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Introducing Lansing Ignite FC

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Lansing Ignite Defender Grant Stoneman headers the ball back toward the Western Michigan Broncos' zone.

It is a cacophony of shouts and soccer ball impacts at the Legacy Center in Brighton for the Lansing Ignite FC’s last preseason game against the Western Michigan Broncos before heading to start the season in Richmond, Virginia.

A minute into the game, Ignite forward 19-year-old Steeve “Selso” Saint- Duc takes a bad hit to the head after going for a header with an opposing player. It looks bad. He isn’t moving and a trainer rushes to the field to assist.

“We had to make sure he was OK after a potential head injury. Our trainer brought him back, checked him out and he was fine,” Lansing Ignite’s head coach Nate Miller said.

Saint-Duc rested for the remaining 45-minute first half to recover.

Meanwhile, the competition is intense. Though the Ignite FC (for Football Club — as soccer is called in much of the world) comprises professional players, the Broncos, an NCAA Division I team, won the Mid-American Conference regular season championship in 2017 and are not to be trifled with.

Midway through the game, it’s still a toss up. Then Saint-Duc starts the next half.

As the Lansing Ignite’s youngest player, he carves through the defenders and taps the ball in. Goal. Saint-Duc would score once more before leading the team to a 3-0 win over the Broncos, wrapping up the preseason with a 3-1 record.

The 19-year-old has already won the U-17 World Championship for his native Haiti as well as chased his dream of playing professional soccer across the world from the Los Angeles FC to Norway’s Strømmen IF team.

The young star also scored a goal for the Ignite in a 2-1 victory over the Indy Eleven in another preseason game.

In Lansing, Saint-Duc sees a chance to grow as a player and teammate in a new city, he said.

“Here it is like a family,” Saint-Duc said. “Players take me in like their little brother and it feels good for me to come here.”

Coach Miller takes players in and raises us up from the ground, he added.

“He trusts in me even when I don’t trust in myself. He tells me ‘Selso, you can do this.’” Miller said Saint-Duc has a lot of potential.

“Selso is the little brother on our team — 19 years old yet as tough as nails. His willingness to defend from the front is impressive, but when he gets around the box, his understanding and ability to move around defenders is amazing.”

But before international players took to Lansing to chase their soccer dreams, Lansing’s first foray into semi-professional soccer came in 2013.

The spark

Jeremy Sampson, former WILX News 10 sports anchor and current Ignite general manager, took a chance with building a soccer team in Lansing after noticing MSU players needed a place to play locally in the off season.

He formed the Lansing United FC and entered the National Premier Soccer League in 2014.

“As soon as our players were done taking finals in May, they joined us and played in May, June and July,” Sampson said. “The thought was to have them keep their skills sharp for collegiate league in the fall.”

Support for the team grew, with fans attending Archer Stadium in East Lansing regularly. A dedicated support group called The Ransom followed, to the surprise of the players and staff.

“2014 was our first season and we had a lot of success on and off the field. The community really supported us.”

In 2015, Nate Miller was hired to be the Lansing United FC head coach, leading the team to occasionally battle far beyond its weight class against professional teams in the Premier Development League.

The team had a 20-13-2 record before dissolving after the 2018 season.

The women’s division of the club is still very active in the Midwest Conference of the United Women’s Soccer.

Meanwhile, the Tampa-based United For Soccer League, or USL, wanted to establish a new league for people in cities ranging from 150,000 to a million with no access to professional soccer.

It is the largest soccer organization in America and Canada, overseeing three leagues with more than 100 football clubs. In 2017, the USL announced plans for a third division, the USL League One.

Lansing was one of the first cities it considered for the new league, according to its website.

“The USL was launching its League One and they identified a group of markets they were interested in and visited us,” said Tom Dickson, Lansing Lugnuts and Lansing Ignite FC owner.

Though managing two different sports simultaneously would be challenging, having a professional soccer team would be a great opportunity for Lansing and the sports community in Michigan, he added.

“There are not many things Lansing gets to say is the one and only in the state. That was very exciting. There are some other good soccer programs in the state, but they are all amateur.”

The two sports are very different, but this will be part of the fun, Dickson said.

“Baseball is very leisurely and you can wander around. It has a charm in that way. But for soccer, you are glued to the seats for action. I like it because we get to bring a new set of more millennial and diverse fans to the stadium.”

Forward Steeve "Selso" Saint-Duc (center left) celebrates after a goal.

The structure

When Sampson heard of the new League One in the USL, he knew Lansing had a shot.

“We learned what the USL was all about from playing in the PDL and always wondered if a move to this league would make sense for Lansing,” Sampson said.

“We were lucky enough to talk with Tom Dickson and find out how he and Nick Grueser were already looking at bringing pro soccer to Lansing. Instead of us each doing our own thing, we found a way to work together.”

Sampson’s experience with leading a group of MSU soccer students in the off season laid the foundation for the Ignite in Lansing.

