Casey Bantle aims for the big time
The Ann Arbor Football Club missed playing in the nation's most prestigious tournament by a single goal.
On May 9, the club's top men's outdoor team, AAFC Elite, lost a 1-0 defensive battle at Pioneer High's Hollway Field. For the second time in three years, it ended its season one win shy of qualifying for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Both losses come at the hands-er, feet-of Wisconsin's most storied team, Milwaukee's Bavarian SC. "We're one of the top teams in the state," says AAFC Elite player-coach Casey Bantle, the club's founder and director. "They're one of the best amateur clubs in the nation."
Still, AAFC Elite's showing is the strongest ever by an Ann Arbor club (in 2007, Bavarian sent them home in a 6-0 game). Only eight amateur teams in the country qualify for the U.S. Open Cup, which also includes pro and semipro squads. It's particularly impressive considering AAFC was founded just six years ago.
Bantle organized his first soccer team in 1997, while still a senior at Community High School. He admits he started the coed indoor team partly for the opportunity to hang with good-looking girls. True love eluded him, but he discovered another passion: organizing teams.
"People enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, so I did it again, and eventually there was interest in more than one team," says Bantle. "I've been doing it ever since."
While Bantle-5 foot 6 with a youthful smile-can still pass for a Community High student, AAFC has outgrown its adolescence.
"We have four sanctioned outdoor men's and women's teams, and year round we have men's, women's, and coed indoor teams," says Bantle. AAFC's squads consist mostly of former college players - roughly 170 in total - and some current college players during the spring and summer.
"All of our teams are competitive in nature and are all competing in the top divisions of their respective leagues," notes Bantle. But though AAFC Elite has now won the state championship two of the last
three years, to make it to the next level Bantle believes the club needs to add younger squads. Most top amateur clubs - including Elite's nemesis, Bavarian SC - stand atop a pyramid of development academies and youth teams.
So the next steps in Bantle's vision are to create a twelve-and-under youth academy plus premier male and female amateur squads in every age group. The Ann Arbor Football Club will hold its first tryouts for youths age 5 through 18 on June 15 (see annarborfootballclub.com for details). Eventually, he also envisions professional squads.
"Southeast Michigan has some of the top youth players and clubs, some of the top amateur players and clubs, and some of the top semipro players and clubs," Bantle points out, while rat-tling off a laundry list of players and clubs and their various accolades. "The only thing lacking is a professional outdoor team."
[Originally published in June, 2009.]