Wednesday, August 20, 2008
TAMPA, FL - On Saturday, there may be many who would prefer to refer to the USL Second Division Championship game as the Irby Humanitarian Cup given the two sides involved, and their roles in giving back to their local communities and the less fortunate abroad. And it all stems from Los Angeles, circa 1983, and Cascade Surge President Dave Irby.
The Cleveland City Stars and Charlotte Eagles are two branches of a tree grown from a seed planted long ago in La Habra, California when a gentleman by the name of Tim Conrad established Missionary Athletes International (MAI), an organization dedicated to using sport to spread their vision of faith. A year later a fellow by the name of Dave Irby joined the staff and would go on to help establish and serve as first head coach of the Seahorses, an amateur soccer team.
Irby would go on to join the Cascade Surge in Oregon for their third USL season in 1997, coaching the team. He would be a central figure that led to the two clubs that will square off Saturday night with 15 players on their two rosters from the Premier Development League’s Surge and Southern California Seahorses.
“In a way, I was involved with the founding of both teams playing Saturday,” Irby said kiddingly. “I gave Brian Davidson a contact in Charlotte that helped lead to the founding of that team.”
After serving as Seahorses coach for the first two seasons, Irby stepped into a general manager position with Brian Davidson taking over as coach. A few years later Davidson would leave to launch the Eagles, the first of the teams to join USL in 1993. He would coach the club for their first four seasons and lay the foundation of its work locally in the community and abroad via the numerous tours the Eagles have gone on with the Seahorses, Irby and players from the three teams.
Irby himself would forge his own branch from those roots when he joined the Surge and laid the foundation for their humanitarian work as well as launching a similar non-profit group that would eventually take ownership of the team and lead to several grants from the US Soccer Foundation for their work. Ten years later, the beginnings of a similar branch that would grow from the Surge itself out of a coalescence from a tour abroad in 2003 to Mozambique, South Africa and the Sudan. Former Surge goalkeeper Aaron Tredway was a part of the team along with Mark Schulte, Steve Shak, Jonah Long and others. Tredway would return to the Surge following the tour as part of the team’s technical staff as well as player.
Video About the Tour [+]
In 2005, Martin Rennie, a friend of Tredway that was also a player on the tour team, would serve as the Surge head coach. Rennie, however, was not the only newcomer to the Surge that year with Mark Geissbauer joining the club as general manager.
“I met them on the Mozambique tour,” said Geissbauer, the City Stars General Manager. “Dave was the coach, our executive director Aaron was a goalkeeper and Martin was a defender. I was just there to oversee my project and a friend invited me to join their tour.”
Geissbauer, a German national, was working a program in Africa that included eight staff members that tried to help street children improve their lives through football. After meeting Irby, the two connected again in Germany for a small promotional tour later that year, and two months later he was stateside as the new Surge General Manager for 2004-05 at only 25 years of age. After earning the PDL Executive of the Year honor in 2005, Geissbauer would return to Germany to work on his Masters, and would serve several roles for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in his hometown and tournament city Stuttgart.
Not much later, he was back in the United States working with Tredway and Rennie… in Cleveland.
“I heard about the Cleveland plans,” said Geissbauer. “I was excited about the plans and the opportunity. That’s what floats my boat. It wasn’t really even a choice for me to make, knowing Martin and Aaron were behind it. They moved to Cleveland and through their Surge experience, they realized it was a great soccer market. And with it having a really poor community, they knew they could really make an impact here off the field.”
In contrast to the Surge, Seahorse and Eagles work abroad via tours in addition to their programs that focus on ‘at risk youth’ in the community, the City Stars, still in their formative years as a second-year team, have focused primarily upon the local community.
“We are trying to make an impact on the children of the inner city. To try to teach them the basic life skills, bring them computer education. We give them balls and use soccer as a form of exercise. We try to be role models for them and soccer is a wonderful way to do it. As a team we havn’t really done the tours because we are so focused on Cleveland. We try to take the players, train and equip them with how to make a difference as individuals so that they can then go on and do the same.”
With the trio re-united in the home city of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they quickly hit the right notes in building a formidable club on the field that also made a large impact off it. A lot of the quick success came from a roster that included players from the Surge, as well as the Seahorses.
“Those players really are the foundation,” said Geissbauer. “The guys coming through with PDL experience were ready for USL-2. Ready to make an impact. It’s not like playing for another club. They were committed to everything because they went through those similar programs. They were behind the vision of the team, and we got more out of them than the usual. Seeing the guys really step up was very encouraging. It showed us that the pyramid works.”
