Community, history and soccer: Milwaukee Kickers celebrates 50 years
On a recent, rainy Saturday in May – really, on any Saturday in the spring and fall – you could drive all around the greater Milwaukee area and see the happy fruits of Aleks and Helga Nikolic's hard work, on display in ways not even they could have conceived of a half-century ago when they helped found the Milwaukee Kickers Soccer Club. And they conceived of quite a bit.
You'd see hundreds of kids at dozens of fields wearing those familiarly colorful, weekend-ubiquitous rec jerseys with "mk" on the front and "Kohl'"s on the back. You'd see competitive MKSC Academy teams, with their high-level staff coaches and sophisticated styles, battling the state's best select squads in important league matches. You'd see Hmong-American children playing at 84th and Hampton, representing HAPA, Kickers' brand new region and an example of its community outreach efforts. You'd see 24-year-old Uihlein Soccer Park, one of the Midwest's finest facilities, hosting a huge tournament and thousands of people – and preparing for some exciting expansions.
You'd see boys and girls of all ages, races, backgrounds, sizes and abilities playing, laughing and learning together; you'd see parents huddled next to each other, holding cups of coffee, yelling words of encouragement and devoting time, effort, oranges and dollars to this thing. You'd see staff and volunteers making sure it all ran smoothly, week after week, year after year, this uniquely unifying force and community-enrichening entity that is the Milwaukee Kickers Soccer Club.
What started as a simple yet radical idea of the Nikolics and their friends in the basement of a house on the near South Side in 1968 has become one of the largest and most respected youth sports organizations in the United States. The Milwaukee Kickers serve more than 8,500 kids annually in 15 regions, ranking among the top soccer clubs in the country based on current membership. Uihlein Soccer Park hosts six high-profile major tournaments and scores of other events, attracting more than 600,000 visitors every year to its three indoor and 13 outdoor fields.
The club has received mayoral proclamations and international recognition, hosted the U.S. Women's National Team and sent its own squads to play abroad. It's propelled players to college on soccer scholarships and helped improve the lives of underprivileged kids through its America SCORES program. It's grown, expanded and flourished, contending with changing attitudes and challenging realities, while staying true to its values and instilling a lifelong passion for the game.
And it all began with one basic belief: everyone should be able to play soccer, no matter your skill level or gender. That was the original mission of the Milwaukee Kickers, its impetus for forming 50 years ago.
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Soccer was hardly a popular sport in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, played mostly by pockets of immigrants and their families on ethnic-oriented teams. Some of the oldest and most successful amateur clubs in the country were from Milwaukee – the Bavarians, Croatian Eagles, Sport Club and Milwaukee Serbians – but their proud ethnic traditions served to de-facto preclude many American players and keep the game out of the mainstream.
Aleks and Helga Nikolic, immigrants from Yugoslavia and Germany, respectively, saw the new American friends of assimilating Serbian kids being rejected by the club's leadership, saw girls being excluded, and they wanted to do something about it.
In 1962 the Wisconsin Soccer Association launched a youth program with the Milwaukee County Parks & Recreation Department, and, within a half-dozen years, soccer had become the park system's second-largest participation sport. Recognizing the growing interest and involvement, but lack of opportunity, among American children, a group of local soccer advocates – six married couples, 12 people; five from Yugoslavia, three from Italy, three from the U.S. and one from Iran – decided to try developing soccer another way.
Everyone would have a place and a chance to play, they said, boys and girls alike; they would provide good coaching and stable administration; and, most importantly, there would be strong family involvement, which would produce an active volunteer base to operate the club.
"When we started to plan this thing, I went and watched other sports leagues," Aleks Nikolic says. "They would not allow parents around, good kids played and not-as-gifted kids were sitting on the bench. I said, OK, we have to be different than that. You have to play the kids at least 50 percent and parents have to be involved.
"We changed the culture in this community of how people do things. We changed it with our approach, because we said kids are going to play half a game. I think that was one of the key moments. And the other one was bringing the girls in. When they come in, it exploded."
At the time, 30-year-old Aleks Nikolic was head of the youth program for the Milwaukee Serbian Soccer Club and, while his initial request to form his own club was met with amused indifference – everybody plays half the game? Girls get to play? Good luck! – the relationship soon turned frosty. The Nikolics were perceived to have turned their backs on their Serbian identity and culture; they were practically excommunicated from the church, they joke, and the next 20 years were fairly unpleasant.
"It's so ironic; everybody was an immigrant," says Helga Nikolic, then a schoolteacher. "They wanted to keep their culture alive, and (soccer) was an offshoot of that identity, but sooner or later – come on, think a little bit, you're gonna be an American.
"Soccer is not going to get bigger if you keep it isolated. And certainly kids are not going to stay in their little bubbles. It really took off because kids saw this was a great game, but if you're stymied because you're not Serbian and you can't be on the team, then where are you going with it?"
In November 1968, the founders met in a basement and organized the Milwaukee Kickers. Their vision: to attract, develop and retain soccer players of all ages and abilities without regard to gender, race, national origin, religion or socioeconomic status.
After picking a slogan, "American Soccer is Our Goal," and choosing red and gray as the club colors, Nikolic's group appeared in front of the Wisconsin Soccer Association members for authorization to launch. Milwaukee Serbians voted against but Bob Gansler's Bavarians voted for them, among others, and the Kickers were narrowly approved by one vote.
The 12 founders – Aleks and Helga Nikolic, Lorenzo and Carol Draghicchio, Lew and Louise Dray, Frank and Dorothy Kral, Milan and Irene Nikolic, and Sirous and Elfriede Samy – rejoiced, and then quickly set to work.
