Before Zuhair Issa helped found LK St. Clair, a young-but-growing Macomb County amateur soccer club, he was really just looking for a way to extend the experiences he loved as a high school soccer player at L’Anse Creuse High School.
After graduation, Issa thought he’d find a team somewhere in Macomb County, but bounced around to different clubs in different communities, never really finding a team he could claim as his own.
What’s worse, he often had to leave Macomb County in order to play. He quickly recognized that other former high school and college players living in Macomb County struggle to find clubs close to home.
Zuhair Issa. Photo by Doug Coombe.
“There are tons of [people] that want to play, but don’t have anywhere to play. Nobody wants to drive 30 mins or pay thousands of dollars to play soccer,” says Issa. “That was something that Macomb County was missing.”
Issa wanted to change all that. But the more he talked with friends and former teammates who shared his passion for soccer, the more he began to imagine something larger taking shape. He imagined a community--not just a soccer club, but an organization that could be part of the business ecosystem. And he wanted it be in Macomb County.
As LK St. Clair celebrates its second full year this summer, Issa says he’s proud of what he has helped create, and the organization is on target to build a soccer community in Macomb County.
Issa, together with LK St. Clair co-founders Mehmed Muharemovic and Emina Alic, are now working to expand access to potential players, to organize a women’s team, and to create a sustainable business model for LK St. Clair.
Becoming a thing for soccer players
In his search for a team, Issa says he would often run into Muharemovic, a friend and fellow alumni soccer board member from L’Anse Creuse. Issa says Muharemovic had the same desire to play soccer. They realized they wanted to build a club of their own, and they wanted to do it in Macomb County.
“Mehmed is four or five years older than I am, but the way our relationship works is he brings me ideas, and I work to make them happen,” says Issa. “Securing a presence in the community was something I was able to do. I’m a good communicator, good at getting us into the conversation.” The two men connected with a third co-founder, Emina Alic, and started building the club now known as LK St. Clair.
Mehmed Muharemovic. Photo by Doug Coombe.
LK St. Clair is a member of Michigan Premier Soccer League (MPSL), Michigan’s organization for competitive amateur play. Each spring, LK St. Clair conducts open tryouts to select players for two men’s teams in the league’s upper two divisions. As many as 50 men aged 18 and older are selected to join a pool of players. All players can practice, but only about 18 per team are selected to play at each game, says Amir Campana, a defensive midfielder from Macomb.
Like Issa, Campana has been playing soccer since elementary school, eventually joining the team at Macomb’s Dakota High School. He says playing with LK St. Clair is something fun he can do when he’s not working in his family’s trucking company or studying business at Walsh College, where he’s transferring this summer after starting at Macomb Community College. He’s been with LK St. Clair since inception.
“I enjoy the vibe,” says Campana.”I get a good feeling when I’m around these guys. We are hardworking and we want to win.”
Making play affordable--and sustainable
LK St. Clair is working to make soccer accessible to Campana and others who can’t or don’t want to pay thousands of dollars to belong to the team.
“One of the most important things is making it so that everyone is able to play,” says Issa, who says it’s not uncommon to pay $3,000 per season with some clubs. LK St. Clair wants to keep their own fees closer to $200.
Instead of relying upon player fees, LK St. Clair fosters corporate relationships to cover operating costs, and this year partnered with Northwestern Mutual, ALTEN Technology, and Kavans Tavern. The club asks players to encourage local companies to support the team financially, which Issa and his colleagues see as a sustainable economic model.
“We want that to trickle down so players only have to pay a small fee,” says Issa. “From a talent and experience perspective, there are low-income families who are priced out of playing the game. Our goal is to make it affordable for families to play if they want to play.”
LK St. Clair’s Premier Division and First Division men’s teams play from late April through July against teams from Livonia, Hamtramck, Detroit, and beyond. Unlike Detroit City Football Club (DCFC), the semi-pro men’s team which has built a strong fan base and a home in Hamtramck, LK St. Clair teams practice and play on indoor fields, partly because the purchase and upkeep for an outdoor facility is cost prohibitive, at least for now.
“Our goal is to eventually play outside, when we have a facility,” says Issa.
In its early days, LK St. Clair rented space at L’Anse Creuse High School, but struggled to get enough play time on the field’s crowded schedule. In 2018, the club moved to Macomb Community College.
“There are two fields there, and they have been very nice and accommodating,” says Issa. “But it’s not really our vision because we want our own facility.”
This season, LK St. Clair will practice at Oakland University Dome, but for league play, is partnering with Total Sports Park in Macomb County’s Washington Township, a multi-sport facility with a full indoor soccer field, but continues to work toward acquiring a field of its own.
Building an east side culture of women’s soccer
LK St. Clair’s women’s team debuts this year, fulfilling an early goal for the club. “We knew it was time to build a women’s team. Not just to build the club, but to build the game for women on the east side in our own backyard,” says Mike Kepler, women’s head coach for LK St. Clair.
Kepler, who spends his days teaching soccer skills to preschoolers, then coaches metro Detroit high school women’s soccer, encouraged his players and former players to try out, and 16 players ranging in age from 18 to 22 now make up the new team.
Photo by Doug Coombe.In addition to building a new team, LK St. Clair is building a culture of women’s soccer on the east side, and Kepler wants everyone to know it.
Mike Kepler. Photo by Doug Coombe.
This season will speak a lot about our commitment and the amount of work we put in. We’re making great strides but not getting enough praise for how hard these women work,” he says.
“My goal is anyone who plays in Macomb County to come back and play for us. It’s your hometown so it has a good ring to it.”
Building a community within the community
LK St. Clair is a registered nonprofit that is working to become a valued member of the Macomb County business community. Issa and fellow club founders attend community events and introduce themselves to local government officials and business members, and their work is paying off. In 2019, LK St. Clair was nominated for Model of OneMacomb, an economic development award which acknowledges diversity through inclusive practices.
From a community development perspective, LK St. Clair is a valuable neighbor, says Diane Banks, executive director for Advancing Macomb. “We are trying to improve the live-work-play component, and there is a push to get not just youth outdoors to enjoy the community, but young professionals and adults, too. They are doing that through soccer, and their passion is evident.”