By Justin Haggerty

MUSKEGON – The landscape of the Muskegon sports scene changed three years ago when former Reeths-Puffer and University of Michigan soccer standout Matt Schmitt brought semi-professional soccer to the lakeshore for the first time.

From the beginning, Schmitt set some lofty goals for the Muskegon Risers soccer club.

“The whole vision is that it has to be an experience for fans,” Schmitt, the owner of the Risers, said at the time. “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.”

The community embraced the Risers, who spent their first two seasons as an outdoor team playing a summer schedule, mostly at Reeths-Puffer High School.

Big, enthusiastic crowds turned out for most of the games, which prompted Schmitt and the Risers to host two indoor exhibition soccer games at L.C. Walker Arena last winter.

Those games also drew a lot of fans, which sparked a new idea – making the Risers a two-season team, playing outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter.

That idea will come to fruition this weekend, when the Risers will kick off their first season in the Premier Arena Soccer League.

Opening night is Friday, when the Risers will host a familiar foe from its two previous summer seasons – Detroit-based Waza Flo Premier – at L.C. Walker Arena. On Saturday they will host the Youngstown Night Hawks.

Both games are set for 7 p.m. Tickets are $5.

The Risers’ Jubenal Rodriguez moves the ball up field during an indoor exhibition game last winter.

The Risers’ inaugural season will feature a nine-game schedule, with five home games between Jan. 13 and March 4.

After this weekend’s contests, the remaining home games will be Feb. 3 against the Chicago Mustangs Premier club, March 3 against a yet-to-be-determined non-division opponent, and March 4 against the Cincinnati Swerve.

To stock the roster for the new team, Schmitt and head coach Ben Ritsema have tapped a lot of players from the Risers outdoor squad from the past two seasons. All of the Risers are former college players, and many are from West Michigan.

Schmitt said season ticket sales have been crisp, and a lot of fans of the summer team have expressed excitement about the indoor game.

“Before we make any moves we use our core fan base as a sounding board,” Schmitt said. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from them.

“It’s always tough to tell (about game attendance). A lot of people prefer to just walk up and get tickets before the games. But every indicator we’ve had says it’s going to be a pretty good weekend in terms of attendance.”

The Risers’ outdoor fans who haven’t seen indoor soccer are in for an exciting treat, according to Schmitt.

Indoor soccer is significantly different than the outdoor game, because it’s played on a much smaller field. Each team has five players and a goalie, rather than 11 players per team in the outdoor version.

Fans can expect more scoring and physical play, Schmitt said.

Risers Coach Ben Ritsema disputes a call from the bench during an exhibition game last year.

“The biggest difference is the ball rarely leaves the field of play, meaning you keep the ball in action most of the time,” he said. “It’s very similar to the pace of a hockey game. With the smaller dimensions there are more shots on goal and a lot more offensive action. Scores can get up into the five, ten or even fifteen-goal range.

“With the close quarters and faster pace, there tends to be a lot more contact and action. It’s a pretty entertaining experience.”

The weekend will mark a first for the Risers – competing in an organized league. The summer team has played an independent schedule for the first two years.

The PASL seems like the ideal league for the indoor version of the Risers.

Entering it’s 19th season, the PASL serves as a developmental league for the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) and bills itself as “the largest amateur arena soccer league in the United States.” It includes 28 teams separated into six divisions.

The Risers will compete in the Great Lakes Division with Waza Premier, the Youngstown Night Hawks, the Cincinnati Swerve and the Cleveland Legacy.

The Great Lakes Division champion will advance to the PASL league playoff tournament, which is scheduled for March 18-19 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“I think being an independent team was a really good place to start,” Schmitt said. “It got local people engaged who just loved the concept of having soccer in Muskegon. Now we’re laying in another level of excitement by playing in a league against other teams from the Midwest and around the country.”