Cleveland’s new MLS NEXT Pro men’s soccer team gets a raucous, passionate welcome from city officials
This article was originally published by cleveland.com.
Cleveland will field an MLS NEXT Pro men’s soccer team beginning in 2025, and if the emotion behind Monday’s announcement is any indication, the day can’t get here soon enough.
What resembled more of a pep rally than a press conference to announce the team coming to Cleveland included the emotion and passion the sport pulls from its wide fan base.
Officials and organizers said the team is set to begin play in 2025 and added the potential for a National Women’s Soccer League team in the future. Cleveland is moving along the application process for entry in the women’s league, officials said.
What remains to be determined are the MLS NEXT Pro team’s name, colors, crest and venue – though officials said they are committed to building a “soccer first” facility and are scouting locations, said Michael Murphy, co-founder and chief executive officer of Cleveland Soccer Group.
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The league is comprised of affiliated and independent teams – meaning, some have connections to a parent club, like Columbus Crew 2 and the Crew, which plays in Lower.com Field. The Crew’s ownership group is led by Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
Cleveland’s MLS NEXT Pro team will be independent.
MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek addressed the crowd, as did David Gilbert, chief executive officer of Destination Cleveland and Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, which works to attract sports events of all kinds to the city.
Through the support of organizers, city officials and others, Altchek predicted Cleveland would be “a team built to win championships.” He said the league began meeting with Cleveland Soccer Group officials last year, adding he sees an eventual “40 to 50 teams” across the country in what he describes as an “ambitious” plan.
The league is built on a deep commitment to local communities and player development. Altchek said the optimism is there because the league drew fans from 180 countries tuning in to its inaugural season.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb could not attend, but officials aired a video with the mayor saying Cleveland fans will support a soccer team, one that will show the city’s “global competitiveness.”
But it was Cuyahoga County Executive-elect Chris Ronayne who served as a gregarious flag-bearer, saying he grew up playing soccer and going to games in Cleveland between the multiple iterations of the sport here – the Cleveland Cobras, Cleveland Force and Cleveland Crunch.
Ronayne said the success of the team in part will draw from the “ethnic mosaic,” composed of 120 nationalities represented in the county.
Murphy said the league’s structure is somewhat similar to baseball as far as parent club and affiliate teams go.
“Every team in the league was a second team for an MLS team,” he said. “For example, Columbus Crew, Columbus Crew 2. There also was one independent team, in Rochester (New York). The plan for the league is to grow the number of independent teams, probably 10 to 20 more independent teams. Cleveland is now the third independent team in the league, and we hope to have a lot more. We don’t have a parent per se. We’re here to win championships, to develop players of course – really to be the biggest and baddest pro soccer club in town.”
Major League Soccer launched MLS NEXT Pro in June 2021. In its first season, 21 clubs competed in NEXT Pro. Teams in several MLS cities will add MLS NEXT Pro affiliates in 2023. Those MLS cities include Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Nashville and New York. Additional affiliated and independent clubs are expected to join in years ahead, including Carolina Core FC in 2024.
Columbus Crew 2 won the first MLS NEXT Pro Cup in October.
Cleveland’s soccer history has carved out a somewhat convoluted labyrinth over the years. The Cleveland Crunch won a National Professional Soccer League title in 1994. It also won titles in 1996 and 1999. It eventually would change leagues and be rebranded as the Force before folding in 2005. Two years ago, local businessmen announced the Crunch would return as a team competing in the Major Arena Soccer League 2. It is now playing in Major League Indoor Soccer.
For Justin Morrow, a 12-year MLS veteran who played on the men’s national team after starring at St. Ignatius High School, the announcement in his hometown carries a lot of weight.
“I took Cleveland with me everywhere I went,” said Morrow, who is a member of Cleveland Soccer Group’s advisory board. He was named MLS’ 2020 Humanitarian of the Year after founding Black Players for Change, an independent organization consisting of more than 170 players, coaches and staff from MLS working to bridge the existing racial equality gap.
And while he said he wore honors like “All-Star” as a badge during his playing days, “Nothing will compare to when we kick off. We’re going to build a new pathway.”
That pathway, Murphy emphasized, will be forged by diversity and civic pride.
“If we do it right,” he said, “soccer can transform this region.”
That transformation has some things going for it and some challenges. A television deal is almost imperative to generate interest, and several folks who spoke Monday - including Murphy - touted the league’s long-term broadcast deal with Apple TV.
Also, the fan base – a global one to be sure – will be bolstered by the United States being one of three countries hosting the 2026 World Cup. Murphy said that event alone could generate 34 million new fans.
But minor-league sports or any teams other than the established major-league teams in a city have an uphill road to climb in that they are competing for entertainment – not necessarily sports - dollars. That means fans make regular decisions about where their discretionary dollars will go – movies, dining out, concerts and many other options.
“We are very fortunate we are home to so many teams,” Gilbert said, adding “but there’s been a huge void. This today signals we are filling that void.”
The press conference was held at the spacious Pins Mechanical Co. in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The announcement preceded the airing of the U.S. men’s team’s first World Cup game against Wales, and fans in attendance cheered and chanted “O-le, O-le, Cleve-land, Cleve-land!” before the game.
“Cleveland,” Murphy said, “we’re in the game.”