From Intern to Owner: The Story of Cleveland’s Soccer ClubThe story behind how Sam Seibert’s lifelong dream and passion for Cleveland sports are intersecting with the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Like most who grow up in Northeast Ohio, Samuel Seibert is a self-described die-hard fan of Cleveland’s sports teams.
“I loved being around Cleveland,” he told usopencup.com. “Growing up, I had a few dreams, and one of them was that I wanted to be the GM of one of the Cleveland sports teams. I wanted to have that position where you get to be the decision maker.”
Many of us have those dreams, few of us chase them.
Next up, we travel to Madison, Wisconsin to take on @ForwardMSNFC of @USLLeagueOne in the Second Round of the U.S. @opencup. 🟠⚫️💪#WeAreCLE #ThisIsCLE #ClevelandSoccer #USOC2022 #NPSL #ClevelandSC #TheLand #Believeland #ForTheLand @npslsoccer pic.twitter.com/b9ViuvR83g— Cleveland SC (@SoccerCLE) March 30, 2022
After college, the Cleveland-born Seibert worked in banking for 10 years. But that itch never left. It can’t leave when you’re as into Cleveland sports as he is, and when you suffer through season after season of heartache and misery.
But the 2016 sports year was amazing for Cleveland. LeBron and the Cavs ended the city’s 52-year title drought among the three longest-tenured pro teams. That year also saw Clevelander Stipe Miocic win the UFC Heavyweight title, the Lake Eire (now, Cleveland) Monsters win the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and AFC Cleveland win the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League’s (NPSL) Championship.
Opportunity at AFC Cleveland
With the curse broken, Seibert decided to pursue a Sports Management MBA at Tiffin University. He took an internship with AFC Cleveland for the 2017 campaign, fulfilling a school requirement.
In its sixth NPSL season, AFC Cleveland made it back-to-back appearances in the U.S. Open Cup Second Round, but they couldn’t defend the 2016 league title. So with the season over, and no opportunities to join one of the more established Cleveland franchises, Seibert lined up an interview with, of all teams, the New York Yankees.
On December 12, Seibert found himself in Disney Springs, Florida for the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings. As he paced the hotel lobby waiting for his interview with the Pin Stripes, he opened up Twitter on his phone and saw the “out-of-nowhere” news. The NPSL announced that AFC Cleveland had been terminated for not being in “good financial standing with the league.”
He never made it to his interview with the Yankees.
A Fresh Start
Seibert saw that AFC Cleveland players, Coletun Long, Chris Cvecko and Vinny Bell were tweeting their reactions to this shocking news. It was evident that no one knew what happened, and no one had heard from the team’s owner. Seibert needed answers and began making calls.
It was right in front him. The chance to run his own team. And in his hometown. Seibert heard the passion in the players’ voices, so he called his buddies to help him brainstorm. He reached out to other ‘soccer’ folks in the area to gauge support. And he ran with it.
“Once that opportunity arose, I had to jump at it.”
Seibert called then-NPSL commissioner Jef Thiffault and said he would keep the team going.
“I would never forgive myself if I didn’t go for it,” Seibert said. “It was one of those things where I said, I’m going to make this work. I don’t know how. But through passion and perseverance, it was going to happen.”
On February 19, 2018, the NPSL announced that Seibert’s Cleveland SC Corp had been approved to enter Cleveland SC as an expansion team for the 2018 season.
Careful What You Wish For
Imagine going from intern to owner in three months, and then having have 90 days to get all your ducks in row for the start of the season.
Seibert called Cleveland indoor soccer legend Hector Marinaro – who set all kinds of scoring records with the Cleveland Crunch and was the head coach of John Carroll University. Marinaro helped Seibert secure JCU’s Don Shula Stadium as the team’s home field for the inaugural season.
“We started talking about what Cleveland means,” Seibert recalled of conversations with his closest friends. “We wanted to look at ideas that weren’t being used and be a little bit different.”
The first thing they settled on were the colors: orange and black.
“One of the coolest things in the city of Cleveland that wasn’t getting enough publicity at the time was our transportation bridge.” Seibert said about the all-important crest design.
