Growth: Ben Rode and Nick Morana of Oakland County FC

Growth: Ben Rode and Nick Morana of Oakland County FC

Don’t think I forgot about you Non League readers! It may not be From The Vault, it’s not that old, and it might not be that new, but it’s something to read for sure.

This interview is the first multi person interview ever done here on the Pyramid. Ben Rode and Nick Morana were kind enough to take time over an entire week to get this done and make things happen. There’s a lot of great stuff in here, from the soccer scene in Michigan to the rapid growth of the Premier League of America, as I’m sure the quote above makes fairly obvious. Check it out.
Alright guys, why don’t we start off simple. Who you are, where you’re from, and what your role is with Oakland County FC.
Ben Rode and Nick Morana here, we were both born and raised in Metro Detroit and are 2 of the 4 co-owners for OCFC.

How did you guys come to be involved in soccer, and what got you interested in owning a team?
Ben – The idea came in the summer of 2014 after speaking to some friends who had connections with soccer in the area. I grew up playing and always followed the game professionally. We wanted to start a team due to the large interest in the sport locally, especially at the youth level. Our interest in playing in a more regional league peaked after receiving an invite from AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC to join the Great Lakes Premier League, now known as the Premier of America. Before the season started, I invited Nick to come on as my co-owner.

Nick – As owner/manager of a current amateur men’s team in the state, San Marino, I saw this opportunity as nothing but the next step for bringing soccer to the area in an even larger stage. With the large amount of talent in metro Detroit and the peaking interest of the game throughout the state, it was a great decision for all. After the 2015 season, we brought on two more co-owners (Theo Foutris and Nicole Griffith) to grow our vision going into 2016 and the near future.

Interesting. How much is the soccer scene in Michigan taking off right now? You have a bunch of teams, and you both mentioned talent and interest in soccer as a reason for starting a team. What’s going on up there?
Nick – The growth in the past 5 years has been awesome. Obviously there’s Detroit City FC, who’s doing an incredible job downtown, but you also have Ann Arbor, who’s averaging over 1k fans per game and Grand Rapids who had 5k fans in one game (against us by the way). Along with that, we are seeing a steady increase of teams starting up throughout the state. With the large amount of talent in college soccer in the state, from D1 to D3, new teams are taking advantage of what the state has to offer, both talent wise and with the increased interest from fans.

Now, tell me about where your team is located, what makes your hometown special kind of thing.

Ben- We are based in Rochester, Michigan and play our home games out of Stoney Creek High School. Along with Rochester, the surrounding areas are widely populated with soccer talent and interest. Oakland County even has the highest participation of youth soccer players in the country.

Really? So not only is your state soccer scene booming, your local scene is doing really well too. How do you connect Oakland County with those youth teams and groups of fans?
Nick- Definitely, the youth scene is really booming. The participation has at least doubled in the past 10 years. Our plan to connect the club with fans through local events, training clinics, youth nights at our home games and player appearances.

We are also partnering with a few local foundations throughout the area in an effort to give back to the community.

It sounds like community involvement is high on the priority list then. What would you say to someone who’s looking into starting a team, or who might already have one, about how important community involvement is as a component of team building, and what they should do to get that going?
Nick – the base of a soccer team needs to be the community in which it is based. You see that evident with Michigan teams right now (Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor). A strong following from the community leads to a stronger foundation to build the team. We would recommend tapping into all local Chambers for one, they have a huge outreach to the community and local organizations.  Partnering with charities is a plus as well. Not only are you giving back to the community but you are also building a relationship that can flourish into bigger things. Once things begin to grow internally, the community following only gets bigger.

That’s a really good idea. I had never considered that a team should work with a Chamber, even though I’ve worked with several in my various jobs. Now, I know at the start of the interview you mentioned your ownership recently grew from two to four. What does that allow you to do with the team that you couldn’t do with just the two of you?
Ben – It allows us to spread our reach by double, absolutely. Our new owners brought in new connections and fresh ideas that we added to our repertoire. We have hit avenues now that we were not able to in the past. All good things.

Can you elaborate on some of those avenues? Also, was that Nick who answered yesterday?
Ben- I can definitely elaborate. With more owners involved, it’s made things a lot easier going forward. Being able to spread out duties, we’ve already made a big push with our marketing and social media campaigns and even created an advisory group through our connections, that will operate much like a board you will see with other clubs. Not to mention, with the addition of our new intern program, we are now able to focus on tasks ahead that will be vital to us going into the season. We are really able to accomplish things much quicker than we were before.

Okay. So more owners has allowed for sharing responsibility, new ideas, and increased capability. now, I’ve been really curious about this. Why was the decision made to re-brand after only one year with the previous logo?
Ben – With new ownership coming in, we thought it would be best to make the change. The rebrand was made to fit the target market we are aiming for. We also wanted to go away from the original name, as there was some slight confusion on affiliation to the our local university. Partnering with San Marino SC, a local team, also had an influence on the decision. With Nick being the owner of San Marino as well, we will be operating both clubs under one umbrella.

Is San Marino SC a youth team, or another men’s team?
Nick – San Marino is a men’s team competing in the Michigan Premier Soccer League.

