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This chat with John Hall of Shockers SC may go a little beyond my brief here. By John’s own admission, Shockers are purely a recreational concern, albeit one which all involved take very seriously. Such dedication has clearly paid dividends, as Shockers have long been a dominant force within their indoor league.
I wanted to speak with John because I felt his experience of soccer within America is a lot closer to that of many of APB’s readership. A fan who plays a bit, and got together with his buddies to make sure it remained fun. It’s not a great deal different from what the guys over at Bearfight or Providence City have done. So I was keen to see how the land lies from the absolute bottom of the pyramid (no offence John!)
So if you’re reading this hoping for a @dens -like breakdown on the goings on at an aspirational non league club, you might want to skip this one. But if you want to feel like your experiences are being shared across the country, read on!
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, who you support, and what your role is with the The Shockers?
I was raised and currently live about 65 miles west of Chicago in a town called Sycamore, IL. I started playing soccer (football) at the age of 5 like every other kid in our community. I signed up to play for a traveling club called Sycamore Soccer Club at age 11, which was a revolutionary thing for the sport in this area.
I support Manchester United because it was the first club I ever heard of over in England...and of course the Fire.
When did you first get interested in soccer in general and how did you end up being involved in admin-ing, rather than just playing for, a club?
I enjoyed the game but didn't really fall in love with the game until about age 14, when a group of young coaches moved to town and started a traveling youth club called Spectre Soccer Club. At this time my family had moved to DeKalb, which was next door and rivals to Sycamore, and playing soccer was an opportunity for me to meet new people.
I started following the EPL, although the TV exposure was limited back then. I played outdoor soccer through the school and played for Spectre in its early years with moderate success. I really started to understand the game and the technical and tactical aspects of it. I played a few years of goalkeeper at a local junior college and then started coaching club level kids.
When I was in high school they built a Rec center in DeKalb with two field turf indoor fields. An adult league started there and I started playing with random teams on Friday nights in the winter.
After four years of bouncing around and watching these guys run teams with little to no organization or club feel, I decided to start my own. I was 21 years old and decided I could do better.
And so what's the story of the creation of the Sockers Shocker Club?
Shockers Soccer Club was created in the June of 2003 when a bunch of my friends came home after four years of college. We got a group of men and a few women together and started playing indoor on Fridays, but it was different. I was sending out weekly emails, got team uniforms and started basically acted like we were a professional team even though our talent was far from it.
I started keep stats from all the games, just goals and assists but it was fun and it gave players motivation to be on the score sheet. I have kept scores from all of our games as well.
In our earliest years we played in the Silver Division, the lowest of the Open League. As we developed team chemistry and improved as a group, we won and eventually worked up into the Gold Division. More recently we've been consist contenders in the Platinum Division, also called the Top Flight.
Over the years we grew the club with a logo, website and some local business partners to serve as sponsors. And as we built a reputation as a consistent team in the league, players started wanting to join. Too often a team would assemble and then not return the next year. I had a list of good players to choose from, but I always maintained a level of loyalty to my team. Returning players first, but if an opening presented itself I would go after the top players available.
Some players have come and gone, but four of us have been with the team since the beginning. These four players are represented by the four stars on our new crest which was unveiled in 2015. Three or four others have spent 6 or more years with us.
In 2016, I hosted the Charity Cup, a tournament played during our winter break of teams within the 3 divisions. The winning team gets to chose the charity to donate to. We've had two of those tournaments now and totaled just under $1000 in donations which is awesome.
This past fall we launched Shockers II, a second team which competes in the Silver Division and is made up of former players who want to get a little footy in without the pressure of the "first team." I help with registration for that group and help them feel like part of the club in general.
Now in our 14th season, I show no signs of slowing down at age 35. I mean hell, if Gerrard can do it so can I.
In a lot of ways it is kind of silly to take the whole rec soccer thing as far as I (we) do, but its fun and in a world with so much chaos it’s great to get together with the team on 20 Friday's a year and have a good time.
You said you play at a recreational level, but what's the standard like?
Our league is run through the DeKalb Park District. Its open to anyone who signs up a team. Typically there are 20 total teams of varying quality from parents who just want to get exercise to current/former college players in the top division. The league is about 20 years old now so its very well established. We have some teams that come from neighboring towns 45 minute to an hour away. The 20 teams are divided into three divisions.
With three leagues, there must be a fair degree of competition, even allowing for clubs coming and going.
There are two- ten week sessions each winter so we have 20 games total. Our league fees are covered by the players for each session.
Most teams are just that...teams. They may appear for a session or 2. But a few "clubs" like ours have been around for a five, six, seven years or longer. We are consistent participants.
