Soccer club kicks around $8M tournament complex


River City FC is a West Michigan youth soccer club founded in 2013. Courtesy River City FC

Derek Dufendach and his local youth soccer club, River City FC, are trying to bring an $8 million, 80-acre soccer complex to West Michigan.

Dufendach’s plans are ambitious. He’s already been speaking with property owners in the area to find the best fit; he’d like to find 80 acres or more, with the potential to house both indoor and outdoor fields.

The indoor facility would also include a kitchen, gathering spaces and classrooms to foster the programs that help mold children into adults, he said.

An $8 million to $10 million fundraising campaign is underway for the complex, and designs and property information are being finalized.

“We recognized our ability to be a pioneer in providing West Michigan with a facility like this,” Dufendach said. “This could be a game-changer for the community.”

He said the idea for a complex of the magnitude he’s considering would be similar to that of the West Michigan Sport Commission’s Art Van Sports Complex, a 60-acre baseball and softball facility in Plainfield Township that cost $7.8 million to build.

The WMSC is working with a facility needs committee that is looking at what West Michigan needs to beef up its sports infrastructure, and a soccer complex might be one of those pieces, said WMSC President Mike Guswiler.

Guswiler said River City FC isn’t the only soccer club thinking about a complex, and he hopes to bring all interested parties together.

“One of our goals has been building a sports infrastructure to be a premier youth and amateur destination,” Guswiler said. “If the interest is to have this facility, maybe under the commission we can pull them together and have the same goal.

“But maybe that’s me being altruistic.”

Wary of making a commitment to just one club, Guswiler said he saw merit in a complex such as the one Dufendach is proposing. He pointed out that WMSC went ahead with plans for the baseball and softball complex based on the number of tournaments those sports could bring to West Michigan.

In 2015, Art Van Sports Complex’s first season, more than 7,600 participants and 20,000 spectators filled 7,658 hotel rooms and contributed more than $3 million in direct consumer spending. This year, WMSC hopes to see that number rise to 8,000 hotel rooms and $5 million in spending.

Guswiler said, apart from typical programming, a soccer program might hold a home tournament quarterly, but other sports such as lacrosse, rugby and field hockey could also use the fields.

The soccer community is somewhat fragmented, Dufendach said, and he recognizes a facility might need to be shared with sports other than soccer. He noted the economic impact of the Art Van Sports Complex and said he’d expect similar results from a soccer complex.

“I can’t imagine what a soccer tournament would bring in,” he said. “As much as we want to do this ourselves, we want to do it for the community.”

Guswiler said sport facilities such as these are popping up across the country, and whether it’s bringing soccer programs or multi-sport programs together, he’d like to see it happen.

“We want to play a role in continuing to build up the infrastructure. It’s important to establish our region as a destination,” Guswiler said. “We want to do whatever we can do to make this happen.”

Dufendach started River City FC as a side gig when he was running the soccer program at MVP Sports Spot and a client with six potential students couldn’t fit into the schedule. The former Calvin College soccer player launched his own program in 2013 with 100 students, dubbed the River City Rascals, and three levels of play.

River City FC now has 400 students, including 330 on 26 teams playing travel soccer. Dufendach said some of the younger teams have proven to be among the best in West Michigan, but he’s trying to do more than develop good soccer players.

The River City program has three pillars: capabilities, community and character. Dufendach said he wants his staff to mentor the players to become the best members of the community possible and includes 10 core values in their training.

“We’re developing soccer talent, but we have a holistic vision for these kids,” Dufendach said. “We don’t see them as soccer players; we see them as adults some day, and they’re not going to play soccer for the rest of their lives.

“That’s the number one flaw I see in a lot of programs; they’re in high school and soccer is their identity. What if they graduate, don’t make the college team, or break their leg? What’s next for them?”

Dufendach also mentioned a “grassroots academy” he hopes will increase soccer participation in inner-city neighbors through a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids and camps and clinics.

“We just need to get kids out there, get them playing,” he said. “Put up fields in the parks so they have an opportunity to play whenever they want.”

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