A Publication of WTVP

Pro soccer arrives in River city

by Nick Vlahos | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Team schedule

Team scheduleA soccer team that debuts this spring in Peoria has an owner from Canada, a coach from New England and players from around the country and beyond.

Still, the roots for potential success and staying power are local – off the field in particular.

Peoria City began its inaugural, 12-game season May 14. The final game is scheduled for July 16. Home field is Shea Stadium, where the Bradley University soccer team also plays.

The nascent team consists of unpaid current college soccer players and recent graduates. It plays in USL League Two, an amateur developmental circuit of more than 100 North American teams.

Peoria City’s USL2 division includes teams in Des Moines, Iowa; the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; and the Canadian cities of Thunder Bay, Ontario and Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Not exactly Major League Soccer or the English Premier League, perhaps, but at $5 a ticket for almost all seats, Peoria City can provide six affordable nights of entertainment for families as well as for soccer aficionados, said the club’s local leaders.

“We want to show that this is a solvent, relevant space in our community that builds for the next year and the next year,” said Jim DeRose, who oversees Peoria City operations. “We’re trying to be in this for the long haul.”

DeRose and Peoria City General Manager Tim Regan know of what they speak in that community-appeal regard. For 26 years, DeRose has been the men’s soccer coach at Bradley. Regan is DeRose’s top assistant and a former standout Bradley player who spent six years in the MLS.

When Peoria City owners Barry MacLean and John Dorn approached DeRose about their plan for a local soccer franchise, they emphasized the need for an organic organization.

Soccer Players“’Guys, I just want you to keep in mind this is my home,’” DeRose said in recounting the discussions. “’This is where I live. I’ve raised my family here. I work at Bradley University.’ Everything that we do here, we’re going to make sure that’s at the forefront.

“This has to be a sense of community. It has to be a sense of family. Peoria’s a great place, where people combine family and adult fun with kid fun.”

MacLean should be familiar with all that. In the early 1980s, he came from Canada to Macomb, about 75 miles west of Peoria, to play soccer at Western Illinois University.

In his native land, MacLean has been a professional-soccer agent and college coach. Dorn has been involved in player development for the MLS’ Chicago Fire. Local developer/philanthropist Kim Blickenstaff also was instrumental in helping to establish the Peoria franchise.

The owners maintained their commitment despite a delay in play, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Plans for a Peoria team first were announced in January 2020, just before COVID-19 changed the calculus.

“We had a schedule. Everything was ready to go,” Regan said. “You lost all the energy you had, so you had to start it from nothing.”

Once the Peoria City effort resumed in earnest, it needed a coach. That’s where DeRose’s pre-Peoria days came in handy.

The New Jersey native’s East Coast connections – he played college soccer in Vermont – helped Peoria City select Ruben Resendes. His usual gig is men’s head coach at Franklin Pierce University, an NCAA Division II institution in New Hampshire.

In three seasons, Resendes has coached Franklin Pierce to a 38-5-3 record, so it appears he knows a little about soccer. But the Massachusetts native admits he doesn’t know much about Peoria, aside from DeRose and Bradley.

“The more he told me about (the team) and his vision for it and how important it was going to be for the community, all those…things played a factor in my decision to want to go,” Resendes said from his home base. “I believe in what Peoria City can do for the community in bringing more people together and providing high-level soccer during the summer.”

USL2 is considered the fourth level of the American soccer pyramid, with MLS at the top. The second and third levels also are professional.

BSoccer Playersoston and Providence colleges and North Carolina State University will be represented on the Peoria City roster. From a pool of some 30 players, 18 will dress for each game. No Bradley or Franklin Pierce players are eligible.

“What’s hard about this league is that they’re not contracted, so they can come and go as they wish,” Regan said. “That’s why you keep your roster size fairly large, knowing that there’s some change you just can’t predict.”

Some former Peoria-area high school players are expected to be in the mix. Among them are Morton graduate Wesley Gibson (Southern Illinois-Edwardsville) and Peoria Notre Dame alums McKay LaHood (DePaul), Noah Madrigal (Marquette) and Myles Sophanavong (SIU-E).

Before the season opener, Peoria City conducted getting-to-know-you nights at various Peoria restaurants and bars. Some will sell Peoria City Pils, a beer Bearded Owl Brewing in the Warehouse District created as a tribute to the team.

Expect organized groups of Peoria City supporters — complete with the chants and drumming common at soccer matches — this first season. Beyond that, DeRose and Regan aren’t sure what to expect.

“A lot of people ask us, ‘Why are you even involved in this if it doesn’t benefit Bradley soccer players?’” said DeRose. What benefits is Peoria, Ill.

“I saw a handful of people at this event who love soccer, who told me all about their experiences with it, and they didn’t know a darn thing about Bradley soccer. And that’s awesome.”

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.