Welcome back to the Pyramid ladies and gents! Hope you're enjoying a healthy dose of Europa League action this afternoon. Liverpool is playing Augsburg as I type this. Ah, the joys of fast internet and multiple monitors.
This interview was done back in January, right after the New Year. Johnny Freeston was kind enough to take some time over a couple of days to interview over Facebook Messenger. I preface with that because this interview covers a lot of different stuff. Beer, the Colorado soccer scene, and The Topic That Must Not Be Named: Promotion and Relegation. Check it out.
Thanks for taking some time to do this with me Johnny. Let's start simple first. Tell me a little about yourself. Where you're from, who you are, what your role is with Harpo FC.
Sure thing. I was born in Bogota, Colombia and grew up in Hershey, PA which is truly an American Dream town built around hard work, integrity and giving back to your community. I'm a very versatile person and continue to wear many hats including husband, father of two young boys, corporate sales manager at F500 company, traveler, skier, Owner & Manager of Harpo's FC and more.
Family matters the most and always come first, but soccer is my passion.
Alright. I’m actually kind of familiar with Hershey. Have family in that area of Pennsylvania. Or at least used to before they started moving away. Never got to visit the theme park
Nice. Most folks from the East Coast have visited Chocolatetown USA as a right of passage. It was a great place to grow up and has a special place in my heart. Actually my first job was as a barista at HersheyPark entrance cafe. It was a tedious job and I rued my Dad for making me go to work at 15 years old, but in hindsight it was a necessary and valuable learning experience.
Really? That's pretty awesome. Barista seems to be the gateway to big things in life. Can you recap the history Harpo’s FC for me? Basically, what you'd consider to be the team's 'origin story?'
Harpo's FC was founded in 1997 by CU-Boulder undergraduate students, Chris Hardin and Scotty Schuett. I moved to Boulder in 2000, became friends with them over the years and joined as a player in 2005.
We were a hardcore partying team in those days (still are) but it was all about having fun with long-time friends who wanted to continue playing ball after college. As our crew got older and moved on to having families, they stopped playing and I became Manager in 2008. I rebuilt the entire squad starting in 2010 and started developing more of an elite men's team in 2012 after winning tournaments (Vail Invitational) outside of our City of Boulder D1 league.
Our team really took off in 2013 and nowadays we have our deepest and most talented squad yet while embodying our club mantra of Brothers, Character and Excellence.
That's the kind of origin story I like to hear. What kind of town is Boulder? Don't get to Colorado near as often as I'd like.
It's an amazing mix of fun-loving, well-educated and community-minded folks who work hard and play hard. We are an acclaimed outdoor paradise, entrepreneurial hotbed, technology hub and college town with some bigger city amenities where everyone wants to enjoy life to the fullest. As we say here, Be Boulder!
Civic pride and supporting soccer seem to go hand in hand. Now, I have a some questions I've been waiting to ask you. I heard a podcast interview that I believe you were on last fall, and the topic of promotion and relegation came up. This question is two sided. 1 - What do you think of pro/rel? 2 - How would pro/rel benefit Harpo FC?
Indeed and Agreed. Yes, we were interviewed by Flakoglost podcast led by our now good friend Todd Brossart in Denver.
Personally, I think promotion/relegation is a major reason that futbol is such an entertaining spectacle and considered the beautiful game. You have cities, towns, clubs, players and fans fighting for their livelihood and futures every single game across multiple leagues in dozens of countries. Every match matters so much.
As you know there are many different people and organizations who have opinions on pro/rel which run the full spectrum. One such advocate Ted Westerveldt has become a fan of Harpo's FC and we welcome that as in many ways we would love to be the shining light for fighting tooth 'n nail to move on up the American Soccer Pyramid.
If pro/rel was a reality in the U.S. and HFC had the opportunity to move from our USSSA association up to say NPSL to USL to NASL to MLS then with the proper investments we would be pushing to reach MLS asap.