Okay. I had heard the name, but hadn’t done any serious digging on them yet. I’ll have to check them out. Now, how would you describe the area of Michigan your team is in to an outsider? What makes it special, and the best place to get a drink kind of deal?
Nick- Oakland County is a melting pot of different nationalities and ethnicities. Soccer has been a popular sport in the area for a long time and there’s a new momentum of support for local clubs. There’s a lot of great places to go, we love Rochester Mills, Main Street Billiards and Redfox, which is a big soccer bar.

What is soccer without a good place to get beer before or after a game? Or both, preferably. What are other local clubs do you have Oakland County? Any chance one of them might join you in the PLA in 2017, get a nice Derby going?
Ben – We have the Michigan Stars from the NPSL and Carpathia FC, who are actually now part of the PLA. We don’t really see anymore expansion into our are or state with the large amount of teams already here, however future expansion in the league is something we are definitely excited about!

Let’s go with a left field scenario then. What city would you want to see get a PLA team?

Ben – That’s a great question. I’ll take this one as well, since I am actually part of the league expansion committee. There’s not a specific city that comes to mind right now but I would like see more expansion west and to the south. I also hope to see us expand to more than 2 divisions in 2017, as we have continued to receive a lot of interest from teams throughout the region.

I was actually born outside of Valparaiso, Indiana, and I’ve been wondering what a team in that area might do for the community. Of course, I also wonder about a team in Gary, but I don’t know if that’s really a good idea. Now what is it about the PLA that’s making it so attractive for some of these older, in some cases ethnic, clubs to join, like Carpathians and RWB Adria? And by extension, new teams like Aurora and Cedar Rapids?
Ben- Northern Indiana could be a possibility for the future, but Gary might not be the best market.

Nick- The interest from some of these clubs are due to the reasonable league and expansion fees. Although both fees have been increased for 2016, they are lower than other regional leagues, as well as the national leagues. It’s attractive for the older ethnic clubs since we are an elite amateur league and due to the fact that some have expenses they need to cover for their youth team set up. Also, as a new league, it allows some flexibility with how you want to market the club. It’s more of an open canvas as opposed to the leagues that have been around for 10+ years and have stringent rules

I’ve actually got a question a split question for you guys. First one is for Nick. Where do you hope to see Oakland County in 5 years? Ben, since you’re on the expansion committee, where do you hope to see the league in 5 years?

Nick – I hope to see us competing at the highest level possible for a Michigan team. Whether that is in the expanded PLA, or another league that offers greater opportunity for both the club and players. I also hope to see us backed by the entire county and surrounding communities. We are building something big and unique here and want everyone a part of it as we move forward.

Ben – I hope to see a steady league growth through the addition of more teams, as well as more divisions within the Midwest. It’s hard to look that far ahead but maybe become a national league.

What goals are hoping to accomplish with OC in year two that would cause you to consider the season a success?
Ben – We are aiming for a playoff spot, going to be tough with the competition but we are definitely up for the challenge. We’d love to clinch a spot in the US Open Cup for next season as well.

Qualifying for the US Open Cup would be huge, and a little bit easier now that the PLA gets a slot.Now this might be a silly question, but what inspired using purple and white as the team colors?
Nick – the colors were chosen to represent to area of Oakland county in regards to royalty and class. Purple is also a unique color in the sports world in general – so it’s a new offering to fans of soccer.

Plus the your purple and Minneapolis City’s pink will make for a great, eye catching contrast on the field. You guys ready for some rapid fire questions to start winding things down?

Nick and Ben – Let’s do it!

Favorite Soccer player, one past, one present.
Nick – Roberto Baggio and Giovinco

Ben – Ruud van Nistelrooy and Didier Drogba

Wow. Those are some classy picks that I was not expecting. Do you have favorite soccer related book and/or podcast?
Ben – I like Soccernomics and Inverting the Pyramid. Favorite podcast is definitely Men in Blazers.

Nick – don’t have any right now, any recommendations?

Soccernomics and Inverting the Pyramid. I have read both of those, to be clear. Two good ones that I’d recommend to both of you guys are Leading by Alex Ferguson and Money and Soccer by Stefan Szymanski. Back to rapid fire, do you have a team and/or league to enjoy watching?
Nick – Juventus/Palermo, any Serie A. I like the slower pace of the game

Ben – Chelsea

Last question, and you can be as brief or as long winded as you’d like with this. Why should soccer fans in the US care about lower level soccer, and in particular, a team in Oakland County, Michigan?
Nick – in order to grow the game, like in Europe, we have to focus on the groundwork first, I.e. Local clubs. Supporting your local club will bring popularity of the sport to a level we have not yet achieved yet in the US. It gives the youth a team to cheer for in their own backyard and it gives those in the community something to rally behind. Once that gets strong, the rest follows suit. Bigger support, leads to bigger reach, which leads to more support and exposure, which eventually lead to increased talent for the US.

Ben, you have anything to add to that?
Ben – That covers it, I think that’s a perfect response. (laugh)

Guys, thanks for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it, and good luck on in the upcoming season. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I’m putting out, I’d encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook.  And if you’d like even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, containing fun articles and videos, sometimes covering soccer, sometimes not. Make sure to spread the word. Share interviews, tell 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.

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