Sports

FC Wichita wants to parlay semi-pro success into a pro future

Matt Clare was a key member of FC Wichita during its successful first season, and returned this summer.
Matt Clare was a key member of FC Wichita during its successful first season, and returned this summer. File photo

Imagine: a few thousand in attendance every game at a soccer-specific venue in Wichita watching a professional outdoor men’s soccer club compete for a championship during the summer.

That day seems far off for FC Wichita, a semiprofessional club that plays in front of a few hundred fans at Stryker Soccer Complex.

But owner Blake Shumaker thinks it’s possible to be headed in that direction within five years, given FC Wichita’s consistent success in the National Premier Soccer League — the team has already won the Heartland Division in the South Conference heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Dallas City FC — and his own ambition.

“We don’t feel like it’s that far of a reach,” Shumaker said. “Right now we have a great following among soccer fans in Wichita, but what we would like to do is to make our games for everybody in Wichita and that’s the next step for us. We want to be able to put 5,000 in the stands on occasion and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”

FC Wichita, which began playing in the National Preimer Soccer League in 2015, has surpassed every goal Shumaker had in his five-year plan – by the third season.

The club has won 77 percent (27-6-2) of its games, including two division championships. FC Wichita played in the U.S. Open Cup for a second straight year, this time winning its first game and feeling like it should have won another against Saint Louis FC, a professional side, in a 4-3 loss in the second round in May. They are ranked No. 4 in the power rankings in the 96-team NPSL.

Their goals have gone viral, their Wichita flag-themed crest inspires civic pride, and they have seen 13 of their players go on to play professionally.

“I think Wichita has been starved for something like this since the original Wings went away,” FC Wichita manager Steve Ralos said. “Nothing has been able to survive and thrive like FC Wichita and I think if this team keeps growing and progressing like the top wants it to, then Wichita is going to have a team the city can get behind for the first time since the Wings.”

Shumaker’s vision is to transition to a professional club, build a new soccer-specific facility, and join the United Soccer League, which is a step below Major League Soccer in the United States soccer hierarchy. He believes FC Wichita has already proven capable of competing with USL clubs in the U.S. Open Cup, and would only do better as a professional club.

“We already operate pretty much as a professional team,” Shumaker said. “We’re No. 4 in the power rankings for a reason and that’s because we run a quality program. Players like coming here because they know they’ll be competing for a championship and they’ll have eyes on them. They’re seeking a professional environment to further their careers and that’s what we give them.”

A new venue is crucial to Shumaker’s professional vision. Stryker met his needs to launch the program, but something more grand is required to get where Shumaker wants to take FC Wichita.

“Right now we have to be careful of not promising too much to the non-soccer fan,” Shumaker said. “We’re missing a lot of the amenities and just so much of the professionalism that we need. But if we give them quality soccer at a new venue with all of that other stuff, then they’re more likely to have a good time and have a chance to fall in love with the game.”

Even with talent in the program and ambition from leadership, the pricetag of turning professional will always be an obstacle.

“Are we going to be able to afford to buy into the league? Can we afford the travel budget of playing nationally, instead of just in the Midwest?” said Larry Inlow, the team’s director of operations. “We would have to pay salaries for players and coaches. If all of the stars align and everything comes exactly the way it’s supposed to, then it’s a possibility. But it’s always going to come down to the financial aspect.”

Those are questions for the future. Right now, FC Wichita is enjoying its best season to date.

FC Wichita is 7-1-1 and will host the Heartland Division playoffs as the No. 1 seed beginning Wednesday, with the championship game on Saturday. Another division championship would advance FC Wichita to the South Regional semifinals the following Saturday.

The more FC Wichita wins, the more the organization grows and the closer Shumaker’s dream comes to reality.

“Things are growing in a big way and it’s truly a beautiful thing to see in town,” said Matt Clare, who has played with FC Wichita in 2015 and 2017. “I think the sky is the limit for this organization and I can’t really see where it’s going to stop. I hope it doesn’t stop and it keeps getting bigger and bigger because I know right now teams are beginning to recognize us as a team they don’t want to play and I hope it stays that way.”

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