We would also be taking gigantic leaps up the food chain where staff, management and players would have to develop each step of the way, but ultimately we would want to become the best club in the U.S., win international titles, help our players earn USMNT caps and broker strategic moves abroad if it would further their careers and lives.
So the main benefit for Harpo FC would be the ability to climb up, grow, and reach more people?
Yes, this would be a goal for our club and players, but we would also be committed to developing people and giving back to our community with coaching clinics, camps, charitable works and helping understand how brilliant it can be to support your local soccer team. In many ways, we're already doing this and will continue striving to improve our offerings on and off the pitch.
Awesome. It really seems like opening things would create a more vibrant, community based atmosphere. How else would you ever see a team from Boulder in a Major League?
Honestly, unless we receive significant outside investment from strategic investors full of capital, there is no way you would ever see a Boulder team in MLS. In fact, it's a serious uphill battle to enter our team/start a franchise in a league such as PDL or NPSL for financial reasons. Many have tried in the past with mixed results and ultimately none of those clubs made it work financially although there were some decent results on the field such as Boulder Rapids Reserves. In the grand scheme of things, soccer as a business isn't lucrative with return on investment except at the highest levels of the game (ex. World Cups, Euros, Premier League) due to TV revenues, global sponsorships, etc.
Even at the top of the pyramid, you run into all kinds of obstacles and roadblocks though. Currently you hear so much more negative than positive press such as FIFA corruption and league losing mega millions of dollars each year, smaller clubs going into administration. For example, it was just announced that Rochester Rhinos (2015 USL Champions) have tanked financially and USL is taking over operational management of the club. It’s sad.
Interesting, I didn't realize there had been teams in Boulder before. I've got a question for you from one of my readers. He asks "if they could, realistically, be pro-ready in a matter of months if they were promoted and if it would 'upset their apple cart' if they tried to compete at the pro level on an accelerated timeline."
Great question and happy to respond.
We have a very competitive squad right now full of former top college players and numerous former pros who are a band of brothers willing to give it all for each other. Regardless of our level of play, amateur or pro, that will never change. Realistically, we see ourselves as currently able to compete with and defeat PDL and NPSL teams. We gave USL Colorado Switchbacks a game during U.S. Open Cup last year where they won 2-1 but since then our squad has become stronger with even higher quality players. Our goal this year is to reach the U.S. Open Cup 4th Round vs MLS Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. We take it one game at a time and never get ahead of ourselves, but we’ll be disappointed if we don't beat semi-pro and professional teams to exceed our own expectations in 2016. We have been dubbed a #bullshitpubteam and we welcome that, but make no mistake, we're here to win and to take on whomever stands in our path.
So going pro would definitely depend on the interest in the game that pro/rel generates then?
Yes and No. Going pro is a goal of ours regardless of pro/rel. However, let's say we started a USL team, which would be a great achievement in itself...but how much sweeter would it be if we were successful in that league and could earn promotion to say NASL and then say MLS. The pro/rel conversation has really opened our eyes to the business side of soccer and shown us how hampered we are in the U.S. with the current pyramid structure.
Interesting point. How exactly has it hampered the team?
Well, let's start with the positives of the current opportunity, which in this case for us, is the U.S. Open Cup. There is no other medium where we can earn the right to play other top amateur teams in the country and then face the best PDL, NPSL, USL, NASL and/or MLS teams. We loved our 2015 experience and are enjoying our 2016 run. This is such a major attraction and motivation for our club. However, on the flip side, although it's fun and competitive to play in our CASL league and other tournaments, many of our staff and players yearn for a constant higher-level challenge on a weekly and annual basis. In this sense, without pro/rel, we are hampered as we can't move up the leagues, even if we can compete with and defeat semi-pro and professional teams. This is a huge disappointment considering that the majority of top leagues around the world afford their clubs the opportunity to live this potential dream.
One just has to look at smaller community club AFC Bournemouth who went into administration, were saved by outside investment + fan financial support and then earned their way up the leagues through promotion with a homegrown local Manager Eddie Howe. Now we're seeing many of their same lower league players light up the English Premier League each weekend and it's brilliant. How can you not support such a club and the people who've helped them reach the most competitive league in the world? We would relish the opportunity to make the impossible possible.
