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City Stars lose luster

July 28, 2009

Professional soccer was king in Ohio last season as Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew and United Soccer League's Cleveland City Stars both took home league championships.

Even though it was well off the radar for most sports fans, it underlined the fact that Ohio does have a healthy soccer following despite being one of the cornerstones states of the gridiron game.

While things have gone swimmingly for the Columbus Crew this season with a return to the top of the standings and energetic crowds filling the notorious Nordecke section seemingly every home game at Crew Stadium, the City Stars have become lost in haze of what seems like an endless stream of failure.

Following the 2008 USL Second Division championship, the Cleveland City Stars were presented with an opportunity to move up to the First Division after one of the teams in league folded in the offseason.

Just like at any level of professional soccer, moving up in class brings a lot of challenges and if the club fails to address these challenges, a world of hurt is in store.

That is precisely what is happening this season.

Now well adrift at the bottom of the USL First Division standings, the Stars clearly had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they decided to move up.

The USL First Division over the last several seasons has become a waiting room of sorts for Major League Soccer. This season the Seattle Sounders made the jump from USL to MLS with resounding success. The team routinely draws 30,000 fans or more to its matches at Seattle's Qwest Field - better known as the home of the Seattle Seahawks.

As it stands right now, three current USL First Division clubs are in line for promotions to MLS. The Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, two of the longest running clubs in North America, will join MLS in 2011. The Montreal Impact, which famously drew 55,000 fans for a continental championship tournament game this winter at Olympic Stadium, are said to be jockeying for a 2011 entry into MLS.

Outside of the teams who do not have immediate MLS ambitions are clubs like the Charleston Battery and Rochester Rhinos who have soccer specific stadiums. In fact, five of the 11 teams in the league have soccer specific stadiums with only Cleveland and the Austin Aztex using high school football stadiums.

And that's where Cleveland's problems start.

The City Stars used to play at the soccer specific Krenzler Field in downtown Cleveland prior to this season, but the tiny press box-less stadium was deemed inadequate to hold USL First Division matches.

With no soccer specific stadium options in the Cleveland metro area, the club settled on setting up shop at Bedford Bearcat Stadium on the grounds of Bedford High School. While being a nice place regarding fan comfort, the multi-colored artificial field surface at the stadium -renamed Middlefield Cheese Stadium for Stars games - has been nothing short of a nightmare for those who actually want to watch a game.

While the field is ugly, the team on the field might even be uglier. Management gutted most of the championship team in exchange for what they thought would be a unit that would handle the rigors of the new league -a league which sports many teams who could be considered better than some of the lesser teams in MLS.

What they got was a disjointed, confused and downright awful bunch who are led by an equally incompetent coach. Through 20 games, the Stars have scored just 15 goals while being shutout 10 times. If the 1999 Browns were a soccer team, this would be it.

The problems seem to orginate from club management's desire to be more concerned with its charity arm and commitment to "serve the city" than to serve the fans in the stands with even remotely decent soccer.

After seeing one match in the stands and a few on television, I honestly can't see this team ever keeping up with the big dogs of USL-1 if it continues to operate in its current configuration. If the club is interested in success on the field, it should drop back down to USL-2 until it comes up with a plan to escape the amateur hour feel which now surrounds the club.

Cleveland would be better served in that regard.



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