The final club in our league tour is the one with the most history with DCFC, going back into the NPSL days. Old-school members of NGS might be expecting this post to be a novel of its own, starting with “FC Sparta” (from which we got the nickname “Sharta”), continuing onwards through all of the old league, before finally culminating in what’s become known as “The Rumble in Romeo”. This is only a blog about the NISA era leading up through the USL announcement, however. And even then, I’m probably going to forget someone’s favorite story.
Instead, we’ll focus on the involvement of the Juncaj family and how they drove the club. At its core, it’s the tale of father George Juncaj advancing the career of his son Steven Juncaj, a quest that slowly twisted into forming the club that would become the anti-Detroit City FC. Every time the City faithful believed they were leaving behind the Stars, they simply twisted themselves a little bit further and puffed up a little bit larger until we finally left NISA. Some say that if you say their name too loudly, they’ll appear against us in the US Open Cup.
Steven Juncaj was a Michigan native. Driven hard by his father George to play at the highest level he could, he eventually went overseas to train, eventually playing professionally in Switzerland. After growing homesick, he returned to the US and attempted to play for Oakland University. This didn’t even last a week- the NCAA does not permit former professionals to become student athletes, and thus the Switzerland excursion had disqualified him.
But there were other opportunities available in Metro Detroit for a young man with talent who was looking to spring back into the US professional game. Many players took a stint in the amateur NPSL before later going up to the pro ranks or returning to them. Naturally, Steven tried out for DCFC, where his beaming father and mother were certain that he would get plenty of minutes scoring goals as a forward to the club. Looking at his track record so far, this didn’t seem so outlandish.
Unfortunately for Steven, head coach Ben “Caesar” Pirmann wasn’t interested. Steven wasn’t just benched- he didn’t make the cut. His father George, a successful businessman, was shocked. Outraged, even. But unlike most parents who were disappointed to see their son not make the roster, George had the money to really overreact.
So what did he do? He overpaid for DCFC’s opponent Michigan Stars FC- supposedly $150,000. It’s important to note that the NPSL has territory rights in some cases, but they’re much smaller than other leagues, and the Stars had virtually no assets or history worth discussing. It would have been much cheaper to just stand up his own new team instead.
The new team was built on two objectives: to provide a platform to boost Steven’s career, and to dethrone Detroit City as Michigan’s premier team. The Stars returned from in 2019 after a 2018 hiatus, finishing in fourth- same as they always had in the NPSL. The Founder’s Cup was approaching, and their name was not on it. New owners or not, we’d be leaving these jokers behind forever once we got to the fall.
Of course, there was the small issue that the Founder’s Cup fell apart because it was unable to get the required insurance, with many teams jumping ship to NISA for the fall season or abandoning the project entirely. With NPSL Pro’s rebirth as the Member’s Cup, they needed more numbers. Somebody who had the money to make a sudden pivot into a compromised project. The Juncaj clan had their in- another chance to potentially show DCFC how wrong they were. They finished in the Members Cup in fourth, rounding out a perfect record of always finishing fourth in NPSL-sponsored competitions.
OK, but that was going to be the last of them, right? This club had been following us around since 2013 hoping to sponge off part of Detroit City’s success- as so many clubs in the NPSL Great Lakes conference had spawned off from wanting to be another Detroit City. But this one had tried to squat in our own backyard and do the same. Even though they never had any fans, we hated them at least as much as all our other opponents.
Unfortunately, no. The Michigan Stars jumped to NISA with the other teams in the Members Cup, and were going to keep plaguing us. NISA’s Operating Agreement had a problem with assuming good faith- believing that members would abide by the rules and not having enough enforcement mechanisms (such as fines) for handling bad behavior. Combined with the LA Force taking an outsized amount of control in the league, the cracks in NISA’s foundation would soon be exploited to their fullest.
George Juncaj is a grown man
Following one game against New Amsterdam, George reportedly entered the field enraged at the opposition. Highlights included him looking for a fight and stating that he would dunk their heads in toilets, giving them swirlies to express his wrath. I think it’s important to remind you that this is a league that started play in 2019, and George is a middle-aged businessman somewhere around his 50s. He has tens of millions of dollars in the bank at a minimum, and sits in business meetings with other professional club owners where he theoretically has an equal say as everyone else at the table. He was not simply a detestable owner of a team we detested- he was a business partner with everyone else in the league, and was threatening the employees of his business partners.