With three divisions, the league tries to place teams where they think they will have fair competition.
Are you aware of the promotion and relegation conversation that is happening within the US soccer market?
As for promotion and relegation, this is something that is done between session 1 and session 2 if a team does very well or very poorly in their particular division. The league will talk to them about changing divisions and this helps keep things somewhat fair. (You don't want college players out there beating up on 40 year olds.)
When I started this group, I knew I wanted a "club" feel and not just a "team" feel as I brought in players. I wanted to make them feel like they were a part of something bigger so that players would enjoy themselves and want to stay with our club. None of us are professional quality so for us, this is OUR Premier League. We treat it as such.
The hardest part of running a club at any level is recruiting. I've got a player pool to draw from that is deep because I have spent time playing and coaching for a long time in this area. I have former college players that I coached that are now a part of the club. I also have to find a mix for roster size that will give us enough playing time and balance youth, experience, quality and loyalty to our current players. I have good luck because players rarely choose to leave the Shockers for another team. The only departures I have are usually when a player has a change in work schedule or other personal issues that prohibit them from playing for anyone.
Like I said, we treat our Friday league like the EPL, always pushing each other to give a good effort on match day. We talk trash on twitter with other teams and we have fun.
You say that "in some ways, it is silly to take things so seriously" with your club. Does that mean you have no plans to grow the club further? We are seeing a rise in player/fan-originated clubs within the foundations of the pyramid. The likes of Stockade and Bearfight are showing that there might be another avenue, and with the effort you have already put in, it seems like you are some ways down that road already! No chance of you considering something like that when you finally hang up your boots?
I've daydreamed about starting an outdoor team to compete in the PLA or something similar. Aurora Borealis Soccer Club began last year about 30 minutes from us, which of course had be again thinking I could do better. But the reality is with my family, small children and actual occupation to balance, building the Shockers beyond the park district league we are in now is not realistic. (But it's still fun to think about and who knows what the future may bring!)
Do you think you could be tempted into a truly open pyramid one day? Seems like you have the important stuff (badge) sorted already!
Truthfully it's to be determined. I would love to see someone else take the reigns at some point and I would be able to sit up in the stands like Sir Alex and look fondly on the 2nd generation of the club. A a youth I used to love seeing the old men still getting out there in their 40's and 50's. My goal is to stay fit enough to continue for many more years so it will be a while before I look for a replacement to hand it off. I also continue coaching at a local youth club and I'm trying to continue growing in that role.
I'm excited at our work with hosting the Charity Cup (I think I told you about that) and doing something good for the community.
You mentioned that you are a Fire season ticket holder earlier. What's your take on things down there right now? What's the problem, and can anything be done to solve it?
As a Fire STH since 2006, we've seen the full decline of the club. It's hard to pinpoint it without being involved with the club and having the information that the decision makers have. Many think the owner is cheap and unwilling to spend on top end talent. Evidence suggests that could be true, although if the team made the playoffs three years running with no big DP signing then no one would think that. Winning heals all wounds in sports. Smart spending can be helpful but the club needs to heal the disconnect with the supporters as well. Town hall meetings and open dialogue with Section 8 (and other supporter groups) will help. Regardless of how far we've fallen as a club, we're only a few winning seasons away from forgetting all the negativity and cheering on a champion again.
The lack of a USL team or "second team" also limits the clubs ability to develop within, something that once was a big part of the Fire.
Certainly the stadium location is a challenge as well. But as a commuting supporter from 60-70 miles away, the disconnect with the City seems to be mostly logistical. Again, winning masks all these challenges. People will go to and support winning teams and there is plenty of entertainment budget in Chicago for the Fire to dominate the conversation even with EPL. What better way to spend a weekend that EPL in the am and Fire soccer in the evening!
My wife got me season tickets when we got married, and she tells me she was the first to get ST in the new stadium. She convinced the club to send her the info in time for the wedding in September even before tickets were on sale. We now take our two young girls and it's a fun way to spend an evening 17 times a year.
John, thank you so so much for this. I really do appreciate your fulsome replies. I will keep an eye out on Twitter for your latest mutterings. People like you, and clubs like yours are 100% what grassroots football is about. The top end gets enough attention, but the heart and sole of the game lies with folk doing what you are doing, for the love of it.
Give John and his club a follow over on Twitter @ShockerSC And check out their lovingly curated site www.supershockers.com
One last thing, John wanted me to make sure everyone knew that the Shockers won 9-5 last Friday night, and scored their 1900th goal in their history. Which is no mean achievement at any level.