Seibert settled on the Hope Memorial Bridge that crosses the Cuyahoga River into downtown. “It’s something that connects the east and west side of the city and something most people use every day,” he said. “So we wanted to start with that.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the mile-long bridge features four 43-foot tall, art deco carved statues – two on each end of the bridge, called the “Guardians of Transportation.” That became the inspiration for Cleveland SC’s well-received logo.
Continuity on the Pitch
Seibert got commitments from 12 former AFC Cleveland players to join him at CSC.
“I knew that if we…had that core of guys who had already won a championship, we were going to be good,” Seibert said. “Everything else would take care of itself.”
It did. Cleveland SC finished the 2018 NPSL season second in the eastern conference of the midwest region and defeated Eire Commodores FC in the regional quarterfinals before falling to Ann Arbor in the semis.
The Cleveland club then finished first in 2019 and reached the national semis – enough for a berth in the 2020 U.S. Open Cup.
But it was only a tease. The COVID-19 pandemic paused everything, including the Open Cup. When it was set to return in 2021, Cleveland SC kept its place. However, once that edition was cancelled as well, the team had to re-qualify for the 2022 edition.
“We never let off the gas,” Seibert said of qualifying for the 2022 Open Cup. “We kept some sort of continuity, and that helped us get from 2019 to 2021. We kept the guys together and the common goal in front of us to get back to the Open Cup again.
Midwest Soccer Hotbed
Forward Vinny Bell is a symbol of continuity in the team – and in Cleveland’s soccer scene too. A former Case Western Reserve player, he’s has scored over 90 goals since joining the original AFC Cleveland in 2011.
“It’s a shame when teams come and go because there is so much talent here in Cleveland,” said Bell of remaining with the team through the change. “Pretty much all of our guys are from around the area.”
Bell is an accountant at Price Waterhouse in Cleveland, where he’s a senior manager in assurance practice. In the First Round of this year’s Open Cup, his overtime goal lifted Cleveland SC over Chicago FC United to set up the Second Round meeting with USL League One pros Forward Madison.
“I feel responsibility to do my part to get us the win,” Bell said. “My role is the lone forward up top, and I put that pressure on myself. Being a veteran player, I feel that’s something you have to do.”
Vinny Bell's 107' Winning Goal ⚽️— Cleveland SC (@SoccerCLE) March 25, 2022
The Commitment. 💯
The Celebrations. 🙌😍#WeAreCLE #USOC2022 #NPSL @opencup @npslsoccer #CLE #ThisIsCLE #TheLand #CLESports #ClevelandSC #ClevelandOhio pic.twitter.com/KDp2MDEMHP
"When you hold each other accountable, that becomes the culture and you create a good team,” said Beck, who, along with Bell, forms the team’s veteran core. “Guys make sure you're giving 100 percent and that you're committed and dedicated.
"We've had success in the Open Cup, and the drive is that we want to compete,” Beck added. “And if anybody wants to get in our way, we have all the confidence in the world that if we play our brand of soccer we can compete against many teams in this country.”
Cleveland Roots go Deep
The competitive side never leaves an athlete -- neither does loyalty to their roots.
“If I could do it again, I would do it exactly the same way," said Bell. “I love being in this city. I love that I can play in this city. I’ve had chances to go play in other places, but I love it here and the guys we play with too.”
It’s a mentality at the core of Seibert’s initial vision.
“As much as we want to be a soccer entity, my vision is that we’re a Cleveland entity first -- a soccer entity second,” said the owner. “We want to make sure that we’re as Cleveland as possible.”
How good was Conor Cable last week? 💪🧤😅 All smiles in the end.😁#WeAreCLE #USOC2022 #NPSL @opencup @npslsoccer #CLE #ThisIsCLE #TheLand #CLESports #ClevelandSC #ClevelandOhio pic.twitter.com/NzNggg6DbB— Cleveland SC (@SoccerCLE) March 28, 2022
It hasn’t been easy for Seibert, who pays the bills by working 8-5 at the Cleveland Clinic as an administrator. But he’s fulfilled a dream: he’s run a Cleveland team, one shaped in his own vision, that’s now playing in the 107th edition of the U.S. Open Cup.
“When they’re on the field, they love each other so much, they don’t want to let each other down,” he said of his team. “And because of that we persevere, and we win.”