Now imagine committing to being on regular business calls with this guy for the next ten years.
Anti-diversity and the MAGA rally
In 2020 during the games played without crowds, protests against police brutality took place throughout NISA. A number of matches were canceled by mutual agreement of the players, including DCFC vs Cosmos. Clubs across the league gave players a platform to speak and tell their stories. CFC’s players told of the struggles of being a POC in modern-day America. DCFC’s players launched the #CityAgainstRacism shirts with club support.
What started as a grassroots movement received the league’s support as NISA reached for the mantle of being an anti-racist league, including Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion efforts. How effective these were has been debated, but every club save one bought in enough to send representatives and pitch in. Michigan Stars, of course, chose to sit out- then decided to go a step further in the opposite direction.
Remember October of 2020? Pandemic’s in full swing, flattening the curve didn’t quite work as we thought it would, we were many months from any vaccines, and the holidays were rapidly approaching. Sounds like a perfect time to hold a large unmasked re-election rally starring Donald Trump Jr! They literally hosted a super-spreader MAGA rally to help kickstart the numbers before Thanksgiving, to offer up another surge before Christmas.
The Stars had long been a wandering club, roving from field to field each year. Supposedly the previous owners had a bad habit of falling behind on the rent and getting kicked out. For 2019, the club had moved to Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, known dismally as “the tin can” to DCFC supporters. “We don’t play indoor soccer- we play soccer indoors!”, Ultimate proudly proclaimed. They also had MAGA paraphernalia present at their offices, just in case we weren’t clear on where they stood.
Anyway, the tin can got sold, which would have proven to be a negative to most people, but not to George. This was instead another opportunity to help build the anti-City. We were based in Keyworth Stadium, having used private funds to renovate a historic site in the city. They would build their own stadium, which was quickly derided as “the Shartnasium”, out in the mostly-empty Washington Township. Not exactly the best place to get fans, although George was certain that the state would soon defect to his team as they realized that NGS was swearing too much for the kids.
George spent $1M on the pitch alone as the first stage of construction. At the end of this, he somehow had a crooked, slanted pitch on land that he controlled. Nobody can be certain of how this went down- maybe it was a contractor gone wrong- but I would be willing to bet that he was told he needed to spend money fixing the land or put it somewhere else, overrode them, and then wound up with what he has today. Oh, well- now all he needed was to build some stands and finish up his new stadium and he could move in for 2021. LA may not have been selling tickets, but they were still complying with PLS by virtue of playing in a stadium with the capacity to sell tickets. Under USSF rules, George would not be allowed to play at the new Shartnasium until his stands were there to provide the capacity.
But then construction halted. Nothing was getting built. It was just a crooked pitch, with no signs of forward progress. Later revelations would suggest that he was stuck in a fight with Washington Township’s bureaucracy- again, we can’t know whose fault the delay is for sure, but either way, construction was far behind schedule. The Michigan Stars would continue to play at Romeo High School for now.
They just had to stay on their best behavior and not become a reputational liability. But they were the family-friendly DCFC alternative, how hard could that be?
The League De-Fanged
But these things are mostly only embarrassing. The province of rich men who have not been kept in check, the things that make you hate working with somebody but might be tolerated for a larger ideal or goals. Part of the general malaise of being a supporter in NISA and always having a headline that’s distracting from the actual soccer that’s taking place as Detroit City continues its uncontested march to win another trophy.
The May 2021 chain reaction was different, however. It didn’t merely create PR problems, or affect the level of play, or degrade ideals. What happened next went to the heart of NISA’s stability as a business environment for its clubs. At the end of the day, these clubs are businesses, whether we like it or not- and an environment that kills you as a business will prevent any progress towards reform despite whatever platitudes it may profess.
In a May match between Chattanooga FC and Michigan Stars FC, a fight broke out between the two sides at the end of the match. CFC’s Brian Bement and Markus Nagelstad were suspended, as well as MSFC’s Remy Tazifor and Tatenda Mkuruva. NISA had responded swiftly to the violence in order to stem it. Footage of this would later make its way to Romeo High School, who would hold a vote deciding not to renew the Stars for 2022.
