league soccer team is a startup like any other. Founder and co-owner of AFC Ann Arbor Jamey Amrine started with a vision and spent a year creating a business plan, gathering funding and investors, assembling talent and recruiting local partners. 

In other ways, however, launching a sports team was (ahem) a whole different ball game. For one thing, after being declined by the Detroit City FC's National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), Amrine decided to start a brand new league. 

"We weren't quite ready to give up," he says. "We had so much time and energy invested into it."

And so, with a little more time and no small amount of energy, the Great Lakes Premier League was born. In its first year, the fourth-tier soccer league includes five teams, including two of the nation's longest-running teams, Milwaukee's Croatian Eagles Soccer Club, founded in 1922 and Red White and Blue Adria of Chicago, founded in 1959. Next year, Amrine expects to include up to 10 teams. 

"We see really strong potential in this new league," he says. "There's been tremendous interest from clubs in the region to join, and they're not just Sunday-play-in-the-park teams. We're getting really strong candidates contacting us." 

Kicking Off a Soccer Startup

Considering the inspiration to start the team came to Amrine just a year ago, that's some pretty great momentum. But it wasn't obvious that AFC Ann Arbor would be a success from the beginning. Though Amrine, his wife and a couple of friends were excited about the idea, and were able to raise more than $10,000 for the startup on Indiegogo, the rejection from the NPSL came as a blow and dampened their progress.

"People were enthusiastic about it, but getting people to jump on board and work was not easy," he says. 

But then he received a call from Rishi Narayan, owner of Underground Printing. Though the conversation was initially about t-shirts, Narayan quickly became an investor in the team and rallied others as well. The ownership group grew to include Rohit Narayan, Big Ten Burrito's Adam Lowenstein and Justin Herrick, Pakmode Media and Marketing's Bilal Saeed, AFC player Knox Cameron, Matthew Altruda of Tree Town Sound and Michal Lorenc. 

"Everybody has their area of expertise," says Amrine. "We all work well together. They are the kind of guys we'd all want to hang out with, even if we didn't own a soccer team."

From there, sponsors followed. AFC Ann Arbor now has an official pub (Arbor Brewing Company), training facility (CrossFit Treetown), and even an official appliance center (Big George's) among other sponsors. Though assembling a team and organizing a new, multi-state soccer league was a sizable task, with a team of sponsors and investors eager to roll their sleeves up to make it happen, AFC Ann Arbor was suddenly in position to become a reality. 

A professional-grade Amateur Team

Of course, securing the right talent was as important as the right business partners. First on board was coach David Hebestreit, an NAIA All-American player at Aquinas College, professional player for the Polish team Stal Mielec, as well a national championship-winning coach. Despite soccer's relatively new entrance into the American sports scene, Hebestreit didn't have trouble accessing the kind of world-class talent with local ties he was looking for. 

"There so much talent in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area," he says. "We were looking for a nice blend of players that are technically gifted, athletically gifted and psychologically gifted."

That's what he found. After recruitment and an open tryout that attracted more then 60 candidates, the team of 32 former professionals, current college players and local athletes was assembled. Though AFC Ann Arbor players are unpaid, they're seriously dedicated, some coming from college teams across the U.S. to spend the summer keeping their skills sharp.

Market demand for a Home Team

Because of football, basketball and baseball's dominance, the perennial question when it comes to new soccer teams is whether or not Americans are ready to rally behind the other football. Amrine and Hebestreit have few doubts about the answer.

"The last World Cup," says Hebestreit, "I saw an unbelievable outpouring of support from all kinds of people who previously didn't care at all." 

And Ann Arbor seems to agree. Days after their opening game, Hebestreit passed a couple on the sidewalk wearing AFC Ann Arbor jerseys. 

"I think the community is ready for it. They've embraced it already," he says. "I walk down Main Street and there are decals in the windows and our schedules in different bars and restaurants."

Soccer or otherwise, Amrine believes Ann Arbor has long been ripe for a true community sports team—meaning not one dressed in maize and blue.

"I've always lamented the lack of a minor league baseball team or something of the sort to do in the summer. It seems so obvious that Ann Arbor could support something like that," he says. "This is something that everybody in town can rally around and get enjoyment from.

"The most shocking thing to me was that nobody else was doing it."

That's why, even though the May 1 season opener ended in a loss for AFC Ann Arbor (they've since beat Oakland United, AFC Cleveland, and the Muskegon Risers), Amrine—and everyone involved with the new team—considered the event a huge success for Ann Arbor's newest homegrown business. 

"We're trying to provide a community event that also has an element of high-level soccer that you'd see on TV. If we provide that type of environment…we will provide a product that is successful," Hebestreit says. "I have few words that can describe how wonderful it is to be right here in this spot as a coach for this organization and with these players. These guys are the guys we want."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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