PEORIA — Drew Clark watched the birth of the Peoria City soccer team and felt a calling.
So I launched a soccer fan club called The 309.
“When the season started, I came to the game and saw fans scattered in little pockets of excitement, and I thought about ways to make it better for them and the team,” Clark said. “So we founded The 309, wanted to give the team a dedicated fan club and make our presence felt.
“It’s been a blast.”
Yes, Peoria City was announced as a USL 2 expansion team in 2000, endured delays in launching because of the pandemic, and finally got on the pitch at Shea Stadium for its inaugural season in May.
And The 309 soon followed, fulfilling soccer’s tradition of hard-core fan groups.
Related:What is Peoria City? Everything you need to know about the city’s new soccer team
“From the very beginning and during the launch of Peoria City, it was our hope that the supporters group would form organically by those individuals that have a great passion for soccer rather than have it developed by the club,” said Bradley University soccer coach Jim DeRose, who helped found Peoria City, assists the coaching staff and operates Shea Stadium during matches. “He drew and his group have been incredible in developing The 309 from square one, and plot a plan of growth and membership that reflects the supporters vision of the best way to support the players and club.
“The 309 is getting great traction and momentum in the community as is evident by the exponential growth they have shown in such a short time.”
The support club is four weeks old, and has already grown to 118 members in its official Facebook group.
Their presence was felt by the players on the pitch Wednesday as Peoria City hosted powerful Des Moines. And The 309 took their fun from the pitch to the parking lot, too, with pre-match and halftime tailgate sessions.
“The players and coaches are incredibly thankful and humbled by the reception they have received, and the support The 309 has given them,” DeRose said. “I can tell you personally how excited they would be if they could bring a playoff berth in Year One to the city of Peoria, our fans and in particular The 309.
“Their presence on social media, with their vocal support at games… is making the atmosphere at games something that is in line to being at a professional soccer match.”
Peoria City and the USL2
What’s the USL2? Short version, think Cape Cod League in baseball. These are current college players mixed with post-college players. It’s an amateur league; players don’t get paid, so their amateur status is protected.
The league has over 70 teams scattered in divisions around the country. It serves as an entry-level developmental circuit designed to keep young prospects playing, get exposed to more coaching and prepare for a push up the system to catch a professional team’s eye.
The next step up the ladder is the USL1 – then USL Championship, which is considered Division II soccer by the United States Soccer Federation and currently has affiliations with five MLS teams.
Related:Peoria City soccer team brings in four former high school all-staters from Peoria
The Peoria roster is an international cross-section of players. There is midfielder Joao Brum from Portugal. Defender Nils Buchwalder from Germany. Defender Alan Kehoe from Ireland. Spain’s Adrià Sabater Olivas leads the team with five goals. Canada’s Oluwarimidalare Olatunji has most of the team’s minutes as goalkeeper.
There are six players from Spain, one from Mexico, two from Portugal, one from Cyprus, and even four from right here at home.
Morton’s Wes Gibson is on this team, as are Peoria’s McKay LaHood, Noah Madrigal and Myles Sophanavong.
“These kids are from Spain and Ireland and Portugal, all over the place,” Clark said. “Some of them stay here, some of them don’t have any family here. So The 309 wants to support them, be a family for them, and spread awareness about this sport and the team around Peoria.
“That’s why we’re here.”
A concussion changed everything
Clark is a Peorian who played soccer and football as a kid. He went to play football at Illinois College in Jacksonville, and suffered a concussion that ended his career.
“I ended up being a broadcaster for men’s and women’s soccer teams there,” said Clark, 24. “I served as a manager helping those teams, too. I just fell in love with it.”
He sat on the bleacher seats Wednesday wearing a No. 10 Marcus Rashford soccer jersey and with a scarf from a team in Germany draped around his neck.
“I watched the 2008 World Cup and saw (star German midfielder) Bastian Schweinsteiger play,” Clark said. “That pretty much started my interest in soccer, and I wear this for him.”
Here in Peoria, I have found like-minded soccer fans in Andrew Barra, a Caterpillar exec, and Dustin Wikoff, a teller supervisor at PNC Bank.
They helped him design the club, build its presence on social media and coordinate its activities while serving as co-leaders in the fledgling group.
“When this team was announced (in January 2020) I wanted a job with the team,” said Clark, a recruiter for Country Financial in Bloomington. “This was the next best way to get involved with it.”
You have to learn the chants
The 309 had about 30 members at Wednesday’s match. They usually come armed with cowbells and windsocks.
They have struck up a connection with the DreamCenter’s drumline – the Drummadtik Talents – and they were with The 309 in the bleachers, drumming away.
Undaunted by a 4-1 loss to defending league champion Des Moines (7-0-1), they created energy for the 3-2-3 Peoria City team to the end.
“I had been following the development of Peoria City and I went to a game,” said Barra, 35. “I wanted to be part of the support section. I got in contact with Drew and joined The 309.
“They were all going crazy and I wanted to be part of it. We worked on putting together some chants, and we have them on our Facebook page.
There is one set to “Shots” by LMFAO ft. Lil Jon. Another is set to American Outlaws’ “We Love Ya” with words “‘Cause we support the City, the City, the City, and that’s the way we like it, we like it, we like it!” subbed into the verses.
Related:Meet the first manager for the expansion Peoria City soccer team of USL League Two
There is “Oh When The Carp Go Marching In,” which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Asian carp in the Illinois River sung to “Oh When The Saints Go Marching In.”
So yeah, it’s different, and it’s fun. Kid-friendly and family-friendly, too. There are groups of kids at Shea Stadium on Wednesday night kicking around soccer balls on the pavement behind the grandstand.
The 309 marches on
Peoria City has plans for a long future in central Illinois. So does The 309. Clark would like to see the team eventually move up to the USL1 level.
And his ambition is to step up The 309 with it.
“Three or four years from now, we want to have grown to the point where we can do some things in the community to help the sport, and contribute to charity and worthy causes,” Clark said. “The Peoria Rivermen, the Peoria Chiefs, Bradley University, they are part of what makes our sports scene special in Peoria, and we want Peoria City to be part of that picture. All these teams deserve our support.”
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men’s basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.