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Hello again and welcome back to AP! Got a couple of things to get out of the away before diving into today's interview.
First, I started another blog covering sports in general, called Ramble Sport. I'm writing about all kinds of things. For example, my first article was on college football, the second is on Fixing The NBA Playoffs. Keep an eye on it, as I'll be diving into American rugby soon.
Second, we're getting really, really close to meeting the first Patreon goal. Right now, we have 7 of the 10 Patrons needed to bring back the AP National and Regional Power Rankings. With only three more Patrons, they'll be coming back this spring! And soon, as in, the next week or two, there is going to be Patron exclusive content coming out, and you want to miss it.
Now, Max Fowler is doing some really cool and interesting stuff at Athletic Club of Sloan's Lake. He's working to build a community institution that includes multiple sports, not just soccer. Fair warning, this is a long interview, but is really going to be worth your time. Some of the things Max is doing with ACSL are strategies that every club in the lower leagues of American soccer should be trying to do. So without further ado, read on about Max Fowler and Athletic Club of Sloan's Lake. Check it out.
Tell people a little about who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Athletic Club Sloan Lake.
Well I’m Max Fowler, my brief backstory is that I am from a small town in Northeast Ohio, Chardon, which is about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
My dad, George, founded the Chardon High School soccer program in the early 70’s at the request of some students joining the first wave of high school teams to get established in northern Ohio. Some of my first memories where being at training and watching matches under the flood lights along with helping my older brother train (as he was a goalkeeper).
Having played at the youth premier level I was fortunate enough to be coached and mentored by some frankly spectacular former players including Mike Sweeney, (former Canadian National Team player with Olympic and World Cup experience) George and Louis Nanchoff, (both former USA internationals) Joe Raduka, and Andy Marson among others who really gave me a much more global outlook and understanding of the game.
Also formative to my understanding of soccer was the adult setup at the time, which with Cleveland and the surrounding area being highly industrialized, had very segregated ethnic neighborhoods which supported men’s amateur/semi professional teams along with youth teams. The Croatians, the Serbs, the Italians, the Germans (at least 3 clubs), the Pols, the Ukraines, the Irish, the Slovenians, etc. all had their own teams that played in what was known as the Lake Erie League. But most also had their own youth set ups, and even high schools close to Cleveland took on an ethnic flavor essentially acting as reserve teams for the men’s teams at the time. This experience really formed a cornerstone of how I view a soccer club as a community institution that does far more than play football.
I then went to play at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio (at the time nationally ranked in the NAIA) with a fair few Brits who with their stories of their clubs (big and small) formed my view on the function of a club.
After leaving early, I spent two years playing with the Cleveland Caps (former USISL D3) reserves and appearing for various ethnic clubs in the LEL. I also started my coaching career (being a soccer bum, one has to make ends meet) at the high school and premier youth level under the mentorship of Mike Sweeney again.
After gaining some experience at the collegiate level with Lake Erie College, I found my way to Colorado (to get married). Having stints with several local clubs as a coach including the Colorado Rapids and helping found the Johnson and Wales Denver women’s program I took several years off to raise my kids and become a stay-at-home dad.
Then this summer, after having conversations with some of my closest friends in the business I embarked on the project with Athletic Club of Sloan’s Lake to start a club that swam against the current of what most clubs are set up to accomplish.
So my role now is Founding Member, Director and 1st Team coach of this social experiment called Athletic Club of Sloan’s Lake
Goodness, you wear a lot of hats! What's the origin story behind the creation of Sloan Lake? Why start an amateur men's team in Colorado?
Well, it was really just as simple as finding a solution to a problem.
I started Athletic Club of Sloan’s Lake really as a reaction to the political climate of late 2016 and early 2017. It was, in a way, an attempt to do my part in reaffirming the American Dream as I viewed it. My dad, a constitutional scholar and government teacher, taught me from an early age that “...all men were created equal.” And that we as a society are much stronger being inclusive and using our diversity.
The Sloan’s Lake neighborhood of Denver and Edgewater is very interesting in its demographics. It is a quickly gentrifying area, but also has a strong pockets of working class Colorado natives, a Latino section, an Italian component, and a large conservative Jewish community.
