In light of the USMNT crashing out of World Cup Qualifying, we must as Germany did in the early 2000’s turn our attention to the outlying places, and in our soccer culture these are the lower leagues.
Just as Montana was one of the last territories to be made into a state, so it is one of the last states to have a soccer team functioning in a national league. It is a place where 2.5 million head of cattle outnumber the 1 million human residents. The people embrace the rugged landscape in ever increasing numbers, and on most weekends you find what seems like half the population out exploring the great outdoors, and many are doing it after attending their children’s youth games. Montana is still culturally a state which embraces brute force games like football, and past pastimes like baseball, but there is a significant upwelling of support for the game of soccer. Migrants from the West and East Coast are coming and helping to grow the game at various youth clubs, and the colleges are bringing in a solid offering of internationals who are very passionate about the game. Now is the time for soccer to grab a foothold and start creating teams in Montana to compete in the NPSL or UPSL for the 2018 season.
Billings is the place that I would start and not just because I am currently living there. Billings has a population of 110,000 and has been steadily growing over the past several decades. The size and feel of the city reminds me a lot of Duluth Mn, where I was the Head Coach for Duluth F.C. If Duluth can get a side in the NPSL with a good following and quality play then Billings is even better suited for it. In Billings there are two institutions of higher learning: Montana State University Billings D2, and Rocky Mountain College NAIA. Both programs have a history of success in the region and both programs have produced quality individuals who have stayed in town after their tenure as student athletes. This is a lot like Duluth and provides the opportunity to create a base of high quality former college athletes. Many of these players have left Billings to play in NPSL and PDL markets, so why not create a club that keeps them at home? Money, interest and belief are the factors that make this challenging.
Running a club is not a cheap enterprise especially when the nearest city greater than 100,000 is seven hours away from you. Besides travel there are uniform costs, training field costs, stadium rentals, and league dues. Whether we choose the NPSL or UPSL will depend on our ability to raise operating funds. Both are growing leagues and neither currently offer opponents within a 7 hour radius of Billings.
Minimizing costs is essential unless we can find a backer with a sincere love for the game and deep pockets. For now it has to be a shoestring operation. But what a place for such an operation! Billings is able to support a semi-pro baseball team, the Mustangs, to the tune of 3000 fans for 37 home appearances. Home games can be held at either of the college stadiums or even possibly down the road at Amend Park which boasts 14 full sized grass fields. It’s hard to imagine that the 3500 plus youth soccer players in the area wouldn’t be able to convince their parents to take them to game, but if that does not work, perhaps being able to serve beer from one of our terrific micro-brews might do the trick.
Just as the cowboys saw something great in this landscape, so we something great in it. That it is barren of the greatest sport in the world is just our opportunity to leave a positive mark on the game.
You can follow Kyle and his efforts to start a team in Billings on Twitter @soccerbakas