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In 1969, its first year of operation, the Kickers had 78 players on five teams, including four youth squads, playing weekly recreational games outdoors. On the contemporary American soccer landscape, still dominated by sequestered, talent-rich but participation-poor ethnic clubs, Kickers was revolutionary and rare – many think it was the first organization of its kind, at least in the Midwest.
"The most vivid thing to me is that everybody made the time," Helga Nikolic says, remembering hours spent at the various founders' homes. "We had these meetings, and we just hashed everything out. This is important; if we don't do it right now, it's not going to last.
"We had the organizational model of the immigrant clubs at the time, which were sort of in disarray, so do something different from that. I think that's what our model was: don't do that. And then we got people involved who were in business and had different expertise, and it became more structured, organized. By just working at it, we figured out the best way to do it."
Success soon followed – on the field and in the community – as young families were drawn to Kickers' progressive philosophy, model and structure, and the club experienced enormous expansion in its first decade. Parents liked that they could be part of the program instead of outside it, and their close involvement ensured a vested interest in Kickers' advancement.
After becoming a not-for-profit Wisconsin Foundation in June 1970, the club grew from seven to 280 teams by 1979. It presented college scholarships and became involved in Milwaukee Public Schools leagues; developed the Milwaukee County Women's League, the state's first youth girls league and an "Old Timers' League"; it organized family events, launched a monthly news magazine called "KICKS" (published almost singlehandedly by Helga Nikolic), and operated youth clinics, camps and indoor programs. It established its own staff of licensed United States Soccer Federation coaches and referees and improved administration issues like scheduling and transportation.
In 1978, MKSC partnered with Waste Management to utilize land at N. 124th St. and W. Brown Deer Rd. for the "Kickers Sports Center" complex – an experiment in the recreational use of a landfill.
Kickers' approach was groundbreaking for American soccer, but it was hardly an inimitable system. So why wasn't anyone else doing what they were doing at the time? "Because it was a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of time away from other things," Helga Nikolic says.
Adds Aleks, "Because they didn't think of it. And by the time they did, it was like, 'Well, let's just join the Kickers.'"
In the 1980s, MKSC expanded its reach into high school programs and new communities. As the fledgling sport continued to find new fans, the Milwaukee-based club's membership extended, incredibly, up to Sheboygan County and out to Beloit – more than 350 total teams – though its Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay regions remained its strongest.
Kickers leadership fostered all sorts of important connections, with Milwaukee politicians, judges, businesspeople and philanthropists, but the club's "KICKS" magazine and its members in the media were particularly influential in telling the public that soccer was becoming an American sport and Kickers was the place to play it. Every time a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter wrote a story about Kickers, Aleks Nikolic says, they'd get another 500 kids. Delighted families' word-of-mouth advertising was just as beneficial.
"What stands out is the enthusiasm of the people that started this," Helga Nikolic says. "It was contagious, like, 'What about this? Let's try this.'"
Still, with growth came growing pains, as "We Are The Kickers" put it. Some geographic groups splintered off to form their own clubs, starting with the Brookfield Region in 1981 and continuing with Ozaukee County and other exurban areas in later years. Aleks Nikolic says Kickers became such an incubator for youth soccer development that individuals felt they could replicate the program outside the MKSC structure, building new clubs on its principles of inclusiveness and volunteerism.
"They would separate and then do the same thing," he says. "That's OK; they just wanted to run it. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. We must have been doing something right."
Meanwhile, not everyone was convinced of the altruism of Kickers and the Nikolics. Once, Aleks says, he was investigated by a Milwaukee Journal writer who couldn't believe there wasn't an ulterior motive to the tireless, unpaid volunteering behind the emergent club. Aleks went to the writer's office, asked him to look through the books and invited him to speak at the next Kickers banquet. The two are friends today.
"It sounds really idealistic: 'Look at these people, they wanted to do this for the good of the community.' But we did," says Helga Nikolic, who didn't have kids of her own until Kickers was a few years old. "It's hard to believe, but it was so exciting. I don't know, it just made you feel really good, so we kept going and we saw that this was something that was needed.
"Why were we the ones to do it? Obviously, no one else was picking up the ball. I think really it was a vision. It wasn't just, let's do this for a while and get our kids in it, but what can we do to make this a better community?"
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Early on, the established clubs scoffed at Kickers' recreational model, viewing their teams as non-threats. But as knowledgeable coaches like Nikolic taught and developed their armies of players, MKSC youth select and adult majors teams improved rapidly.
In the late-1980s, Kickers teams coached by Nikolic – featuring stars like Mike Huwiler – were among the best in the Midwest. By the 1990s, the Milwaukee Kickers Nationals, led by professional coaches from Europe, was arguably the top program in the state. In 2009, the U-20 Kickers won the United States Adult Soccer Association's national championship. And today, the MKSC Academy, which has become one of Wisconsin's leaders in youth soccer development, continues Nikolic's educational legacy, with elite coaches instructing players in the tactical, technical, physiological and psychological aspects of the game.
From the beginning, Kickers' administration set it apart from other clubs too. Most of the original founders stayed actively involved for Kickers' first 15 or so years, including Helga, and they established a coherent organizational structure, with a board of directors, club president (on a three-year term), general manager, director of coaching. Soon, an administrative assistant and accountant were hired, and later a dozen more staff positions would be added. Aleks Nikolic remained a key figure for decades, serving as MKSC president, general manager, director of coaching and staff coach over the years. Page 1 of 3 (view all on one page)
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