A familiar face is back at the helm of the Harrisburg City Islanders as the professional soccer club looks to go on offense and grow its midstate fan base.
The club today named Tiago Lopes as its president.
Lopes, 34, who served in the role during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, said his top priority is to reestablish the connection between the club and the community, which was a challenge last season.
The team spent the previous offseason being wooed by Nashville, Tenn., to relocate as it was trying to address future stadium needs.
Meanwhile, its former partner club, the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, wanted it to move to the Lehigh Valley, which led the Islanders to become independent last season.
The transition hurt the club’s momentum, said its owner, Eric Pettis, who is thrilled to have Lopes back with the Islanders. He said he feels the move will help get things on track again.
In 2014 under Lopes, the Islanders played in the championship game for the United Soccer League, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer.
“For me, there really is nothing more pleasing than returning to a place where I was happy,” Lopes said. “I really wanted to be in a place where there is vision and ambition moving forward.”
That vision includes building on the club’s collaboration with Harrisburg, Dauphin County and the Harrisburg Senators baseball team. Last season, the Islanders used FNB Field on City Island, the home of the Senators, to play many of their home games.
The stadium is next to the Islanders’ former home, Skyline Sports Complex, which no longer meets professional standards as the sport grows nationally. One of the directives given to the Islanders by the USL was to upgrade its stadium.
The league also wanted the club to attract a bigger investment group and increase the staff. The Islanders have taken those steps.
Lopes said the plan is to play all 16 home games in 2017 at FNB Field. And the club is hoping that the relationship will extend beyond next season.
The Islanders’ ownership had been looking to build a new soccer stadium on City Island. But those plans have not materialized.
Soccer helps the city’s plan to use the baseball stadium more often throughout the year and boost revenue. Harrisburg owns the ballpark.
Lopes said it’s important for the club to continue growing business relationships in the region to help boost its visibility, which will help grow attendance in Harrisburg. He feels there is a lot of renewed energy and good business activity in Harrisburg after years of turmoil surrounding the city’s finances.
“I feel that there a lot of untapped opportunities in this region and we have a mission to go after them to represent Harrisburg at a national scale,” Lopes said. “We have the ingredients to have 6,000 people in that stadium. Why not?”
The sport is growing nationally and more professional clubs are likely to join the ranks in the coming months and years. That bodes well for Harrisburg, which has helped develop 10 MLS players in the last five years.
“The Central Pennsylvania region is well known for talent development,” Lopes said.
Lopes has held prominent positions within the sport, serving as technical consultant with Manchester United. He was CEO for the team’s soccer school operation in Portugal and also served as associate director of international relations for the American Soccer League.
The 2017 season schedule has not yet been announced.
However, it is likely that the Islanders will begin play around the end of March and host their home opener around mid-April.