Owning a home in the neighborhood, I quickly realized that these communities don’t really interact or mix, except in sport and recreation.
Given my particular soccer education, and small town Western Reserve upbringing, I thought that creating a proper sporting club, based on the models of FC Barcelona and Salford Boys Club (Manchester, England) that provided a social place where the community mixed and built connections through the avenue of sports would be a great way to get these separate communities to interact.
The men’s team was started as the marketing department for the youth set up. A way to give competitive soccer players who represent all aspects of the community a place to play, in which cost wasn’t a limiting factor (All social economic backgrounds could participate) and have access to professional level coaching (I am a former USISL player, former college and MLS academy coach and currently hold a USSF B license).
And at the beginning we just entered a local league with the ambition to create a social club based around sports, very similar to the atmosphere of many rugby teams. I’ve always wondered why most competitive amateur soccer teams never really socialize.
But once we started building the men’s team to be the end goal and showpiece for the youth set up, the UPSL, with its professional environment and ability to host league matches in the local stadium made more and more sense.
Finally, the players, believing in the community aspect of the club, asked to join the UPSL.
We’re beginning our Youth Training System (YTS) with an agreement to be the official talent development organization for Jefferson High School in Edgewater. Our clinics, which start this spring, are funded federally by after school grants so that all players regardless of economics may participate.
Also we exist, along with our official partners, to host two major fundraisers per year in which the proceeds are donated back to local community causes.
You mentioned creating a social club atmosphere. In your mind, what does that look like at Sloan Lake, and how are you structuring things to create that atmosphere?
First off our main supporting partners are a local brew-pub, Joyride Brewing, and the other was a wonderful tapas bar, (before the owners moved to Dubai) so right from the off, we built a culture of having a chat and a pint or tapas right after training or home matches. Just to build the personal connections.
Secondly we provide coaching education for our players and our clinics and camps are staffed by 1st team players. Also we have a few players volunteering at the local high school with their soccer program. A few even applied for the head coaching position.
Finally we have one major fundraising event each summer around the solstice to celebrate Midsommer (a Swedish festival) in which all proceeds go to local community causes.
This year it will be a pig-roast, brew tasting, and World Cup viewing party with a friendly match as well. The event is very much like the small town fairs I grew up with.
We are not trying to promote a drinking culture, but more of a casual social experience to create space for the community to mingle.
When we add other sports all teams will intermix at both the fundraising and after training events. Plus we organize meeting at a local cafe for a pre-match espresso.
Before we keep talking about soccer, I have to ask sense you mentioned it. What other sports are you hoping to add to the Athletic Club?
Cycling, Running, Rugby, Volleyball, Curling, (yes curling, as there is a training center near), cross country skiing, botche ball, and maybe hockey. Really, whatever develops naturally out of local interest. Currently we are steering away from traditional American sports (except possibly softball for adults) as we don’t really see ourselves as competitors to established organizations that provide American football, basketball, and baseball.
The components required are technical expertise to facilitate coaching, community interest, and low overhead (this is where hockey gets tricky) to enable participation across economic backgrounds.
Our first wave of sports will be cycling, running, and rugby, more traditional working class sports.
Very cool, I like that effort to have other sports going on, really gives the Athletic Club in your name a real meaning. You mentioned earlier that Sloan Lake played a year in a local league before joining the USPL. Why did you choose to leave your local league and join the UPSL, and what did you learn in the first year of the team that's really helping you gear up for year two?
Well actually we played for only one season, this past fall, in the Colorado Premier League. We had a wonderful experience and they are home to some quality teams: Harpos FC, FC Denver, and Denver West FC to name a few.
The decision to move to the UPSL was about our model of being a community representative. The CPL does a fantastic job of keeping costs down, and hosting all matches at two parks, one north and one south of city center, allows for teams to compete with low overhead.
But our club is very tied to the local community, and the ability to host all home matches in a stadium in our neighborhood helps with what we are trying to build. The CPL did allow us to host one match per season at a stadium, but that felt more like a one off.