For Cleveland, that experience comes in the form of nine players from the Surge and Seahorses with Jason Hotchkin (Seahorses 1998-03), Ian Leibbrandt (Surge 2004-05, 07), Kiel McClung (Seahorses 2005), Dana McGregor (Surge 2004-05), Eric Reed (Seahorses 2004-06), Anthony Stovall (Seahorses 2005), Jeremy Tolleson (Surge 2004-05), Josh Westermann (Surge 2005) and Luke Williams (Surge 2005).
“Isn’t It funny,” said Irby. “With the Surge, when we brought Tredway in, he did a great job recruiting players and we had our best season in 2005. When they started Cleveland, it was only natural for them to go after those same players when they finished college. It’s tough to see them go, but you have to wish them well. That’s the thing I’ve learned. Perhaps it is my fate in life.”
But Irby’s education of Tredway, Rennie and Geissbauer was likely the more important factor behind Cleveland’s success.
“We recognize that we wouldn’t have been able to do in USL-2 what we have without having what we learned with the Surge,” said Geissbauer. “It’s not only about players going through the system, because it helped us to do what we are doing now.”
Even with all the ties to Cascade and the players from the Surge and Seahorses, ironically, it was one of the two former Eagles players on their side that Cleveland has to credit for getting them to the final this season – Adam Ruud. The two-year Eagle scored game-winning overtime goal in Richmond for the 1-0 semifinal decision.
“We’ve really benefited from Steffens’ coaching, and Tom Engstrom’s organization,” said Geissbauer about the Charlotte club. “Without Ruud, we would’nt even be in the final. Maybe he really wanted to play against his old team. Both he and Stovall are outstanding players committed to the cause and working hard every day on and off the field.”
Engstrom, a former player under Irby when they used to take trips to Czechoslovakia, has left his own imprint on USL. A native of Minnesota, he was a co-founder of the Minnesota Thunder, launching the club as an amateur team in 1990 and served as its general manager and president for the first four years. He then joined the Eagles in their second year in 1994, where he has helped build the club into what it is today.
Having joined the Eagles shortly after their founding and working closely with Davidson, the roots back to the Seahorses are something that has increasingly become important to Charlotte since the Southern California team joined the PDL in 2001.
“We like to think of the Seahorses as our feeder team,” said Engstrom. “They play as part of the umbrella of MAI, which has an office here in Charlotte, and another in Chicago that has an academy system for younger college athletes. They send us a player or two per year, which I believe they enjoy doing. Dave Irby is a very good friend of the organization. He makes us aware of any good players he has out there that we should be taking a look at.”
The four Seahorses currently on the roster are Christopher Klotz (2004-05), Benjamin Page (2007), Eric Pattison (2001-02) and Josiah Snelgrove (2007). Terry Boss (2003) and Patrick Daka (2002-03) came from the Surge.
“That’s really exciting for us,” said Seahorse Player Personnel director Paul Shedd about the eight Seahorse alumni in the championship game. “Guys come here with aspirations to play at a higher level. We encourage them to follow their dreams and what God wants for them.”
While much of Cleveland’s ties are born from their time at Cascade in management, the Seahorse-Eagles relationship continues to be an ongoing year-round partnership that goes beyond the game on the field.
“We work hand-in-hand with players and tours,” said Shedd, who added that the relationship works in both directions. “Players who try out in Charlotte, but don’t make the cut sometimes come out here. And, we now have a couple guys there who are actually staff now with MAI in Charlotte.”
The growth from the seed planted in La Habra has grown quite far in USL. Although the third MAI team Chicago Eagles Select only played the 2001-02 seasons in the PDL, their efforts bore fruit with two current players as anchors on the Charlotte squad in the form of Jonah Long and Brady Bryant.
And Engstrom’s original club Minnesota, it has four former Thunder players on the two squads. Eleven years ago, Dustin Swinehart played just one game for Minnesota. Since then he’s played in excess of 120 with Charlotte. A member of the Thunder in 2002-03, Shak joined the Eagles in 2007 after three years in Virginia Beach.
On the other side of the ledger are Mark Schulte and Godfrey Tenoff. Schulte, who was on that tour in 2003, played four Thunder seasons from 2001-03, reaching two USL-1 championship games, before going on to the Columbus Crew. Tenoff picked up where Schulte left off, playing in Minnesota from 2004-07 before making the move to Cleveland.
Despite all player ties, shared faith and common missions, on Saturday the Cleveland City Stars and Charlotte Eagles will go toe-to-toe battling to the final whistle for the crown as champions of the USL Second Division. The game can be seen on Fox Soccer Channel at 10:00 pm ET.