By Jason Goorman
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – First youth and high school soccer sprang to life in the Muskegon area, introducing thousands of players, parents and boosters to the sport over the past few decades.risers logo

Then Muskegon Community College added popular and successful men’s and women’s soccer teams three years ago.

Now Matt Schmitt, Ben Ritsema and a group of local soccer enthusiasts are preparing to take the next step by bringing a semi-professional soccer franchise to town.

The Muskegon Risers plan to open in May 2015 in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League. The team will play a 16-game schedule, including eight home games.

Schmitt, a former Reeths-Puffer and University of Michigan soccer standout, will be the main owner, along with several partners.

Ritsema, the head men’s soccer coach at Muskegon Community College, will serve as director of soccer operations. Several area physicians, including Dr. Mark Peterman, Dr. Gretchen Goltz and Dr. Paul Kimbro, will assist with team training and medical care.

The still developing front office staff includes lead marketing strategist Michael Gagnon and scout Phil VanRees. David Givskud is the team’s legal counsel.

A coaching staff will be hired later.

“We want to promote soccer and want to expose the area to soccer,” said Ritsema, a 1993 Western Michigan Chiristian grad. “I’ve seen the attendance just really increase with soccer and of course youth soccer. There is a market out there where we can attract a lot of fans.”

The Risers would like to play their homes games in the downtown area – possibly at the Nelson School field – but plans are still in the developing stages, according to Schmitt. The club would like to play a central role in helping downtown Muskegon make an economic comeback, he said.

“The whole vision is that is has to be an experience for fans,” said Schmitt, a 2011 U-M grad who helped the Wolverine soccer team win a berth in the NCAA final four. “This venture is not just about operating between the lines on the field. It’s an opportunity to make an economic and social impact and develop premier soccer athletes as well.

“This has to be an outdoor experience where fans know they can walk 5-10 minutes to the field from the downtown.”

The Risers will bring a high level of soccer to town, involving many of the top pro prospects in the nation. Approximately 70 percent of all Major League Soccer players spend development time in the PDL, he said.

Most of the players are in college, or have exhausted their collegiate eligibility and are preparing for the next level. Many are looking for a place to compete in high-level soccer and stay in shape over the summer, according to Ritsema.

Players headed back to college in the fall are able to be paid up to living expenses, but others are able to be paid at a higher level he said.

“We are leveraging the fact that Muskegon is a summer town,” Ritsema said. “Where else would you want to go to train in the summer? They can run the dunes, swim the lakes. We have the facilities, gyms in the area, great doctors. Our area looks to be growing.”

“We’re creating a pro environment for them to improve on and off the field,” said Schmitt. “That’s what makes a good D1 athlete and pro athlete. On the soccer side we are trying to create a product for guys to grow and take that next step to MLS or overseas.”

While the Risers have another year before they hit the field, they’ve already develop a core group of fans.

The Grind Line fan club has planned its first event in downtown Muskegon, during a televised June 16 United States-Ghanna World Cup match.

All area soccer fans are invited to attend the Grind Line event at Hennessy’s Irish Pub from 5 to 10 p.m.