"It was playing in those leagues that I was really inspired to play and be involved at that level."
Today's interview is brought to you by MeritFit. MeritFit.co is a Kansas City based fitness and nutrition blog run by one of my good friends and certified Personal Trainer, Dustin Duewel. He played soccer for 12 years, inspiring his passion for fitness and nutrition. Check out his blog for all kinds of useful information to up your game and get ahead of the competition.
Hello again everyone! Welcome back, what a heady morning it's turning out to be. Cincinnati FC became the first non-MLS side in a US Open Cup semifinal since 2011. Dennis Crowley of Kingston Stockade and Riccardo Silva of Miami FC are taking the issue of promotion and relegation in America to the Court for Arbitration for Sport. FIFA are closing in on taking over the game in Australia and forcing the creation of a second division and promotion and relegation. What a time to be a soccer fan!
Now, I was really happy to stumble upon Club Toledo. Not only do they have one of the best crests in non-league American soccer, (Seriously, share this interview just so the logo get's spread around) they are consciously trying to build a more serious amateur club that can compete in a more regional or national league one step at a time. No rushing here, they're going about it brick by brick. Check it out.
Tell a little about who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Club Toledo.
My name is Jake Mercer and I'm originally from Findlay, Ohio, which is about 40 min south of Toledo. My role with the club is team administrator, which amounts to player recruitment, league liaison, jersey washer, etc. I basically handle all the day to day stuff so the team can just enjoy playing on Sundays. I also am a central defender for the team.
Ah, Findlay, home of the US Flag Factory. How did you come to be a fan of the beautiful game?
Yea good ole' Flag City USA haha. I actually work in Findlay for the local planning commission but live in a Toledo suburb called Perrysburg. I've been playing soccer since I was 4. My dad was my coach and my older brother played too so it was something that our family could enjoy together. Even though Findlay is a smaller city (around 40k population) it has a pretty established youth club that feeds decent players into the local high school program. I also grew up as the MLS was starting up and I was a huge Columbus Crew fan. I loved following the league grow and following the national teams. After high school, I didn't have any real opportunities to play collegiality so I went to Miami University (which doesn't have a men's program). I still had the itch to play so I sought out and played in a few different leagues down in Cincinnati to fill my time. It was playing in those leagues that I was really inspired to play and be involved at that level.
What's the story behind the creation of Club Toledo? What's the 'origin story?'
The team really came together last year. In Toledo, there were a few different men's 11v11 leagues available to play in the summer. One was a Sunday league called La Liga which was started by a few Hispanic teams. The league was unsanctioned which resulted in the referees being unwilling to really commit to doing those games. Often these games were done with just a center ref and when things get out of hand, the refs felt unprotected against a group of 22 guys plus some spectators yelling at them. The other league was a Friday night league run by the Bavarian Society. This was an inconvenient time and was played out on the east side of town, which isn't really a quick drive for a lot of the players. Both leagues dwindled in numbers so the remaining teams got together and agreed to start the Northwest Ohio Champions League. This was an attempt to come together with some raised standards to try and improve the options available for 11v11 soccer in Toledo. My team was playing at the Bavarian Society but had trouble filling a full roster. My friend, Cesar Garcia, had a team in La Liga in the same situation, so we combined our teams. Cesar and I are friends through a group known as the Toledo Area Soccer Association (TASA). They organize pickup, a rec league (7v7) and do watch parties for US national team games. The team was made up of half TASA guys I brought in and half friends Cesar knew through his restaurant, Cocina de Carlos. Our name last year was Cuervos, in honor of the Netflix show Club de Cuervos, which is a show about a fictional Liga MX club that plays in a fictitious town of Nuevo Toledo. I thought it was fitting and Cesar found us some knockoff jerseys like the ones from the show. At the end of the year though, we decided to pick a new name that could better connect to our community. I suggested Club Toledo because it still has that naming style like some Liga MX teams (Club America, Club Tijuana, etc). We added a few new players this year but they've all been friends of friends essentially.
I had never heard of Club de Cuervos until just now. I'll have to check that out soon. As far as the name goes, are you hoping that using Club Toledo will appeal to a more diverse set of potential players and fans?
Yea it's a great show! It's in Spanish so I had to have the subtitles on but it's still good to watch. With the name that was a bit of the goal. It actually was more of picking a name that sounded a bit more authentic. There are a lot of teams in our league that have names you would find in a typical beer league. Examples include Young Guns, Boats & Bros, Turf Kings, etc. Nothing against those guys but we wanted to pick a name that would set us apart from the other teams when potential players might be looking.
