Business duo looks to establish a vibrant soccer ecosystem in Cleveland
Soccer is often considered the world’s most popular sport - a truly global affair that outshines the Super Bowl in terms of interest.
Fans laud “the beautiful game” - a phrase popularized by the late Brazilian footballer Pelé - for its special mixture of skilled mastery and athletic artistry. The slow buildup of play leading to a final crisp pass, then a packed stadium exploding as the ball hits the net.
The sport has a long history in Northeast Ohio as well, from the turn-of-the-20th century Cleveland Soccer Football Club to the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Cleveland Force playing before 20,000-strong crowds at Richfield Coliseum.
Two Cleveland business partners are drawing on the region’s soccer legacy for a brand new endeavor. Nolan Gallagher and Michael Murphy, former owners of the Gravitas Ventures film distribution company, are currently establishing a men’s professional soccer team that will join Major League Soccer’s Next Pro league in 2025.
The Cleveland team will be the third independent club to join the budding player development league, started by Major League Soccer in 2021. Rochester New York FC and Carolina Core FC will launch a year before the Cleveland franchise kicks off.
If all goes to plan, the newly minted Cleveland franchise will be the cornerstone of a regional soccer network that comprises a National Women’s Soccer League team, a stadium site, and a larger soccer complex that can tap into interest from Northeast Ohio’s diverse population.
“As we looked at the opportunity, we saw the ability to harness the power of soccer as a change agent for Northeast Ohio,” said Murphy. “To bring this global game to Cleveland in a very meaningful way, and have the requisite sites and facilities needed to support that vision.”
The ambitious undertaking has been percolating since 2021, two years after Gallagher and Murphy – along with Gallagher’s brother and fellow owner Brendan Gallagher - moved the headquarters for Gravitas Ventures from Los Angeles to Cleveland. They had expanded their enterprise into a worldwide theatrical distribution company that released more than 3,000 video-on-demand movies.
In November 2021, they sold the film company for $73 million to multi-platform media business Anthem Sports & Entertainment Co.
As part of their full-time investment to transform Cleveland into a soccer hub, Gallagher and Murphy founded the Cleveland Soccer Group. They view the ongoing effort as a way to connect Cleveland to the world. Murphy, the CEO of Cleveland Soccer Group, pointed to the city’s diverse population of immigrants - not only from Europe, but newer Clevelanders from El Salvador, Syria and other soccer-loving countries.
“We want to bring soccer talent from these countries to Cleveland,” Murphy said. “This is about more than kicking a ball around a pitch for us. It’s a much larger vision.”
Building a dream
Nolan Gallagher will become president of the soccer group upon his official departure from Gravitas. Along with the MLS Next Pro men’s club, the organization’s bid for a women’s pro team is still awaiting approval.
The timing for the MLS Next Pro squad could not be better, as it will coincide with the 2026 FIFA World Cup, featuring 48 teams competing in host countries Canada, Mexico and the U.S, Gallagher said.
Although neither Gallagher nor his partner have sports management experience, they are confident that a business acumen that grew Gravitas into an industry leader will translate to the athletic realm.
“Thinking about bringing soccer to Cleveland, we said this will be thousands of meetings, just like we had at Gravitas in our early years,” said Gallagher. “We need to know our stakeholders, whether they are on the sports side, other owners and sponsors, or people great at activating the community.”
For the last 18 months, group principals have been pitching their vision to city and county officials as well as local stakeholders such as David Gilbert from Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Greater Cleveland Partnership President and CEO Baiju Shah.
Nor is the effort lacking for expertise on the soccer side, said Gallagher and Murphy. A board of coaches, executives and ex-players is navigating them through the regional soccer landscape, which ideally will include an 11,000-seat stadium alongside new training facilities.
Ongoing mentorship from current MLS and NWSL owners is another boost for the group’s long-term dream of making the North Coast a pillar for U.S. soccer, they said.
“When we look out in 10 to 15 years and say those players came from Cleveland and were developed in Cleveland, it will be because we built something really interesting here,” Murphy said.
Bringing people together
Gallagher and Murphy – who became friends at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland prior to their Gravitas run – have visited several stadium sites for the forthcoming MLS Pro franchise. Both men are bullish about the team integrating into a sports landscape that already has a semi-professional outdoor club, Cleveland Crunch indoor soccer, and an Akron futsal team founded by former Crunch goalkeeper Otto Orf.
What does not exist in the immediate vicinity is a dedicated multi-field soccer complex, noted Murphy. Cleveland soccer aficionados must drive west to Sandusky or east to Geneva to find anything similar to what he and Gallagher are trying to create.
Mike McLaughlin has been involved with the sport for 50 years, either as a player or coach. McLaughlin, in his 28th season as head coach for St. Ignatius, believes there is a hearty appetite for local soccer that dates back to early 20th-century club teams backed by business, religious and athletic organizations.
McLaughlin has fond memories of the Force indoor squad, which competed at a high level with top notch international players. While the Force is long defunct, Cleveland has a pipeline of talent able to nurture a robust soccer ecosystem.
“We have a lot of really talented players who need something to play as they get older,” said McLaughlin, a Cleveland soccer group board member. “It’s neat that there’s different leagues for guys to get involved in.”
McLaughlin has seen pro soccer clubs in Cleveland wilt before taking root, but most of those were not backed by strong business minds, he said.
“What’s unique about Cleveland Soccer Group is these are business people connected to politicians and big players in the corporate world,” said McLaughlin. “That gives (this effort) a good chance to be successful.”
The soccer group’s founders are still collecting data on what a thriving soccer environment would mean for Northeast Ohio. On the anecdotal side, they envision 500 screaming World Cup fans at a bar spreading their fandom and excitement throughout the region.
“In individual conversations, peoples’ eyes light up when we say we’re bringing pro outdoor soccer to Cleveland,” Nolan Gallagher said. “We can’t wait to continue to have these meetings and bring people together.”