The Croatian Eagles have been one of the top amateur men's soccer programs in Wisconsin for the past decade, consistently challenging for state Major titles and contending for regional and national U.S. Adult Soccer Association championships.
Now the Franklin club will face regional competition on a more regular basis.
The Eagles are one of five charter members of the Great Lakes Premier League, which will kick off its inaugural season in May.
The other league members are Chicago powerhouse RWB Adria – another Croatian club with a long history of success – and three newly created Michigan sides: AFC Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids FC and Oakland United FC, which is based in Rochester.
AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC formed last year and applied to join the National Premier Soccer League for 2015, but were declined membership.
"So they started trying to find something that would be comparable to the NPSL quality-wise but a lot less expensive," said Croatians manager Alex Toth, who added that his club was contacted by RWB Adria about joining the new league.
The Eagles will continue to have teams in the Wisconsin Soccer Leagues Major and Reserve divisions, Toth said, while their roster for GLPL matches will feature a mix of players from those teams and the club's Under-23 players.
"So it will be kind of a combination team," said Toth, whose team is tentatively scheduled to open GLPL play against Grand Rapids on May 23 at Croatian Park. "One thing that's a help for us is that we have a lot of depth – both in the Majors and Reserves, there's a lot of players that I would like to take a look at.
"We were looking for that other piece to help develop younger players besides just playing in the WSL. We have a lot of depth, and this league is going to help me continue to build the depth for the whole men's program."
GLPL teams will play each twice this season, home and away, and the champion will be determined by the final standings – there won't be any playoffs.
In his search for that "other piece" to the Croatians program, Toth said the club looked into joining the NPSL.
"We spent $40,000 on the Majors last year," said Toth, whose team played in the WSL, the USASA regional and national Amateur Cup and the annual Croatian-North American tournament, "and that's what it takes pretty much to run an NPSL team."
So the choice came down to continuing the Eagles' tradition of playing in the state league in the fall and spring and the regional and national USASA events, or playing only in the NPSL from May through July. The GLPL offered another option.
"I like this idea. We can fund it with a couple of fundraisers and at minimal cost to the players," Toth said of the new league, which he said has a $1,000 entry fee – compared to the NPSL's $12,500 entry fee. "I think it's going to be something that hopefully takes off. This year it's five teams, then next year maybe it's 10 teams.
"I just think it's hard to find sponsorship and things like that, and if this continues to go the way I think it's going to go, you might see some teams maybe say, 'I'd rather play in this league than spend the money on the NPSL.'
"And that's not to knock the NPSL. I think they've done a great job; I'd love to be in it. But we just don't have $100,000 to spend on a men's program."