MADISON, Wis. — Come one, come all. The Madison 56ers might represent just a slice of the Cheesehead State, but if you can play amateur soccer at a high level, chances are there’s a spot for you on the team regardless of your regional ties.
Just ask 56ers general manager Cristian Brei, who originally hails from Romania and seeks the best talent available to keep his team competitive for league titles.
“I would say we pretty much take players from anywhere as long as they are good,” Brei said. “Whoever comes and plays for us, we tell them we need to win as many games as possible in the Midwest Division every year. That’s our goal.”
It is a method that has helped to make the 56ers one of the most successful amateur soccer league teams in the country. The team competes in the National Premier Soccer League, which essentially is the fourth division of American men’s soccer and the highest amateur level in the country. Last year, the 56ers went 16-6 and advanced to the NPSL’s Final Four after winning the Midwest Region title.
“Every year I would like to be better,” 56ers coach Jim Launder said. “But I really think this year we have a chance to be a little bit better. We have a very good returning core and we picked up several really high quality players.”
Several with limited ties to Wisconsin, too.
Of the 30 players on the 56ers’ roster, 16 hail from Wisconsin. But seven of the team’s players are originally from out of the country. Five players are from England, one from Romania and one from Costa Rica. Most play college soccer elsewhere and have heard of Madison’s success from afar. Four of the British players, for example, compete at the NAIA school Jamestown College in North Dakota and are living in Madison with a host family.
“We can get them from different places, from all over the world,” Launder said. “But soccer is a world game. People play it all over.”
Launder’s roots in Wisconsin soccer date back decades. He won an NCAA national championship as Wisconsin’s men’s soccer coach in 1995 and led the program for 15 seasons. Launder has remained active in the soccer community ever since, scouring for talented local players to join his team.
Launder said his goal was to bring in the best local players, find a mix of current college players and even an ex-professional or two who played overseas. The formula has worked ever since the program began in 2005. In eight seasons, the 56ers have won the Midwest Division four times.
“We have a lot of guys we attribute to our success,” said 56ers forward Carlos McCrary, who plays soccer at Creighton. “I don’t think it’s luck by any means that it happens. We work really hard. It’s the result of how often we practice and how dedicated we are as a group of guys and how committed we are to each other as well.”
McCrary is the 56ers’ best player and found the team because his dad and step-mom live in Madison, and he was looking for an organization to play for over the summer. Last season, McCrary scored 17 goals and was named the NPSL most valuable player.
During the season, the team practices three times a week, with a fourth optional practice that most players attend.
“We have a lot of diversity on our team so I learn a lot about different cultures,” McCrary said. “The most important thing I like is we have people that support us. The guys on the team are really easy to get along with, and the coaches are as well.”
The 56ers play their games at Breese Stevens Field and draw a crowd known as the Red Rebels, a fan club that backs its team in the same way many European fans support their teams overseas.
“They’re just a fun loving group,” Launder said. “They like to come out and chant and sing and have a good time.”
This season, the team plays eight home games, including two international games against teams from Freiburg, Germany and Portsmouth, England. Tickets cost $8 for adults, $5 for youths or students and are free for children under age 7.
The NPSL season began last week and runs through July. Madison opened league play with a 4-0 victory against Eau Claire Aris FC and plays its game against Freiburg, Germany on Saturday. Other teams in the Midwest Region’s Central Division compete in the Quad Cities, Milwaukee and Minnesota.