By involving ourselves with the local High School and businesses, we want to build a culture of walking to the match and having a legitimate Non League type of experience. That way the youth players, who either know our players from the neighborhood, are coached by them at high school or our YTS program, or have family that play/train with us can walk down and be connected to the side.
It works like high school football does in Ohio and Texas where it becomes a part of the culture.
The other element is out function with our brew pub and the fan culture we’re trying to create.
Our official supporters group, #SheridanStreetServiceCrew, can easily get from pub to stadium and back. Also, like a rugby team, we invite our opponents and fans back to the pub to socialize after the match. It really helps to build community and oddly enough helps with sportsmanship.
Non of this works if every match we play is 30+ minutes away. And presentation to kids, hipsters, and the general public that may not be interested in soccer but have a intense interest in community is better served by a very professional atmosphere.
What I learned from our first season is that the more professional atmosphere you can create and the more you focus on non soccer aspects, the better the soccer gets. It’s the social and community aspect that really drives it.
The other thing is that culture and habits are established from the off. It is near impossible to change once that’s been established. So every training, even though it takes time, go to the pub or the tapas bar. Every match meet at the cafe. Even if only one or two show, you’re still establishing culture.
And most importantly have clear boundaries and goals. You will piss people or players off. Other clubs will mock you. It’s just information. All decisions will relate back to those goals, values and boundaries
You seem to have put a ton of thought into this. What inspired you to create something this involved and detailed? Did you read something or take a trip somewhere?
Life, mate. I’d worked for in premier youth soccer my whole life and it always bothered me that teams weren’t really that diverse.
I grew up in a family that survived on a single public school teacher wage. And we made a LOT of sacrifices to enable me to play. There were some damned good players, hard players from very working class backgrounds that were far more talented than most of the other players but they never got a sniff. They couldn’t afford it or take the time off work to drive and play on week nights. That never sat well with me.
On the flip side, as a young High School kid, I was invited to play with the local Croatian club in Cleveland. This was 1992-3, right as the Balkan War was kicking off, and there were loads of immigrants playing. But also a couple of American kids, me, and an African American, but it didn’t matter to the fans, the club members or the players.
We didn’t pay a dime, and 1/2 the team didn’t speak English. We didn’t pay a dime. And we were treated as if we were important. We were. Wearing that checkered badge and going to the club functions, it felt like playing for a national team. Same as the pride playing for my high school team. You represented something.
The players and parents helped us learn enough Croat to be functional on the field. But the way we sometimes got treated stung me. Not these kids though, some were just happy not to be in a war zone anymore. That always stuck with me.
Also, my dad was a teacher of a class you had to pass to graduate school, US Government. When he passed 6 months after retirement, 1,000+ people showed up at his wake. It stunned me how many people he’d affected and made their lives better. Even those who weren't the best students or players held him in high regard. He took the time and, gently, without condemnation, helped them. This was 2003.
Being now over 40, I began to wonder how I’d made the world better around me. Had I done my bit for my community?
Finally, I went through some personal stuff and conquered some demons. Really taking responsibility for myself and coming to the understanding that everything I do is a choice. Every action I take, is a choice.
In light of that, I don’t have to do anything unless it’s life or death, and even then, there are multiple courses of action. So, I choose to do this. I chose not to make it for profit. And I choose to do it to the best of my ability and make it as professional an endeavor as possible.
The happiness is solving problems. But problems and death are constants in life. So there are no results oriented goals. Just solving problems according to my goals and values as they present themselves.
That and I just read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The personal journal of a 2,000 year old stoic and emperor. It blew, and continues to blow, my mind. This is an extension of that.
It’s the culmination of all my life’s work, all of my travels, all of my experiences, and all of my relationships, but particularly my family. This club exists for others, and therein lies the joy. To give others what I wished I had.
I feel like we've got a really unique chance to talk about more than just soccer as we discuss Sloan Lake, so I'm going to steer that way for a little bit. You've mentioned wanting to add cycling and rugby to the club. With many friends who are cyclists, and being a budding rugby fan myself, what has the process looked like so far when it comes to adding these, or other sports, to Sloan Lake?