Is that desire to be set apart by your name also because of a desire to potentially play in bigger league some day? Seems more forward thinking then most.
At the moment, we are just trying to be the best team in our league. There are two teams, Holanda and Young Guns, that have been the number 1 and 2 teams in La Liga and now NWOCL for probably a decade. If we could challenge them for the league title this year, that'd be great. I will say that we do hope to grow to a point to play regionally. We've been in contact with a few clubs in Michigan and Indiana and maybe could set up some friendlies in early 2018. Personally, I closely follow clubs like Minneapolis City SC, Providence City, Savannah Clovers, etc. and I'd love it if we could help bring that hyper local club model to Toledo. Toledo has been burned by semi-pro teams in the past so we definitely want to make sure we have a solid base before moving to that level. We would need things like more sponsorship, a home stadium, etc., before looking at that as an option. We are really still introducing ourselves to the soccer community here to build those beneficial relationships.
Building slow can be a good thing, eliminates some margins of error, especially with the amount of information that's out there and available to everyone. Would you consider Holanda and Young Guns to be your top rivals, or is that some other team?
Yea those two are definitely the teams everyone wants to beat. There's a bit of a "big 4" at the moment with those 2, us, and another team called Abeergut United. Abeergut and us have a friendlier rivalry because a lot of our players fill in for each other during the offseason indoor sessions. It's created a lot of crossover friendships between the two teams.
It's good to have friends, not just rivals. Now, a lot of people argue that because there is no promotion and relegation, investing in lower league soccer is a bad idea. So why are you doing this? Why start an amateur men's team in the Northwest Ohio Champions League?
The lack of Pro/Rel is definitely the most ironic thing about our American sports landscape. In a country where we stress the benefits of having a free market, we choose to create monopoly at the top of our "Pyramid" which protects a group of billionaire owners. I'm really excited about the articles coming out about Peter Wilt's NISA and am really hoping that it can catch fire and grow rapidly in the next few years. Who knows, by the time we might be ready to make certain steps up, there may be something on offer for Pro/rel! For us, Toledo is the 4th city in Ohio. Our city is big enough that we can have a club that offers young players a place to keep playing and competing. For young players in NW Ohio, you grow up playing and you play in college if you are good enough. After that there isn't really anything available. That's where we are stepping up and saying we want to help fill that void. While we are in the very early stages of being a club, hopefully people like what our values are and want to join us in building something sustainable for our city. I look at a club like Minneapolis City SC for instance. They became a lower division club right as Minnesota United was just about to enter MLS. That didn't stop them from investing and creating something truly unique and awesome in their city. If they can do that in a city that also houses an MLS club, then we can attempt to make our own way into the lower divisions in a city currently void of options.
For sure. How about the league you are in, the Northwest Ohio Champions League. How would you describe the level of competition, top to bottom, in the league?
The league is kind of a mixed bag in terms playing ability of the players. The top clubs are good at finding players that are just graduated college and are staying in the area. Some teams have guys from abroad who either came here to work or study at a local university. Others have guys who just played club growing up and have been playing Intramural's or local rec leagues. Our team has a mix of all those types. A couple guys played in college. A lot of our guys are from Mexico. A couple guys played in high school but weren't quite at that collegiate level. We have a couple guys who are playing at college currently but we will lose them mid season when they have to report back. That's one of the things the league kind of took a misstep on since they didn't choose a calendar that would accommodate those players. The quality of play definitely suffers from their absence. Next year I'm going to propose either starting earlier or shrinking the regular season to allow them to be able to play all season. Our season is currently 16 games plus a playoff at the end. That's a bit off topic but it definitely has an effect on the type of players who want to and are able to play in the league.
I'm sure it does, especially on the college guys. Does the NWOCL seem like a solid league that will be around for awhile?
That's definitely my hope. Once we became a USASA sanctioned league, the referees were more interested in doing our matches because they could count these games towards their experience. We've been a bit more organized behind the scenes in terms of communication and having a league constitution formally crafted to outline our expectations. The players have all been positive so far this season regarding the level of play. So far things have been running smoothly. Our hope is this winter to do a short season at a local domed field and can continue our positive momentum.
Very cool. Big question here. Why do Club Toledo? Why start an amateur non league soccer club?