I can see how that would be really frustrating, but I like how you go with positives first. Pros and cons to everything. Let's talk about that Open Cup run last year. I remember reading about you on some overseas website, describing yourselves as the 'last place team in the tournament.' Then you go off and win, and just missed out on beating the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, who did much better than expected as a team last year. How did that change things for the team, and how crazy was the ride?
It was a helluva run and everyone associated with our club enjoyed riding the wave!
It was a priceless life experience for all of us. We didn't know what we were up against until it hit us square in the face. But after taking that first punch vs KC Athletics in our Pre-Qualification Match, we realized that we could compete and beat them and did so convincingly. We carried our form and confidence into the match vs BYU (PDL) in Utah and our experience shone through as we won in PK's whereas they missed one wide and had one saved by our Beast Mode keeper Zac Gibbens.
We took near knockout blows from USL Switchbacks in our 2nd Round Match in Colorado Springs. Honestly, we made two amateur mistakes early on, going down 2-0 very unexpectedly. But we settled down, battled back, realized we weren't out of our depth and then went for the win. We hit the post twice, had breakaway balls with strikers in on goal get stuck in the mud and had our chances, but it wasn't meant to be.
Our biggest takeaways from the Open Cup run were that we could compete on much higher levels that we were used to on and off the pitch. And in many ways, we're more organized, play a better style of ball and carry ourselves in a more professional manner than most other teams out there. It was made us hungry for another crack at it.
I didn't realize how close some of those games were. Hopefully 2016 is kinder to you. Maybe a Harpo's home game or two? I've got to head home from work and will be off here for 30 minutes or so. Want to continue once I get back, or pick it up tomorrow?
Ha, 2015 was pretty kind, but 2016 should be even more successful : )
We have applied and will continue to apply to host all Open Cup games.
In fact, U.S. Soccer announces the next round draw for Open Cup tomorrow!!
We might earn a bye directly to the 1st Round proper vs NPSL or PDL team based upon our conversations with U.S. Soccer. However, there's still a chance that we'll need to play third round qualification match vs another amateur team. Either way, bring it on!
When it comes to the Open Cup, ideally, who would you like to play to start the Cup?
Just spoke with U.S. Soccer and they will announce the next round draw before 5pm CST today. We would like to earn the bye to the 1st Round proper to face a NPSL or PDL team.
Based upon our research and understanding from USSF on how geographic locations factor into future match-ups, it looks like we could face NPSL side FC Wichita which would be a great challenge.
If we don't earn the bye and have to play a third round qualification match, then we'd most likely face an amateur club such as North Texas Rayados or San Francisco City FC. We are familiar with both sides and would prepare accordingly to win either way.
There's a match I'd like to see. Harpo's vs San Francisco City FC. Or SFCFC vs LA Wolves. Let's change gears a little here. How is the soccer scene in Colorado? It would seem to be a great state for the game, but I don't really hear about many teams there outside of the Rapids, Switchbacks or you guys.
Great question. The level of competition is of a high standard here in Colorado. There are several other Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL) clubs who compete annually for league and tournament titles. Some of our quality opponents include Colorado Rovers, Colorado Rush and FC Denver.
We also have PDL Real Colorado Foxes based in Highlands Ranch (Denver suburb). A number of our HFC ballers have played with or still play with their team. This enables them to train several times a week and to play consistent high-level matches all summer vs mostly U-23 sides from across the region and nation.
Last but not least are our indoor semi-pro opponents from Premier Arena Soccer League. PASL is the official development league for Major Arena Soccer League (pro). Our biggest PASL rival is Colorado Blizzard from Colorado Springs. They have won many divisional titles and were National Finalists a few years ago. Both of us made it to Nationals in 2015, us as Finalists, as we beat them 4-2 in the Semi-Finals in Allen, TX.
Of course. What does the Colorado Amateur Soccer League look like? Is it state wide, or more based around Denver and that area?
