GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level

The Savannah Clovers don’t have to look too hard to find inspiration that better days are ahead – perhaps as soon as the 2024 season.

The Clovers, founded as a local amateur recreation team in 2016, made their debut as Savannah’s first men’s professional outdoor soccer club in 2023 in competing in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).

Their inaugural pro season came with the expected growing pains – and more suffering than anticipated. The Clovers finished eighth of nine teams at 4-13-7 (wins-losses-draws) for 19 points.

They sported a league-worst minus-28 goal differential after scoring the fewest goals (19) and allowing the most (47) in 24 games.

“On the field, from the coaching staff to the front office staff, we all expected more,” said Brian Sykes, team co-founder, co-owner and chief community officer. “We all understand the realities of the league, the level of the league as we started to play. We knew we could get to that level.

“One thing Coach (David Proctor) says, he talked about a few times, if we had five more games, we could have showed what we were really, really about,” Sykes continued. “If we had five more games, we could have made the playoffs, we could have made a run deep into the playoffs possibly.”

Sykes is basing this hypothetical on a young Clovers squad that got better late in the campaign, closing out the schedule with home wins over the Maryland Bobcats (2-0) and Chattanooga FC (3-2), the NISA’s top team at the end of the regular season in October.

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Chris Hayes

Proctor “saw the progression through the season from a team selected on paper to a significant build on the field …,” he wrote in an emailed response for this story.

The coach noted that the Clovers were the youngest pro soccer team in the country at an average of 21.5 years old and included three local players making their pro debuts.

“We had some players that were experienced at the pro level, but most of our guys were first-year pros,” Sykes said. “It was a learning curve for those guys. To their credit, they did bring it toward the end of the season. We had a better second half of the season than we did the first half.”

While Savannah sat home for the postseason, the sixth-place and last playoff qualifying team proved Sykes’ hypothetical could have been a reality. The Flower City Union of Rochester, N.Y., squeaked into the post season with a losing record (8-13-3), with three victories coming against the Clovers. Then Flower City blossomed, winning three road playoff games, including the NISA title match against the defending champion Michigan Stars in November.

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Gailon Wisdom

Also impressive, and particularly on point to the Clovers’ goal setting, was Flower City’s improvement from their inaugural NISA season of 2022. The squad went 2-18-3, with the fewest goals scored (13) and most allowed (57) for the worst goal differential (minus-44).

No guarantee that history could repeat itself so quickly, but the Clovers have seen it done. They are in it for the long haul.

“I think there’s always expectation to learn and produce,” Sykes said. “After season one, there’s always the expectation to say, what did we do right and wrong in the season, and how can we improve on the next year?”

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Gailon Wisdom

He said the front office and coaching staff are currently breaking down aspects of the first season and challenges faced, from the player roster to scheduling to enhancing the match-day experience for fans.

“We will add a few players to the roster that will have a bit more league pro experience,” Proctor wrote. “We will be retaining an excellent core group, so with the new additions we would definitely be hoping to challenge for the playoffs in 2024.

“With the first season under our belts, we know the challenges of the league, travel, weather and the opposition teams possess. We very much look forward to 2024 and seeing the fans pack out Memorial Stadium.”

They see a window of opportunity with soccer’s increased exposure and awareness in the country, from the Women’s World Cup last summer to the men’s World Cup in North America in 2026.

“How can we take advantage of the growth of soccer over the next four, five years?” Sykes said. “We’re in the process of looking at 2023 and seeing what we can do better.”

Sykes, 39, didn’t rush into creating the Clovers, having taken 10 years from falling in love with the sport during the 2006 World Cup to starting a men’s adult Sunday league team. He studied soccer leagues and franchises’ histories in the United States and saw a gap in Savannah’s sports landscape.

The Clovers remained an amateur club as a member of the United Premier Soccer League playing a Southeast region slate for several seasons. The team was accepted in January 2022 into the NISA, which is in the third division – like USL League One — in the tiered system of the U.S. Soccer Federation, with MLS at the top. 

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Courtesy of Michigan Stars FC

The Clovers’ leveling up to the pro ranks required adjustments by the players and the club.

The players have to have a professional mindset, that every game is competitive, and they cannot take their roster spot for granted. They also have to the adapt to officiating as well as the “gamesmanship” of opposing players who “know every tactic to get underneath your skin” to draw yellow and red cards, Sykes said.

“Running a pro club is new for us,” he said. “Having a pro team in Savannah is new for a lot of fans. We were really, really excited and pleased with the fan reaction we got from the city of Savannah.”

Sykes is very appreciative of fans at matches and team events, such as player meet-and-greets and game watch parties, as well as support from businesses. The franchise has signed partnerships with national and international companies such as soccer equipment and gear supplier Umbro and title sponsor Castro Wood Floors, whose logos adorn their kits (jerseys). Local health care provider Optim Orthopedics is a presenting partner (also on jersey sleeves) and provides medical services for the team.

Attendance at games at 5,000-seat Memorial Stadium was “decent,” Sykes said.

“I think we averaged between 400 and 600 a game, which is pretty good,” he said. “We want more, of course. We want people to know more about the team.”

“They came out in the rain. They waited through lightning delays. They came out and still supported the team even though they were soaking wet. We’re really, really appreciative of the fan base not only for sticking with us through a tough first half of the season, but sticking with us through awful, terrible weather some of the first couple of games.”

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Gailon Wisdom

His vision for the season might have included a little rain falling but not the downpours that tested the loyalty of fans. The team is looking into varying the game days and start times from 7 p.m., perhaps adding a weekend day game, to accommodate more fans.

“We can’t control the weather, but maybe we can predict it a little better,” Sykes said.

They couldn’t have predicted two home games would have to be postponed on short notice when the visiting squads had COVID outbreaks, and the same circumstance happened to the Clovers before a road trip.

The two home games, against Maryland and Chattanooga, were moved to mid-October and, because Memorial Stadium was unavailable, Richmond Hill High School stepped up as an enthusiastic host. Sykes said the team and fans enjoyed the experience and he could see the Clovers playing some games there again.

Sykes has more wishes for the 2024 season.

“I want to see more fan engagement at the stadium,” he said. “I want to see the Clovers out in the community more. I want the brand to get out there so people can engage with it more. We really want to continue to bring high-level soccer to Savannah and represent Savannah on a big stage.”

click to enlarge GROWING PAINS: Clovers soccer club learns from challenges of first season on pro level
Chris Hayes

The team had promotional themes at matches, including Hispanic Heritage Night and Military and First Responders Night, as well as a Kick Hunger event for canned food donations to support Savannah Feed the Hungry.

The franchise plans to launch a nonprofit arm in 2024 to focus on community service.

“It helps the community and helps us get our name out there more,” Sykes said. “It helps people get involved with what we’re doing at our games and in the community.”

One mission is to support soccer at all levels and fitness by donating to tournaments and holding free clinics. The Clovers already partner with Savannah United, which provides select, academy and recreation soccer programs for boys and girls.

On Dec. 16 and 17, the Clovers will host open tryouts at Memorial Stadium to identify local talent and players that could earn a professional contract or get invited to pre-season training with the team.

The registration for the Dec. 16 and 17 I.D. Trials at Memorial Stadium will be open to all male soccer players ages 17-25. The cost to register is $150 and all players must sign an eligibility waiver. For more information and to register visit www.savannahclovers.com/IdTrials. For more information about the Clovers visit: https://www.savannahclovers.com.



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