The process will mimic the one we used for soccer. Cycling possibly first as we have more personal capital in that department.
We’ll start with an adult team that has weekly training rides and once a month community teaching sessions. Of course after rides we’ll head to Joyride for a pint with the football lads to promote the social aspect of the club.
We have Schwab Cycles here in the neighborhood. They are legends in the Colorado Cycling scene. A wonderful family owned shop, one that focuses on quality instead of volume. I’ve been riding with them since I moved to Colorado.
The rugby side will start again with professional coaching. The interest will determine whether its competitive or recreational.
As for how competitive each of these arms is? Well that will be player and environmentally directed as was the football side.
As you add these various kinds of programs, where will they be competing? Are there leagues for other sports that they can join, or will it be more internal competition?
The cycling, because of how it functions, will complete in the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado races, fondos, and tours here in Colorado.
The rugby team will be internal at first, but if the need arises, we’d look to play through Colorado Rugby.
Other sports, we would research and go through the same process.
In fact, I was fairly ignorant of the adult soccer landscape when Athletic first started. But with due diligence, you find your way about. In fact, it’s problems like that we enjoy solving.
Was there anything about the adult soccer landscape in Colorado that really surprised you once you dug into it?
What surprised me most about the the adult landscape in our environment was how little involvement the state association had in adult open soccer. Also how utterly decentralized it was as most of the league’s are run as petty fiefdoms.
In a way it makes sense, because in an open capitalistic market these leagues exist as independent business with all the interactions that go with it.
The other thing that struck me is that there really is a lack of public awareness (PR) and marketing for the leagues and teams. It very much is a small vision. Most of these guys love the sport and run teams and leagues as a labor of love, but being so disjointed really undercuts everyone, in my opinion.
We played in the Colorado Premier League and the gentleman who runs it really is a lovely bloke. The teams we met along the way are the same: FC Denver, Harpos FC, Denver West FC, Colorado Rovers, Denver Kickers amongst others, but it’s rare to find a proper website or an easy way to find they exist.
And I happen to feel that all these entities would have more power and be better served by standing united in an integrated league system with promotion and relegation between them. Some local, some regional, and some state wide.
To be honest, that really was the attraction to the UPSL. More visibility, and the chance to become a part of a unifying movement.
A greater spirit of collaboration, and an overall desire to see the entire game grow would be of great benefit to US Soccer. If you could model your club after any team in the world, who would it be and why?
We actually studied three clubs models and history as tempelets for ideas on what elements we want our club to possess. Those would be FC Barçalona, Salford Lads Club (in Greater Manchester) and Östersunds FK (in northern Sweden).
From Barça, we take the idea of a club being a social institution rather then just a vehicle for generating profit. We looked at how they offer multiple sports and really are an extension of the community.
From Salford Lads Club, again, we found an institution that used sport to achieve a far greater goal. We studied how it is a 2nd/3rd home for a lot of at risk youth and a safe haven to learn life skills.
And we studied Östersunds FK on how to operate in an unconventional manner and how to use sports to teach players to take ownership, to accept responsibility, and that their choices define their values and goals. We also looked at how they choose not to follow the well worn path as they then would be limited by the investment potential. Finally we looked at their relationship with the surrounding community.
In the USA, we very much respect what Detroit City FC is doing and their value set.
But at the end of the day, imagining the future possibilities, I’d like to be Athletic Club of Sloan’s Lake. Something unique, something that is the product of this particular environment and shaped by solving problems as they present themselves according to our values.
I’m far more interested now in process goals and goals that serve a higher purpose then merely sport. If we do that, the results will take care of themselves.
In five years, where do you hope to see Athletic Club? It can be in soccer only or across the board as an institution.
As an institution, in five years we can provide positive opportunities through sport to the diverse youth of the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood.
Socially I’d like our organization to be recognized as representatives of the area and a source of pride and community connections. And frankly to throw the best block parties in town, thereby raising significant funds for local charities.