“There was an understanding of how to build a roster and what a game day experience looks like. Now we are able to take these things to the next level. There is no question those things built what we have now,” he said.

The step from an amateur team to professional level is serious and required a new level of sacrifice and dedication from the former Lansing United FC members.

“We are talking about the difference between a professional league eight month season and an amateur that is three months. Then, there is a difference between going from an 800-person seat venue to a 6,500-seat professional venue,” Sampson said.

The Lansing United FC theme carries through the organization with former Lansing United players Xavier Gomez, Christian Silva, Rafa Mentzingen, Kyle Carr, Lewis Jones and Tumi Moshobane. Assistant coach Tim Daniels also worked for the Lansing United.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Nate for the past three years and there is no question that he is ready to take this next step in his coaching career,” Sampson said. “Nate is driven to be successful and I’ve never been around a coach who is so diligent in his preparation for every match, I know that our team will be ready each and every time they take the field.”

Making the move to a professional club ping pongs from exciting to stressful daily, Miller said.

“It is a long way to go from going from an amateur to professional club. It is a huge jump. I give a lot of credit for the front office and ownership to working really hard. I am obviously very happy to give it my all everyday,” Miller said.

What drives Miller forward is what his team will look like on April 13, the first home game.

“It has been a long time coming for professional soccer in the city. I want to see our guys excited because they have a chance to make the first impression.”

When a team is ready and has the synergy to compete at a professional level, the game will naturally lend itself to excitement, he said.

“The more you develop the team, the more you develop a culture excited in their city and club. If you build an exciting style of play, you can get a big following in people who can’t wait to come see and watch you.”

For its inaugural season, the Lansing Ignite FC will play 28 matches from March 30 to Oct. 6. If it makes the top four teams, it will continue on to playoffs with a championship game come late October.

The closest rivals will be the Madison Forward FC of Wisconsin and Canada’s Toronto II FC. On April 16, the Lansing Ignite will face off with the Spartans in a new annual event, “The Capital Cup.”

The broadcaster

Bobbing and weaving through the stands of the preseason game is someone fans will shortly grow accustomed to.

After working with Fox Sports Detroit, Oakland University and Detroit City FC, Lansing Ignite FC broadcaster Neal Ruhl will be the voice behind the team at every game on ESPN Plus.

“I’m out here to familiarize myself with their stories,” Ruhl said.

“Broadcasters are broadcasters. You can pick up a roster and call a game, but you can do it so much better when you know the human element behind it.”

He said his broadcast style is calling it like it is, but there will be a slight lean toward the home team.

“The fact of the matter is you do lean toward the team you cover and the area you’re from. We’re human and have the same influences as everybody else.”

Though the game has exploded within the last five years, people forget how much of a soccer state Michigan really is, he added. “The World Cup was here in ‘94 at the Silverdome.”

Specifically, being a USL team enables Lansing and Michigan to be in the soccer conversation at a national level, Ruhl said.

“This job is better than working for a living, especially when I can be involved in something where my family and I are from. I’m happy to be a part of it at any level in any way.”

The Assembly Line support group members Bradley Hieber (L) and Erik Gibbs (R) support the Ignite at its preseason game.

The blossoming community

With decked-out merchandise kits of scarves and patches embroidered with “Defend the Capital,” The Assembly Line support group will lend its roaring fanaticism to the new team by attending every home game.

“We have our daily grinds going to work or college. We have to deal with the real life, but for 90 minutes you can be in the moment, let it all out and have a good time,” Eric Gibb said.

Gibb first got involved with support groups in Minnesota, cheering on the Minnesota United FC with True North Elite and Dark Clouds. But he wasn’t always a lifelong fan of soccer.

“Even growing up, I thought soccer was a boring sport on TV. Then I went to my first professional soccer game. There is nothing like professional soccer in the supporters section. You are up standing. You are hyped. You’re waving the flags and cheering.”

The group already also offers membership cards with several discounts at local area bars and businesses. It will host a launch party at Lansing Brewing Co. coinciding with the season opener on March 30.

The proceeds of membership fees will go toward supporting the team, away travel and keeping a stock of orange smoke grenades.

“Smoke grenades will definitely be used when we are marching from LBC to the stadium in one big group,” Gibbs said. “We will light them up if a player scores a goal, when we win and whenever we feel it is necessary.”

Dan Jury, president of Cap City Athletic 1847 and head coach of the MSU Women’s FC, sees the team bringing in new generations of soccer fans for years to come.

“Anytime we can bring high-level soccer to the area where it is long term is exciting,” Jury said.

“One of the things you want is to try to foster in the players a lifelong passion for the game this gives them someone to idolize in childhood and adulthood, identifying players as role models in practice and as a fan.”

The feedback from the youth soccer community has been exciting, he said.

“One of the things we talked about with young players is they need get out and watch the game more. With the Ignite, there will be more of an opportunity to play at a high level in their home town and a team they can aspire to play for one day.”

For more information, visit www.lansingignite.com

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