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The beautiful game that's bringing Grand Rapids neighborhoods together


Every Monday night throughout the summer, at parks and schools across Grand Rapids, local residents gather to battle for neighborhood pride as part of the Grand Rapids Champs League, a neighborhood-focused soccer league. The league’s mission is to bring neighbors together from across Grand Rapids for friendly games of soccer, while having the opportunity to visit parks and neighborhoods they might not normally frequent, and donate money to local nonprofits.
Every Monday night throughout the summer, at parks and schools across Grand Rapids, local residents gather to battle for neighborhood pride.

No, it’s not a remake of the famous scene from the cult classic movie "The Warriors."

The Grand Rapids Champs League is a neighborhood-focused soccer league currently in its third season. The league’s mission is to bring neighbors together from across Grand Rapids for friendly games of soccer, while having the opportunity to visit parks and neighborhoods they might not normally frequent.

After starting with six teams in their inaugural season in 2015, the GRCL is currently made up of 10 teams from across Grand Rapids: Alger Heights FC, Creston FC, Deportivo Westside, Downtown Heartsiders, East Hills United, Eastown United, FC Brikyaat, FC Southside, Heritage Hill Lyons, and Legia Westside.

The league is the brainchild of Lee Mueller, formerly of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks; Tim Kelly, Vice President at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and captain of the Downtown Heartsiders; Ken Miguel-Cipriano, founder of FC Southside; and Maxwell Dillivan, founder of Creston FC.

Dillivan is now the league’s “Prime Minister,” with Miguel-Cipriano second in command, with the unique title of “Prime Rib.”

“We have bylaws, and try to be as formal as possible without taking ourselves too seriously,” says Dillivan, as he put on his goalie gloves before a recent game at Highland Park. “We wanted this to be about much more than just soccer.”

The number one rule of the league, as stated on their website and mentioned during a huddle before every game is as straight-forward as it gets: “Don’t be an ass!”

“You can apply that to most things in life,” laughs Dillivan. “We adopted that and some of the other rules from a league in Detroit.” The Detroit City Futbol League to which Dillivan is referring is in it’s eighth season.

Grand Rapids Champs League leans heavily on inclusion and fair play. Each team fields eight players at a time, and must include a minimum of two female players in their lineups at all times. The game is played on small fields lined with orange cones and portable, pop-up goals. Without referees, players call their own fouls—on themselves or on their opponents—and follow a few modifications on the rules of soccer to improve player safety. Most teams have matching uniforms, but players often wear the jerseys of their favorite professional teams.

Venues range from local schools—including Alger Middle and Congress Elementary—to city parks including Highland Park and Heartside Park, where multiple trees are actually part of the field of play. The “fields” are any open green space that teams can find within their local park, and the locations often change from week to week.

“That’s the beauty of the league,” said Miguel-Cipriano after a recent game at Lincoln Park. “We do that on purpose, because we want to show that we’re activating these parks and there’s clearly a need.”

To be intentional about having each participant visit different neighborhoods, every team plays each other team twice, once at home and once away.

“What I’ve seen is that it’s a lot of exposure,” noted Paola Mendivil as she cheered on her Deportivo Westside teammates during a recent match. “We get to go to a lot of different fields, plus there’s the social component.”

Much of the social connection takes place after games, where teams gather together for a post-game hangout at local establishments in each neighborhood.

FC Brikyaat, who plays their home games at Highland Park, had been gathering at Birch Lodge this summer, until a fire damaged the restaurant and bar in early July. They’ve since moved their post-game gathering to the Elbow Room. “It’s fun, because a lot of people have never been there before,” says Jeremy Pyne, captain of the first-year team.

Pyne, who played with Creston FC last season, wasn’t sure what to expect when launching a new team this year. “I knew a few people in the neighborhood who I asked to play,” said Pyne, as he set up a goal. “We had a rough few first games while we were still figuring out how to play together, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun.”

Miguel-Cipriano has been inspired to grow the league based on his early days of playing pick-up soccer in Wilcox Park. “What it used to be was the best of the best players in Grand Rapids, and it’s where I cut my teeth. It was a mix of young players and old players and you’d come in there and people would accept you. There was this magic.”

Sergio Cira-Reyes is in his third year as captain for Deportivo Westside, and has been a strong proponent for increased diversity in the league.

“We wanted to be intentional in having people of all ethnicities,” he says of his original plan to build the team. “Soccer tends to be very segregated in Grand Rapids, and we wanted to change that.”

“We’re trying to be more diverse,” said Miguel-Cipriano as he packed up his team’s goal after a game. “We take diversity and inclusion and equity as serious as possible.”

Another way of driving community involvement is the league’s requirement for each team to make a minimum $100 donation to a non-profit organization in their local area, which they’ve all exceeded each season. Earlier this year, Deportivo Westside donated nearly $500 to Movimiento Cosecha GR, a local non-profit focused on supporting immigrants in the United States.

The league works with the city to reserve park space and avoid any conflicts with other organizations. Members have also participated in cleanup events at various parks.

“We’re very supportive of the program,” says John Judnich, Recreation Supervisor at the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation department. “It’s really grassroots soccer and we’re very supportive of how it engages the different neighborhoods.”

“We want to make sure we’re good stewards of our neighborhood and we’re leaving the neighborhood in better shape than when we started,” says Dillivan.

As this year’s season winds down, organizers are already looking ahead to future growth.

“We want to get more of the neighborhoods involved,” says Dillivan. “We don’t have Baxter, Belknap, Fulton Heights. We could have a Richmond Park team. Roosevelt Park is a big one for us, too. We want to get more of the neighborhoods represented and start to fill in some of those gaps on the map.”

To learn more about the league and register to play, visit www.grchampsleague.org or attend a game this Monday night in your neighborhood.

Andrew Swanson is an Eastown resident and Chicago ex-pat who spends his days as a digital marketing specialist. Andrew, his partner Allie, and their dog, Chevy, have called Michigan home for the past three years. His previous writing experiences found him covering everything from youth baseball tournaments to pop musicians.

Images courtesy of Andrew Swanson.
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