On the footballing front, in 2 years I’d like us to have the reputation of being the most professionally run organization in Non League football and have the most invested players. I’d like to have a steady stream of them playing at higher levels. And I’d like to have intense and devoted support that revolves around not just football but music, art, fashion, and inclusivity.
But apart from that, not much.
Not much at all. How has the community response, from individuals and businesses, been towards the team? How are they receiving what you're looking to do?
They’ve been spectacular. Initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. And considering we’re only 8 months old, we’re enjoying a lot of early success. This season’s main goal is really to cause enough of a tremble in the local landscape that people are very aware of our presence. Not only among the small UPSL world, but through the entirety of the greater Sloan’s Lake neighborhood
For you to consider year one of UPSL play a success, what do you hope to accomplish?
From the day I was born to 6 months ago I would have told you a point total and a gate expectation as an answer to that question. My perspective has recently changed.
For me to consider year one of the UPSL a success, I want to create a culture amongst the staff (playing and front office) that they have exactly one task. And it’s the same for every single member of this club: to identify and remove any obstacle that impedes their ability to function and to define the hierarchy of their priorities (in case of competing priorities).
I include myself in this stated measurement of success. It makes no difference whether those issues are on or off the field, because most likely they are intertwined and one and the same.
If we do that, we succeed. So even if we lose, we win. Because it is just information. A signal that we have work to do.
I like that goal. Are there any players at the club right now that you think people reading this should be keeping an eye on?
Actually we are most excited about our strength in depth. With the new additions to the playing staff, we have 3 options at every position that I feel can compete at a high level.
But a few have the potential to move beyond our level.
Up front is our number 9, Patrick Hilaire, who is a difficult proposition for opposing defenders. And D’vonne Williams on the flank has bags of pace and swings very inviting balls into the box.
And we are really excited about the new addition at Center Back, Lucas Prolow. He just finished up his final season at Johnson and Wales. He is a two time Academic All-American, graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA, and was the President of the student body. The lad can play a bit as well.
He sets a fantastic example about making decisions that help remove barriers to his success.
Very nice, good to draw attention to the high character guys, not just the most skilled. Let's start wrapping this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Well my heart always rests with Manchester City! My roommate at the Cleveland Caps, Ged Tarpey played for them, (picture at right) and after seeing them play and win 1-0 at Maine Road against Wigan (Division 2) I was hooked. Maine Road was so similar to the old Cleveland Memorial Stadium, they even smelled the same! Favorite teams to watch are Portland, Dortmund, Roma. I’m in love with the fan culture at these clubs
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to the people reading this?
Oddly enough, I do. If you want pure soccer passion take a look at: @SubbuteoArt on Twitter or Subbuteo Stadium Community on Facebook (tifo and ultra culture meets model building) For the hard core football intellectuals: www.spielverlagerung.com. No words can describe it.
Music: Monday Morning Mix Tape on Mixcloud. Utterly fantastic
If you could meet one person from soccer, past or present, who would it be and why?
Currently, Marcus Aurelius, former Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher. We’d need a translator but I’m currently reading his personal memoirs Meditations. It was never meant for publishing or public consumption. It’s staggeringly brilliant. I have so many questions. The government of one’s self and one’s temperament is a noble and useful goal.
From soccer, I want to learn, talk to, and try to understand Pep Guardiola. A lot of the reasons above apply, not many of them have to do with soccer.
Where can people find out more about you and Athletic Club online?
Merchandise: joyridebrewing.com/shop (Official launch soon)
Closing question. What would you say to someone asking you, ‘why should I get out there and support my local team? Why should I support Athletic Club Sloan Lake?’
Because it’s not about the sport. Well, it is part of it, but it’s about the community trying to help itself. It’s about letting people know that not only is there an organization that represents them, but we ARE them, and we exist to give back. But, frankly, it’s one hell of a party. Good food, fantastic craft beer, tifos, singing, live music, and some taking the mick. In short, it’s a right laugh. Come join us. #WeAreTheNeighborhood
Max, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, please consider supporting us on Patreon by Clicking Here. Or you can click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.
Read last weeks interview: Sustainable Community: Jonathan Collura of Bugeaters FC