CASL is based in the Front Range for now, which includes teams up and down our I-25 corridor from south of Denver up to Fort Collins. There are 24 teams in the league which is the most competitive in the state. The usual suspects of Colorado Rovers, Colorado Rush, FC Denver and Azteca FC and us battle it out for league titles in fall and spring seasons. We also have a new Community Shield which goes to the team who has the best overall record for the year and we’re working hard to earn that too. It's a good standard of play and a well-organized league.
Compared to some of the other state leagues I've looked at, I'd say that's a really healthy league for sure. How many competitions does Harpo's actually play in?
Yep, CASL is quite competitive, fun and getting better each year. Last year we played in 7 outdoor and 2 indoor competitions plus a few scrimmages and finished with a record of 40-7-7. The year prior we went 35-4-2. Our goal for 2016 is to win every single game thereby winning all 10 competitions for this year and having a deep Open Cup run to boot. These numbers don't include the weekly indoor games our guys play in at Boulder and Denver facilities plus we train together once a week currently. It's a lot of time, effort and dedication, but we're all so passionate about what we're doing and thoroughly enjoy being together.
That's a lot of soccer to be played.
For sure, this is why we have a deep and talented squad full of 35 starters so that if any bro goes down, then another one can ideally step in seamlessly.
Last year was a transition year for us in many ways, but we still won Vail Invitational for third time in four years, PASL Rocky Mountain Division and were PASL National Finalists coupled with our Open Cup run. This year we are better-equipped and even more laser-focused to make waves locally and nationally.
You are the first guy to use 'bros' in an interview to describe players. Major props for that, talk about a 'boss' move. I, for one, am really interested in seeing what Harpo's brings to the table in 2016. What can you tell me about the team's relationship with Avery Brewing Co?
Thanks. We're excited for 2016 and are working extremely hard to ensure it's our best year yet. We started partnering with Avery Brewing Company in 2012 through connections made with personal friends who are now senior employees there.
They provide us with the best beer in the country, fresh gear, host our rowdy team parties and personally treat us like VIP's on each visit. In return we proudly represent by wearing their Avery badge on all of our gear, win trophies and secure prominent and positive local, national and international press for them.
It's been a win/win relationship. They are close friends and we give our best to embody their shared ethos of community focus, top quality product, best customer experience and attractive branding which makes you yearn for more of all of it.
That's really cool to hear. A lot of teams would do well to learn about doing something like that. What would you say is the best Avery beer to start with for someone who hasn't had it before?
Haha, all of our Avery beers are brilliant, there's truly something for everyone. Flagship beers include White Rascal, IPA, Ellie's Brown and Joe's Pilsner. I'd recommend Rascal and IPA for a newbie, but also our Kaiser, Lilikoi Kepolo, Old Jubilation and Raspberry Sour which come in cans, bombers or are available at our campus in Boulder.
Once you try Avery, you'll never want anything else, trust me smile emoticon. We consider ourselves ambassadors of Avery and love representing.
I don't know, I live in Missouri so I've got Schlafly and Boulevard to choose from.
Right on. Boulevard is decent.
You can try Avery at these places near you in Kansas City.
They won't have the full spectrum of beers like our restaurant and tap room here in Boulder, but those KC places should have a few for you to enjoy.
I've seen some around town, just been waiting to try one until I could talk to someone who's had it before. Back on the topic of soccer before we get pulled down the rabbit hole that is discussing beer, where does Harpo’s play home games and what is support for the team at the games like?
Sure. We play our CASL league games at Broomfield Commons in the City of Broomfield which is in between Denver and Boulder. We love our fans and attendance can range from 10-30 for home games on Sundays. This is mostly our WAG's (wives and girlfriends), kids and parents.
We have bigger crowds for our PASL indoor games, ex. 300 sold out crowd last year at Longmont Indoor Soccer. Our goal is to sell out our home game vs Colorado Rush at Boulder Indoor Soccer which is bigger with capacity for 500 fans. And of course Open Cup is also enticing and our last match drew about 100 fans. We're working hard to increase attendance for all matches this year.
