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10 Things About Starting A Non-League Club In The US

For the past few weeks one of DeKalb County United’s many wonderful volunteers has been asking me to contribute to the Green and Black blog.

“What should I write about?” I asked. He said “10 things I didn’t know before I started this thing.” Sounds good, so here goes. Grab a coffee or a may be a lengthy one. I don’t dive too deep into the particulars of leagues, recruiting or anything like that. But hopefully some of the high level things I wish I would have known more about two years ago.

As recently as this week I was asked by an old friend and former teammate to give him some guidance on how to start a club, so this may prove helpful to you, Samir. :)

Why start a club?

No one can answer this for you, but as the clock ticks and the hours roll by where you’re working to start or maintain a club in the lower leagues of American soccer, you’ll have to make sure the answer is one that not only keep you going, but draws people to you and the club.

Is it so you can be an “owner”? Is it so you can help a local youth club with a first team? Is it to make a few bucks? Is it to do something good for your community? Whatever it is, don’t lose sight of it. There will be times when you’ll question your own commitment, but that answer will keep you going.

For me it was two things, both of which I have shared with hundreds of people in talking about DeKalb County United. First off, it’s an amazing way to unite our communities. The two biggest towns are DeKalb and Sycamore, often rivals on the prep fields, but very little truly separates the good people from both towns. DKCU brings them all together in support of a common positive thing. Secondly, this is my home and this club is my way of leaving something behind and it offers young players an opportunity I never had when I was young enough to compete.

To be clear, this wasn’t my doing alone, not by any stretch. Colby Newquist, Brian VanBuren, Steve Duran and my wife Jenny were a part of it from the very beginning as our first Board of Directors. Each had their own reasons to be involved and work all those hard hours after our day jobs and families to bring this club to life. Those four deserved to be recognized even more than I do.

Listen to Charlie Stillitano…”it’s the money moron.”

Nothing about managing a club is cheap. If you’re fortunate enough to be wealthy and you’re willing to spend your own money that’s awesome. But for most current and now defunct teams, money is a huge challenge.

I heard Charlie say “it’s the money, moron” about 50 times on SiriusXM radio and it really makes sense. Money drives everything about a club like this with facility rentals, equipment, league fees, travel costs, coaching stipends, meals, marketing, business expenses, etc.

We started the club with nothing. No money, no logo, no players, no idea how to pull off this vision. We had to address the financials...and since it was never about making money to any of us we decided to start a non profit (which came with it’s own costs and challenges.)

There’s a number of ways to form your club, all have pros and cons, but take time to consider them before you rush into something.

Do research, ask questions, follow the leaders

We started planning the idea for the club in January of 2017, formed a Board in May and announced our arrival in July of that year. We didn’t take the field for our first tryout until January of 2018.

The point….stay patient.

More than likely you’re trying to establish something brand new and have no idea if your community will support it. Even if you can fund it alone, you want fans. So talk to them BEFORE you go live with crazy social media stuff. Build a foundation.

Follow the leaders in the non-league game. Dennis Crowley laid out an amazing document and supplemental info for Stockade, and if you haven’t read it please do. Others have also published advice and there are so many great people who will pick up the phone and chat with you. If you commute for work, use every moment to make calls and talk. Talk talk talk, and more importantly...listen. Most will share ideas, success stories and even documents they use.

Also don’t be afraid to reach out to clubs that may have shut down. They may have reasons that you never considered before.

The type of organization you want to be needs to be evident from top to bottom.

This was something I think we generally had an idea on, but it remains a constant point of discussion in meetings and phone calls. Are you running a fancy Sunday league team? Are you trying to be a professional club someday? No idea? What impact does each decision have on that image and culture we want to create?

At DKCU we do our best to be as professional of a club as we can be (with amateur players.) We do our best to give them top notch coaching, facilities, equipment and opportunities but we are limited. Sometimes it’s hard to meet the expectations we’ve set forth for ourselves even because we, too, are just volunteers who do it because we love it.

Sometimes I struggle finding the appropriate correspondence with players and coaches because my personality is to have fun and joke around, but sometimes that doesn’t mesh with the “pro” club we’re trying to run. Sometimes I need to step back and remove myself as a Board member and let the coaches handle things.

There’s no right or wrong to this...but something to think about.

You’ll need more help than you think.

To this day I have no idea how we got to this point.