Personally for me, this is a passion project. I grew up in Northwest Ohio and we've never really had a sustainable adult club in the region. We hope that with our commitment, we can prove to be a sustainable fixture in the Toledo soccer landscape.
Sounds like a good goal. How would you describe Toledo to an outsider? What makes in unique? What makes it a good soccer market?
Toledo is a city that is emerging into a post-Rust Belt era. In recent years, there has been a lot of development in downtown and along our riverfront. It's a medium sized city (600k metro population) that feels smaller than it is. It's a comfortable place to live, with low commute times, affordable housing, and amenities such as our zoo, art museum, minor league sports, etc. We are home to some of the top youth clubs in the state of Ohio. Pacesetter SC out of Sylvania consistently perform well at Ohio North's State Cup. Toledo Celtics are having a golden generation at the moment with their U-16 squad, who came runner up in Region II last year. There are well over 1000 adult players registered as members of the Toledo Area Soccer Association. We've always been a good soccer city, and hopefully we can capture some of that passion with our team.
Our soccer community is also quite diverse. In our league, we have a lot of players from around the world including the Caribbean, Middle East, West Africa, Europe, and Latin American. On our squad alone we have 6 players from Mexico, 1 from Ireland, 1 from England and 1 from Germany.
With that many adult players in the area, are you expecting to see some growth in the NWOCL moving forward as it gets more organized?
Yes definitely! We've been slowly building the last two years. Last year we had a league of 8 teams. This year we are up to 10. It would be nice to keep growing at this pace of 2 a year and eventually split into a first and second division with like 8-10 each. So far, we've only built based on word of mouth but we are working on a new website as well as partnering with a local dome field facility to host us in the winter. This dome facility, The Soccer Centre, has been one of the largest indoor soccer providers in the area over the last 20 years and could really help build some exposure with youth players in the area. It's also a priority of mine to have a functioning website to give us an extra layer of legitimacy.
As an aside, I reached out to you about the interview after looking at your website because I like having something to direct my readers to, and your site is already pretty good. How will being able to play indoors in the winter help with attracting players?
Thanks, I've never set up a website before so that's good to hear! The winter session I think will help some of these newer teams stick together year round. From our experience last year, our team kind of dispersed after the season ended in late September. Some of us played in the local indoor league together but with it being small sided (6v6) it's hard to keep everyone together. Some of us played pickup together from time to time but we didn't come back together as a group until late April really. That's almost 7 months without playing together. The teams at the top, Young Guns and Holanda, have been together more or less for like 5-10 years. It's obvious the teams that have played together longer find more success in our league. Having a short winter session from like Jan-March will help the overall quality of the league improve.
Would you say it's more about keep teammates familiar with each other and playing more games to raise the quality of play?
I think it's a bit of both really. So while we net increased 2 teams from last year, 2 teams from last year did fold. While the gap in between seasons probably wasn't the main factor for folding, it didn't help them keep a rhythm of playing regularly and staying in contact with teammates. The extra games will hopefully raise the quality of play too. I'd like to think some of the bottom teams might be able to close a bit of the gap that we see between the top 4 and the rest of the league. Another bonus in the winter is that college players start to become available. I see it as a good opportunity to have some of them integrate in the winter short session and be ready to go for summer.
Is communication between teammates one of the big challenges facing teams at your level?
It depends on the team I think. I know that some of our newer teams have been cobbled together in a short time period and the players don't really know each other beforehand. If the team managers aren't on top of things, I think they can lose contact with guys if they don't play regularly. It's not a huge problem but if teams aren't organized it can happen. I think that as our league solidifies itself at this level, teams won't have this problem as much.
I see. Having tried to organize pick up games before, getting everyone connected can be maddening. What are one or two goals you have in place for the team for the remainder of the year?
For us we have two goals for the season. First on the field is to challenge for the title. It's a bit obvious but last year we got bounced out of the playoffs early. We want to put that right this year and make it to the playoff final. Second, off the field, I want to help build more awareness of our club and league. The partnership with The Full 90 Pub is going to be a big help and I think they buy into our vision of what a local team looks like. We hope this is the first step to becoming a better known fixture in the community.
Do you think it's important to have quality sponsors with, at minimum, a slightly similar mission to that of the club?
