This spring Kalamazoo becomes part of soccer nation

Mike Garrett likes to start things. Then he likes to help them grow.

He’s honed those skills as his company, Let’s Play Sports, has grown from one soccer complex in Kalamazoo to 25 locations in 11 states.

Garrett owns SoccerZone on Sprinkle Road and the retail shop also found there, Back of the Net. He opened SoccerZone 25 years ago and he built the business around the sport he’s loved his whole life, as a pro player, coach, and business owner.

Now he’s taking on a new challenge. 

With the help of like-minded folks who share his enthusiasm for the game and who care about the community, Garrett is bringing a National Premier Soccer League expansion team to Kalamazoo. By mid-May, the team will be ready to take the field.

As all the myriad details it takes to start up a new team are worked out within the next two weeks, Garrett expects to announce a coach, venue, team colors, sponsors, and a schedule. A “name the team” contest is also planned for the organization that will have a roster of 20 to 25 players.

The team will be part of the National Premier Soccer League, a rapidly expanding league of 80 teams that is unique in that it has both pro and college level players. Some teams serve as farm clubs for professional soccer teams and others as places where college-level players get the experience they need to move to the pros. National Premier Soccer League teams are eligible to participate in the U.S. Open Cup. 

The league’s season starts in the middle of May and goes through July, so it fits well with the schedule of athletes whose collegiate teams play in the fall, filling the gap that opens when school is out. He says part of the mission in organizing the team is to give local players a place to train, compete, and improve.

“The league has a strong track record of players who play in this league moving on to professional teams,” Garrett says. And he looks forward to college players from area schools including WMU and Kalamazoo College being part of the team.

“We do hope to have a local flavor to the team,” Garrett says. “We think there are local players who deserve to have a chance and who would benefit from having a team here.” He also anticipates the coach who the team hires will be an established one with a network of people in colleges who can identify players who would be a good fit for Kalamazoo. 

A local flavor is just one facet of the team that Garrett envisions. He wants it to be a team that plays well, one that is competitive. “We want a team that exhibits quality play, quality sportsmanship. That will be a good example for the area soccer community.” Players who pick fights and are generally bad examples will not be welcome.

He envisions a coaches club where those who lead youth soccer can get involved with the team, watch its training, then take the best techniques and ways of teaching them back to their teams. “They’ll be able to go back to their youth team with a better understanding, present the game to those kids in a positive way, and help them get better. We can help area soccer with this team.”

Thousands of youngsters playing soccer in the area could benefit from such a collaboration.

“I also like the idea of having a team that is inspiring,” Garrett says. “Something for the 10-year-old boy or girl who loves the game, and really has a blast going to a game. It’s something to do with their family and they love it. Maybe they come to one of our camps and one of the players is there and so they have a connection now, they get an autograph, and they find soccer is something they love to do, and they can pursue that. 

“I think when kids have something they really love to do that’s a very positive thing in terms of the other choices they make in life. ... To have something you care about -- that keeps you grounded.”

Who else does he expect to attend Kalamazoo soccer games? The plan is for games to be inviting for whoever is interested in the game. 

Garrett explains lots of Millennials play indoor soccer at SoccerZone. For them, team organizers are looking at ways they can build on traditions other teams have found successful. Some teams in the league have a March to the Field. They meet at a local restaurant or bar and when they leave they march together the field. 

“We want to make sure that no matter who you are if you like the sport, we can entice you to come to a game. We want you to come to a game and enjoy it and come back. There are a lot of people who play soccer in that twenty- to thirtysomething crowd I think we will see lots of support from.”

Garret says he’s encouraged that Kalamazoo will support such its own soccer team based in part on the popularity of SoccerZone. More than 10,000 people a week use the four-field soccer complex during its peak season. 

There is also growing regional support for such teams. Grand Rapids, an admittedly much larger community, has recently fielded its own soccer team which is drawing 4,000 to 5,000 people to its games.

Another encouraging sign is that with little promotion people have already asked to help with the fledgling sports team. They have volunteered to take tickets, park cars, sell sponsorships and told Garrett they would help in whatever way they can. “So many have people have said they want to help out, they just want to help.”

Season ticket packages are available online and though they have not been advertised, they are selling. “Lots of people have already purchased season tickets,” Garrett says. “If you just take the initial response based on what we’ve done and the reaction we’ve gotten -- we haven’t done much -- and we’ve already gotten a pretty good reaction.”

It helps that even though the size of the market is small, Kalamazoo is a very established, strong soccer community. Four pro players have come from the area: Eric Alexander, Lindsey Tarpley, Jacob Peterson and Mike Garrett’s son, Ian, who at 19 is now pursuing an indoor soccer career in St. Louis. 

“All of them played at SoccerZone, so we feel we had a role in their development. We provided a facility and they were able to come here and play as a kid. Maybe this team can do that same sort of thing. It would be great if this team could provide a boost for other players coming through.”

Garrett’s also looking for a team that has staying power. 

“I like starting things and I like the idea of growing it from that grassroots level to where  in five years, maybe it’s a whole different animal in terms of the size of the enterprise,” he says. “I think SoccerZone’s a good example of that. We started with one location and we have lots of them now. I can start something and get the right people involved and let them do what they’re good at.” 

What he wants to start this time is a team with community-wide appeal that will be here for years to come.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Second Wave Southwest Michigan. She is a freelance writer and editor.

About the pictures

Since the team has not yet been formed pictures prove a bit challenging. Some of the pictures shown here are from the NPSL championship game in which the New York Cosmos B took the national title in a 3-2 win over Chattanooga FC. The match drew a record-breaking crowd of 18,227, the largest crowd in National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) history. The pictures were taken by Ray Soldano for NPSL. “American soccer was the real winner tonight,” NPSL Chairman Joe Barone says. “The NPSL allows teams to create and manage their own stage.  And this is the result when all of the pieces of the puzzle come together.  We are very proud of the job Chattanooga did as hosts.” 

Other pictures are by Mike Garrett and show the SoccerZone and Back of the Net.

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