Mkuruva’s suspension was lighter than the rest (only a single game), but removed the best piece from the Stars’ squad. (Sorry, Steven- the club’s whole existence may be built to give you a professional career, but the goalkeeper was who made you worrisome.) George was of course incensed that anyone would enforce the rules on his squad, especially given that CFC’s Bement was widely seen as having instigated the incident in question. George already felt that the referees were working against him and that NISA was treating him unfairly, and this was the last straw. The next match for the Michigan Stars was to be against California United on the west coast; George simply refused to fly out, forfeiting the match instead.
What’s the penalty for failing to show up? Most leagues have one. The USL Academy, for example, fines the forfeiting team, deducts three points from them, and reserves the right to ban the offending side from returning to future competitions. This is a league for teenagers and children. So NISA, a professional league that’s intended to be the top of its own system, must have penalties at least as harsh as this, right?
No. It doesn’t. Not built in. I said above that NISA’s operating agreement has a problem with assuming good faith and not putting in adequate enforcement mechanisms for people who aren’t playing by the rules. That included simply not showing up to matches- the only penalty was that you automatically dropped three points to your opponent. Even this meant comparatively little, especially later in a season if you knew that the title was out.
We need to really sit and think about this before moving forward. For a club like the Los Angeles Force who wasn’t going to be selling tickets anyway, this didn’t matter to the balance sheet at all. For Club 9, as long as the Stars kept paying their dues, life would go on. But California United did sell tickets- not enough to break even, but any effort at building a fanbase would still be disrupted by this.
For the clubs that relied on gameday revenue to live, however, this was much more of an existential threat. For today that was Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC, but many NISA clubs were aiming to be sustainable on the pitch even if they were taking losses in these early days. Had the Stars chosen to forfeit a DCFC home match, it would have easily cost the club at least six figures in revenue. CFC would have been in a similar boat. Rain and bad weather may reduce income on a given day, but an outright no show because of a temper tantrum- that surely had to be the last straw.
There was one enforcement mechanism available within the operating agreement, however: a board of governors vote. While no automatic sanctions were written in, the board could enact their own penalties for the forfeit. A message trickled out among a few league insiders: the Stars were finally finished, their time at an end. It was never explicitly said how they were finished, or the details of what “finished” meant. But having read the operating agreement cover to cover, there is only one mechanism by which “done” could have been achieved- the vote.
But then, nothing happened. No fines. No point deductions. Certainly no expulsion. And nothing was ever said of it again.
Whatever the member clubs had agreed to, it had been vetoed despite the principles the league had espoused since 2017. It is in the interest of the clubs who sell tickets and try to maintain normal game day operations and invest in their own businesses to have a stable environment and a reasonable expectation that their opponents will try to make every match happen. But the majority owners of NISA had an incentive to continue to collect fees from the Stars, to have one more club cushioning them above the PLS minimum to keep the league itself alive. Long-term, this decision was unhealthy- keeping around unstable elements drives off clubs who are seeking a serious environment, depressing expansion and even causing contraction. But then the only way a veto could exist was because of previous short-term decisions on where to take the money from and how to structure the league around it.
If your club was one of the long-termers, what would you do at this point?
Next time, we’ll take a break to look at the rest of the NISA ecosystem. So far we’ve focused on events surrounding the division 3 pro league, since that was where DCFC played. If that had been all there was to NISA, the “betrayal” might not have cut so deep. NISA also had its hand in trying to help unify the amateur pyramid, create a new women’s pro league, and even run some clubs. The plans were ambitious- but they might have also been what stretched NISA almost to its breaking point in the fall of 2021.
Additional reading and sources:
- Steven Juncaj’s entry on the Michigan Stars FC roster
- Reddit: now-deleted Dutchies tweet about threats from Juncaj
- A Crisis of Conscience
- Donald Trump Jr. to host MAGA event in Macomb County today
- NISA League Statement on May CFC-MSFC Post-Game Incident
- The Michigan Stars FC will not participate in their upcoming match against the Cal United Strikers due to “unresolved” issues with NISA