Yea I think it's important because it's a mutually beneficial partnership for the both of us. They specialize in hosting watch parties for soccer fans. We play in a league with over 200 players, I play in that TASA league as well. It gives them some extra exposure in front of their target demographic and shows that they truly believe in supporting soccer at the local level. We get some help in reducing our costs of running a team, which as team admin is a main concern of mine. The Full 90 Pub owner is actually a season ticket holder at Detroit City FC and I think he hopes that we might be able to build something similar to Detroit City in Toledo. I would love for that to become a reality and hope we can continue to earn their trust as a partner in the soccer community.
Then it sounds like you've found the perfect partner! If you could earn a new team about one or two things that were difficult for you in starting this, what would you earn them about?
One thing I would say is keep track of the behind the scenes stuff. I am trying to keep a running record of when we met certain goals for the season, such as when we got players to commit, roster submitted, sponsorship secured, jerseys printed, etc. Keeping track of these items is just going to help us in prepping for next year so it's definitely important. I'd also say don't be afraid to engage with your local soccer community. We are all in this together so it helps to build up your network within the local soccer community. The worst thing someone could say is no they don't want to be involved but you won't know until you talk with them. This is something I'm still working on so it's definitely important too. I know that these answers seem obvious but I see them as big drivers for us.
It's an excellent point. Ready to do some short questions to wrap this up?
Sounds good to me!
What is your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
I grew up as a Columbus Crew fan and was a season ticket holder during my grad school years at Ohio State. They are often frustrating to watch but I will always have a soft spot for them as my first team. I also grew up watching the Champions League and the Premier League. The team I follow in Europe is Everton. I picked them out right around 04/05 season. One season I watched them valiantly fight off a relegation fight, the next they qualified for the Champions League! They are the team that I think do a lot right in their community, they promote a lot of their academy players and although they never really challenge the Top 4, you know they can put up a good fight versus anyone. Recently though I've really enjoyed watching Liga MX! Those games are always unpredictable and they have some really good talent on display! I don't have a team that I'm attached to down there but I really enjoyed watching Tigres and Pachuca in Concacaf Champions League.
Favorite players, one past, one present.
For the past, I loved Paul Scholes. I grew up playing central midfield and loved to emulate his long diagonal passes. For the present, I'd have to go with Leonardo Bonucci. I love that Juventus defense!
Oh, Scholes. Do you have any books or podcasts you've found helpful that you would recommend to readers?
Since I have a 30-40 min commute from Perrysburg to Findlay, I have a ton of time to listen to podcasts. I discovered Flakoglost a few months back but they've sadly just ended the show. Soccer Down Here does a really good job looking at soccer at all levels in the Southeast (MLS down to PDL/NPSL and beyond) I wish there was something similar in the Midwest. I also listen to BBC's World Football Phone-In and World Football show, World Football Index's Copa Libertadores pod and South American Football Show, The Mexican Soccer Show, Howler Radio, Men In Blazers, The Big Interview with Graham Hunter, etc. I clearly have a podcast problem. For books, I don't get to read too much. The last two books I read were Soccer in the Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano and Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos. On my to-read list I have Jonathan Wilson's Angels with Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined and Nation and Changed the Game Forever, and Mister: The Men Who Gave the World the Game by Rory Smith. I'm a bit of a soccer nerd.
We like soccer nerds at AP. If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
I think I'd have to choose Pep Guardiola. He is one of the great "football intellectuals" and is one of the great revolutionaries of the game. He grew up playing under Johan Cryuff and that influence helped craft his coaching philosophy that produced his great Barcelona teams. I'd love to get to know more about what shaped his philosophies and hear about his life at Barcelona. I know he is still making history, but I still think I'd choose him.
Where can people find out more about you and Club Toledo online?
We have the website, which is http://www.clubtoledosoccer.weebly.com That's the main source of Club updates.
We have a twitter @clubtoledosccr, and Facebook we are http://www.facebook.com/clubtoledosoccer
My personal twitter handle is @jakemercer11. Our league twitter handle is @nwochampsleague.
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non league side, like Club Toledo?
For us, our goal is to provide a place to play for the elite players in our region. For local fans, choosing to support a local club helps build a bond between the players with their community. There's nothing wrong with supporting a big European club, but supporting a local club lets the fans have the opportunity to participate within the club. There's an opportunity to really get to know the players and work together to build a sustainable team. There's a greater sense of identity and feeling of belonging that's just not possible with a big foreign club or even many MLS clubs.
Jake, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, 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 to read these interviews before everyone else, and make sure you aren't missing anything, click here and sign up for the newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling 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.