Last weekend Jenny and I missed our first home game. Thanks to a number of talented, willing and committed volunteers everything went on without a hitch.

We’ve got dedicated volunteer staff managing player registration, merchandise, graphic design, website, ticket sales, livestream commentary, match day PA, photography, videography, camera operations, DJ, U23s, and goalkeepers. Not to mention the myriad others putting their hands to any and everything through the week and during a match day.

Maybe some of them will share on the blog about why they support the club in the coming weeks.

I used to think that the five board members could get it going and manage. Not even close. Again, maybe this is because of the overall professionalism we want to operate with. We’ve set the bar high and now we must continue to push the bar higher.

For those who have an existing non-league club in your community, they probably need your help. Reach out, get involved and keep them going.

Coaches - how to find the right fit for your club/team.

Finding a head coach was something we didn’t even start to think about until late in 2017.

We’d been public with the club for about 5 months and decided we should find a gaffer. We identified a few targets, had a few interviews and made our selection to hire Michael Gecan as our first head coach on a modest stipend.

Why Coach Gecan? First and foremost we wanted someone who would set the tone. Players are expected to show up for the two training sessions each week if they want to make the game day roster. We knew early on that if players ran wild then the reputation was shot. Coach doesn’t pull punches in holding players accountable and I appreciate that.

Secondly, he’s a student of the game having coached for many years and he was eager to challenge himself at the next level and he believed in the club’s mission. We didn’t want a placeholder as a head coach. We wanted a real advocate for the badge...that’s why he’s still our head coach.

This year we added another great coach as an assistant in Zac Ludwig. Zac brings a ton of experience and credentials to the club and is helping us take the next step forward as an organization.

Take the time to identify a coach or coaching staff that fits the club. Make sure you’re on the same page on the key issues and give them the tools and support to succeed.

Players are the face of the club. Celebrate their hard work

I am challenged every day by this.

It is easy for me to forget that some of our players drive close to two hours each way to come to training. Sometimes I forget to put myself in their shoes. Sometimes I forget that we as a staff need to stay connected to our players. But we’re trying and what they need to know is that they have our endless support and we’ll never stop cheering for their success.

If you’re reading this as a guide to starting a club, all I can say is get to know the guys as much as you can. It’s hard for me personally because I don’t attend every practice, and don’t need to because we have great coaches. But any player in non-league deserves to be celebrated for their commitment to their club.

Expect challenges

Career changes, class schedules, family issues, health issues, attendance issues, etc. There is no way to predict the things that will come up that will cause you to shift your plans.

That star player may leave. That amazing sponsor you thought you had may stop answering the phone. The fans may not show up to a game despite good weather...who knows.

Be ready for anything and when the time comes lean on that amazing support from your staff to work through the problems as they come.

If you don’t know it, lower level soccer clubs are much more fragile than anyone will let on. The stats are there with UPSL, NPSL and regional clubs folding every year. Few will talk about it, instead we celebrate expansion teams. At DKCU we know that to have the type of community impact we want then we have to exist and difficult decisions for the long term may be made that are not the most sexy or popular. That means dealing with problems and moving forward productively.

Control what you can, ignore what you can not

I’ve been laying in bed and read a tweet that upset me quite a bit. I’ve gotten emails that were disrespectful to me, the club and all the people involved. I’ve been close to responding.

Not everyone will be a supporter of you or the club. That’s ok. There’s no sense trying to convert those people. Instead show appreciation for those who buy season tickets, buy shirts and share your stories with their circles. Those are the ones who will push the club forward.

Don’t get caught up in anything that distracts you from the mission. (It seems like some famous person said that already so I apologize if I stole a quote.)

Enjoy it

Sometimes I remember something our British volunteer told me while watching an Aurora Borealis game in 2016, “Americans take it too seriously. It’s lower level soccer, it’s supposed to be fun.”

When I look at the many staff members that we have and see the work they do, either with us on game day or at the computer on their own time, I remind myself that we need to have fun doing this. Find ways to bond with the team and with each other. Chemistry goes a long way in business and in team sports. DKCU is no different and we try to make sure everyone is excited to come to “work” and support our club.

Thanks for reading...I hope I will be back on here before the end of the season!

John Hall


DeKalb County United

If you want to volunteer at DKCU, hit us up through the usual channels.

If want to reach out to John in person, he can be found on Twitter at @coachhall10


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