Sounds like boosting the attendance would be a good plan. The more people you can get to your games, the more waves you'll make.
Agreed. This is one of the many challenges that clubs of our size face, but driving greater attendance is something that we'll make a reality. Hopefully we'll have an official supporters club in the future too.
That's what a lot of teams are missing, a supporters group. Will Harpo's consider getting it's own logo as the team grows?Yes. We’ve utilized our legacy sponsor Harpo’s Sports Grill logos (love them) and Avery Brewing Company logo. We actually have a new team logo being designed which we'll share via social media and our website soon.
Awesome, I'm looking forward to seeing that. Ready to do some more rapid fire questions?
Yep, hit me
Okay. What's your favorite book, regardless of genre?
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, changed my life back in the day
Stoicism? Interesting. Haven't gotten any philosophy recommendations so far. Who's your favorite current soccer player, and who is your favorite former player?
I majored in History and Literature with focus in Philosophy so there you go. Paul Scholes is my favorite past player.
As far as current players who entertain and haven't reached their peak yet, I dig Douglas Costa at Bayern Munich, he's quality.
Scholesy was the player's player and pro's pro per Zidane, Henry, Xavi, Viera, Keane and others. He was also a total class act off the field. There might never be another one like him.
Costa sure looks like a superstar in the making for sure. I think any serious fan of the game should watch guys like Scholes, Giggs, and the rest of the 'Class of 92.' Every teams goal should be to have a group of players like that. Do you have a favorite league and/or team that you enjoy watching?
I've supported Manchester United since 1990. I also support Rangers FC in Scotland and Fulham FC in England.
I enjoy watching EPL the most followed by Bundesliga and La Liga, but I'm a soccer junkie and watch all top world leagues to study and to enjoy the futbol.
Alright, I can appreciate studying the game. Where can people find out more about you, and more about Harpo's FC?
You can learn more about us at www.harposfc.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @HarposFC
Google searches for Harpo's FC also bring up the most popular articles and interviews from the past year
That'll be helpful. Let's talk long term real quick. Where would you like to see Harpo's FC in 5 years?
The multi-million dollar question. If we can secure the right investment from the right investors in the near future, then one of our goals would to become a championship winning club in the USL or NASL.
Our immediate goal is to become the most successful community club in the U.S. We will be giving it our absolute best in 2016 to become "America's Team" for all of the right reasons.
Do you have a favorite soccer book,movie or podcast that you would recommend to people?
Books = The Messiah Method. Sir Alex Ferguson - Managing Manchester United - Harvard Business School case collection.
Movie = Green Street Hooligans. The Jay DeMerit Story.
Podcasts = Flakoglost. Eric Wynalda WTF on Sirius XM. Year Zero Soccer.
I'm sure you're including Green Street for it's authenticity.
Ha, it's just one of those movies you should watch if you're involved with soccer, and make of it what you will.
Yeah, it's interesting. Should have been made in the 80's, but I digress. Last question, and I'll let you go. What would you like to say to the people reading this article about why they should get out and support the lower levels of American soccer?Excellent question. The lower levels of soccer are driven by players, coaches and fans who have an immeasurable love for the game. You'll witness and enjoy the passion of regular folks striving to improve themselves as athletes, leaders and supporters...even if no one happens to be watching...so come enjoy the show, bring your friends, have fun and leave more fulfilled and happier than when you arrived. You'll thank yourself for it and so will we smile emoticon
I think that's a good way to wrap up this interview. Johnny, thanks for taking some time to do all of this with me, and if I ever make it out to Boulder, I'll be sure to hit you up and try to catch a Harpo game.
Thanks for everything John. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Trust that we're happy to provide some Avery beers and free tickets if you ever make it out to Boulder for a game. As we always say related to our club and outlook on life, Onwards and Upwards!
John, thanks again for taking the time to do this with me. If you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, containing fun articles and videos, sometimes covering soccer, sometimes not. Make sure to spread the word. Share interviews, tell friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without you. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.