Tiago Lopes is a man with a big personality and big plans for Harrisburg’s professional soccer team.
Lopes, 34, had his own career in professional soccer before leaving his native Portugal to work as a consultant with teams around the world. In 2014, he was invited to an exhibition game in Harrisburg. A few meetings later, he was moving his family to the United States to work as one of the youngest team presidents in the world.
“I was only 30 years old, and for me to be a president was quite remarkable,” Lopes said. “It was a huge responsibility, one I didn’t want to turn down.”
The City Islanders play in the United Soccer League (USL), a Division II professional league. The 30 teams from cities around the country are essentially soccer’s minor-leaguers. For many players, it’s the last stop before Major League Soccer or the U.S. National Team.
In his first year, Lopes, alongside head coach Bill Becher, led the City Islanders on what Lopes calls “a magical run,” storming through the playoffs and into the final. The next year brought another successful season, but, in 2016, Lopes stepped away.
“Leaving was not an easy decision,” he said. “We were having a lot of success, with record fan attendance and a remarkable playoff run. But I felt at the time that the club was refreshed, and the groundwork was laid. I needed a little more time to myself and time with my family.”
Lopes stayed busy during his year away, enrolling at (and graduating from) Harvard Business School. As the 2017 season approached, it became clear he belonged back in the world of soccer.
“I realized I was missing the unique stress that comes with professional soccer,” he said. “That’s hard to explain, but you feel this unique pressure, and that’s something I love.”
He’s returning to a team coming off a difficult season. In 2016, the City Islanders lost star forward Aaron Wheeler to an injury halfway through the regular season schedule and failed to make the playoffs.
This season, Wheeler will be back on the field, along with six other powerhouse members of last year’s roster. They’ll be joined by Brandon Miller, the USL’s 2015 “Goalkeeper of the Year.” Head coach Becher foresees a successful season ahead for the more experienced team.
“We had struggles last year. It was a very young team,” he said. “This year, we’ve brought back a good core and added in guys with experience from around the league. I feel very good about what we’ve assembled.”
Becher is also glad to have Lopes—with his wealth of experience on and off the field—back in Harrisburg.
“He brings a lot of experience to the table,” Becher said. “He’s worked with clubs all over the world, been with some of the biggest clubs overseas, and I’m excited that now he’s back with us.”
Though soccer has long been the most popular sport in his native Europe, Lopes said he jumped at the chance to work in America’s burgeoning market.
“Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the United States,” he said. “In many states, it is the No. 1 sport in terms of youth participation. That’s quite remarkable if you look back five, 10 years ago.”
For Lopes, that growth represents a lot of potential for Harrisburg’s home team, and he has ambitious plans to capitalize on it.
“You can look at the industry and see that there is an economic impact, a growth and a quality that is sustainable,” he said. “These kids who are playing the game right now will become, in 10 years, the consumers of soccer.”
It’s not just about the economics. In fact, for Lopes, the bottom line is more of an afterthought. He’s focused on more elemental principles: community, hometown pride and the love of the game.
“I always go back to my deepest roots; my love for the sport,” he said. “You have to love what you do. That’s truly important. I’ve played the game. I turned pro playing the game, and I have a deep relationship with the sport.”
Lopes wants the rest of the region to have the same relationship, which is why, he said, this will be the City Islanders’ final season before a bottom-up rebranding.
“It is our firm belief that we need to rebrand the entire club,” he said. “We need a new identity, new name, new everything. And this journey of rebranding is not to be determined by us. We want the community, the fans, everyone to participate and have a hand in what we’re going to create.”
To that end, Lopes said, the 2017 season will be full of community-outreach events and the establishment of new partnerships. Ultimately, the team plans to have 50,000 kids in the region playing on affiliated youth teams.
“We have to be more than a soccer club,” he said. “We have to be a community organization. We truly want fans to embrace a new story, something they haven’t heard or felt before, that will make them feel proud to be from this region.”
The other major priority, Lopes said, is constructing a soccer-specific stadium. Currently, the team shares FNB Field, City Island’s baseball stadium, with the Harrisburg Senators AA minor league team.
“By 2019, we would like to have that stadium built and be hosting soccer and non-soccer events, bringing thousands and thousands of families to Harrisburg,” Lopes said.
At the end of the day, Becher said, it’s all about inspiring pride and loyalty in the fans.
“We want to continue to get our dedicated fans in the seats and also attract new fans,” he said. “We’re confident that, when people come see us, they’re going to want to come back.”
The Harrisburg City Islanders open at home on April 15 at FNB Field in Harrisburg. For more information, including the 2017 schedule, visit www.cityislanders.com.