SOUTH BEND — After its initial inaugural season was canceled last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Bend Lions Football Club is finally on the pitch this summer. The team competes in the USL League Two, which is the highest level of pre-professional soccer in the United States.
Through seven games played so far, the Lions have a 2-2-3 record, competing against eight other teams in the Great Lakes Division. They have six matches remaining, including three on their home turf at School Field in South Bend: June 22 against Grand Rapids, July 3 against Fort Wayne FC and July 7 against Dayton.
The 26-member playing roster features players from all across the world, including Canada, Ghana, Brazil, Spain, Italy, England, Germany, South Africa and Jamaica.
Along with the international talent, there are five athletes from the Michiana area on the roster, including three from Elkhart County schools: 2018 Goshen graduate Lucas Bontreger, 2019 Concord graduate Landon Fisher and 2019 Northridge graduate Jonny Mora. Two players from St. Joseph County — Penn alum Sammy Atkins and South Bend Adams graduate Axel Valenzuela — are also part of the team.
Although none of the three Elkhart County representatives on the team have seen a lot of game action this summer, all three have taken the opportunity of playing for the Lions as a learning experience.
“They’re great kids all-around,” said Lions Technical Director Thiago Pinto of the three Elkhart County players. “They’re talented. They’re young. … I think all three of them are great, great kids that really represent who the club is. We’re excited to have them.”
FISHER PART OF HISTORY
The Lions opened their season on May 15 at Kalamazoo, falling 1-0 to the hosts. Fisher started that game for South Bend, meaning he was one of 11 players to start the first-ever game in club history.
“I didn’t really think about it at that point, but yeah, that’s definitely a cool thing,” said Fisher of being a starter in the first game for the club. “It’s written in history.”
Fisher has gotten to know Kalamazoo well the past two years as a member of the Western Michigan men’s soccer team. He took a redshirt year in the fall of 2019 before seeing game action in the pandemic-delayed 2020 season, which actually occurred this spring.
The Concord alum saw action in 10 games this past season for WMU, making three starts and tallying one assist for a Broncos team that went 7-3-1 overall.
“Last year was my first year getting some playing time, and it was really nice,” Fisher said. “I took about a whole year with no games, and it was really tough. But, this year, I’m just looking forward to getting some more minutes, getting back in there with the guys and having another great season. Two years in a row, we’ve kind of been snubbed of the NCAA Tournament, and we’re working for that.”
Now back home for the summer, Fisher is appreciative of being able to represent his hometown area.
“It’s definitely awesome,” Fisher said. “I basically grew up in South Bend. I was always playing hockey in South Bend, going to Notre Dame games, stuff like that. I was always around South Bend, so just to get a chance to represent South Bend is pretty cool.”
NEW EXPERIENCE FOR MORA
Not only is playing for the Lions a great experience for Mora, but the former Northridge standout said this is a new opportunity for him in general.
“This is the first time I’ve played in a summer with a proper team,” Mora said. “It’s a good experience to learn from these guys because some of them have played at a higher level than USL Two. It’s nice to play with them and learn from them.”
Mora said the biggest thing he’s learned has been watching how the better players on the team approach the game as a whole.
“The mentality; just how focused they are both inside soccer and outside of soccer, too,” Mora said. “What they do with their bodies and preparing themselves and such.”
Mora can now bring this experience to Grace College, where he’ll be a junior this fall. Listed as a defender, Mora and teammate Flavio Cruz appeared in a team-leading 21 games for the Lancers last season, with Mora tallying one goal and five assists.
Grace’s season was split between 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, with the Lancers actually winning the NCCAA Championship in November of last year. They then qualified for the NAIA Tournament this past spring, losing in the first round to finish with an overall record of 11-8-2.
“Win the Crossroads League and then win the NAIA Nationals,” said Mora of what the 2021 goals are for Grace. “That was our goal last year, but unfortunately we lost in the first round of nationals.”
BONTREGER APPRECIATIVE OF OPPORTUNITY
Like Fisher and Mora, Bontreger is grateful for the opportunity to play for the Lions.
“It’s been a great experience,” Bontreger said. “I started off the summer just looking for somewhere to play and get better for my next season at Goshen College. I talked with coach Thiago … He had already known me, got me over for a tryout and told me that I was on the team.”
Getting a chance to practice around higher-level soccer players has also been a rewarding experience for the Goshen High School grad.
“It’s been great,” Bontreger said. “There’s been some players that have played in the professional levels. We’ve got a couple players who played on Marshall that just won the national championship. It’s just been great to play with players that have played at that high of a level.”
No team’s season last year may have been affected more by COVID-19 than Bontreger’s Maple Leafs’ team. Goshen College only played eight games, going 0-5-3 in those contests. It was the fewest games a Maple Leaf men’s soccer team had played in a season since 1966.
Despite limited action, Bontreger had three goals and an assist, being named second team all-Crossroads League in the process.
“Next year, we’re supposed to have 18 full games, so I’m definitely looking forward to that,” said Bontreger of the upcoming 2021 season. “Coach (Victor Newberg) has been able to get a lot more recruits this year because, with COVID last year, we weren’t able to get as many recruits in. So, we have a lot of guys coming in next year. We’ll have a lot bigger team and we’ll be able to compete.”