By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Usually this time of year, the Muskegon Risers indoor soccer team is in training camp, preparing for the start of the winter season.

This year that’s not happening, due to a lack of opponents.  Too many other teams in their league and around the nation are not active, due to COVID and their inability to play at their home arenas.

The good news is that the Risers will have a season, albeit a short one. They will play three non-league games, in March and April, and all will be at home.

The Risers will host the Fort Wayne Sport Club on Saturday, March 20; the Cleveland Crunch on Saturday, April 3; and the Colorado Inferno on Saturday, April 24.

The three-game series is being called the M2 Great Lakes Invitational, with the M2 being an acronym for the Major Arena Soccer League II, which the Risers belong to.

“All participants range between current and prospective M2 members as the league continues to build arena soccer in the Great Lakes region,” the league stated in a press release. “The invitational will also provide a safe, high-quality platform for players, staff and fans to reconnect and move forward through 2021 and beyond.”

It’s far too early to tell if the Risers will be able to sell tickets for the games, and if so, how many. But Risers owner Matt Schmitt wants to have some sort of season, to provide some continuity and momentum as the team prepares for things to get back to normal in the 2021-22 season.

Ryan Wagonmaker looks to make a pass for the Risers during a game last season. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Risers were fortunate last winter, because they only had one game cancelled, their last one, on March 20, due to the sudden onset of COVID-19. They weren’t so fortunate a few months later, when their entire summer season was wiped out by the virus.

They were hoping to play a full schedule this winter, but the recent spike in the spread of the virus has cancelled that idea. So playing a few games late in the winter season, then moving on to a full summer season, would be a good path back to normalcy, according to team owner Matt Schmitt.

“This will give players and coaches a chance to keep the momentum going,” Schmitt said. “We should know more in January or February what the summer is going to look like.

“We are working with our league to provide a platform for teams that want to play. A lot of teams couldn’t get agreements with their arenas this year. The Milwaukee Wave, for the first time in 35 years, had to cancel their season.

“We’re pretty fortunate to have a place to play, and it’s going to put Muskegon on the map. When you have teams coming from all over to play here, it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

Last winter was also unusual for the Risers. It was supposed to be their second year of competing in the Major Arena Soccer League II, but the lack of league opponents in the Midwest would have made travel very expensive, with most of the other teams in the league in the central or western U.S.

So the team backed out of the league for one season and played an independent schedule, finishing with a 3-1 record. The Risers are still members of MASL 2, and hope to be playing a full league schedule again in the 2021-22 season.

“If we were to have played in the league, we would have been traveling to places like Wichita and New Mexico, which from a business standpoint would have been difficult,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt has been working with the MASL 2 to create new teams in the Great Lakes region, so they league can expand and the Risers will have nearby opponents.

Existing soccer clubs in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Fort Wayne and Cleveland could possibly join the league next year, and two of those teams – Fort Wayne and Cleveland – are on this season’s schedule. Colorado is already a member of the league.

“The goal by next year is to have a solid Great Lakes division,” Schmitt said. “Those teams have seen how successful we’ve become, and they are very interested in doing the same thing. We are using this platform (hosting games this season) to be leaders and bring the other teams along.”