For Toledo Villa FC, infancy is no reason to temper expectations.
Founded earlier this year, the semipro soccer team has yet to play its first game, but it is nonetheless aiming high. Villa is shooting for its women’s team to become a mainstay in its rapidly expanding league, and for its men’s team to be in the United Soccer League — America’s top minor league — by 2020.
Although Toledo has deep roots within youth soccer, no team beyond the college level has lasted in northwestern Ohio. But Villa thinks it has what previous teams did not: The right combination of time, place, and support to not only stick around, but perhaps thrive.
“I know there are strong roots here, and last year I realized there is a very strong adult game too,” Villa general manager David Hebestreit said. “I know the talent’s here.”
The women’s team will play in the United Women’s Soccer League, a second-tier league that has welcomed eight expansion teams since 2015.
The men’s team will play in the Premier League of America, a fourth-tier regional league with a similar footprint to the Big Ten.
Both will play home games at Northview High School.
Most of Villa’s roster is made of current or former college players, with a few former professionals. Player- coach Ryan McDonald, a Tennessee native who played collegiately at Louisville, said the Toledo area has a significant amount of youth talent — and Villa is hoping to turn local skill into sustainability.
“I’ve gotten to see that talent,” said McDonald, who will play center back and assist head coach Charlie Edwards. “There’s all this talent here already, and there are kids from all over the United States who want to be part of what we’re doing here.”
Previous soccer teams in the area existed only in short bursts. The Toledo Pride, an indoor team that played at the Toledo Sports Arena, played just the 1986-87 season, and the Toledo Slayers made it three seasons, from 2003-05, before ceasing operations.
Toledo United launched in 2016, but filed for bankruptcy Nov. 17 and was kicked out of its league after one season. In a long Facebook post, Toledo United announced in March that a laundry list of problems made further existence untenable, saying its staff “just doesn’t have the energy to fight any more.”
Expansion teams, no matter the sport, typically live or die based upon their infrastructure and support. The initial tasks can be daunting: Finding startup capital, reliable ownership, and a site for practices and games; keeping a roster together; luring advertisers; and building a fanbase from scratch.
Hebestreit, who was United’s coach, said Villa’s strength, contrary to many expansion teams, is at the top.
The ownership structure is split into thirds. Pacesetter Soccer Club in Sylvania paid for a share, as did Total Sports, which has a Rossford location. (Neither business could be reached for comment.)
At the top, Villa has two partners that already have established stakes in the local soccer scene.
“Right there, you have wonderful business and soccer IQ in both those groups,” Hebestreit said. “The resources are endless.”
They join the ownership group spearheaded by Hebestreit, who joined his sister and a friend, both business owners, for the third share. The three-pronged ownership group provided start-up capital; Pacesetter and Total Sports provided locations to practice, both indoors and outdoors.
The club obtained Buffalo Wild Wings as a principle sponsor, and it partnered with nine local businesses. Among the sponsors are Mercy Health, which contributed money to the team and will provide concussion testing and trainers, and Switchback Catering, which supplies to-go meals before road games and a full spread for home games.
The bulk of both rosters — including 20 of 30 men’s players — have local ties, and the team will field under-20 teams for men and women.
“That’s important, sticking to the local roots and trying to bring all of the local ties into the equation,” Hebestreit said. “It’s easy to bring players in from all over the place and have the best team, but it’s also great to have the core of your team be from the city you’re playing in.”
The team can give $1,500 in total stipends per game — allowing the college players on the team to retain NCAA eligibility — but the roster is not salaried.
Both senior-level teams play their first home games with an evening doubleheader May 21 at Northview.
Eventually, Villa hopes it can become an entrenched minor league presence in Toledo. While mobility is years away, the team has had exploratory discussions with the USL, where every Major League Soccer team except one maintains an affiliated club.
Villa’s dreams might seem wildly ambitious for an expansion team in a city where professional soccer never has lasted, but the club thinks it has the most complete bid yet.
With the right effort, Villa is betting pro soccer — inauspicious local history and all — can make it in Toledo.
“Yes, Toledo has been a place where soccer has not been able to make it on a professional level, but where this group is different is that we do have vested interest from parties that know what they’re doing, not just in soccer but in business,” Hebestreit said, pointing to the ownership group and local sponsorship.
“We’re coming at this from all angles.”