After his first day of practice with Xavier’s men’s soccer team, Mike Mossel called his mom back home in The Netherlands.
“I don’t think I can compete,” he said. “All of these guys are a lot bigger and stronger.”
Don’t give up, she said. He didn’t. On day two he began noticing something. The American players were bigger and stronger, true, but their skills weren’t quite as sharp as players he competed against around Europe. Their touches weren’t as sharp. Their footwork not quite as skillful. Suddenly the tall, lanky forward who came to Xavier at the invitation of former coach Jack Hermans, also a native of The Netherlands, found himself in a stark reversal of roles. Not only was he able to compete against the others, but the others were suddenly struggling to compete against him.
Propelled by an upbringing with the Dutch youth sports philosophy that emphasizes developing skills over winning, he excelled. In just two seasons, Mossel etched his name in the Xavier record books for both goals and points, surpassing, in some cases, others who played all four years. But he found more than just on-the-field success while playing soccer in America. He also discovered a career.
“I had this idea in 1993 when I graduated,” he says. “What this country needs is what I went through. The Dutch philosophy is to focus on developing players on and off the pitch. Off the pitch you develop them through intellectual, moral, social and physical growth. On the pitch you focus on developing technical skills in players ages 5-10 and tactics from age 10-12. After that you get them into an academy and develop them into pro players. In the U.S., the focus is all on winning. We don’t care if you lose 10 games as long as you’re improving as players.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing, Mossel played professionally for 15 years in Belgium and the United States before retiring and forming the Dutch Lions Group, a Netherlands-based organization that owns a wide variety of soccer-related businesses—a youth academy and player agency group in Brazil, a player agency group in Portugal, and business organizing soccer tours in Europe.Most importantly, at least for Mossel, it also owns a series of minor-league soccer teams and youth development academies in the United States.
The group owns two teams in Dayton, Ohio—a women’s team and a men’s Pro Division team that’s the farm team for the MLS’ Columbus Crew—as well as a youth development academy. It owns another youth development academy and men’s Premier Development League team in Houston. And, starting this year, it owns a men’s Premier Development League team in Cincinnati.
Mossel wanted to start his U.S. businesses in Cincinnati because of his familiarity with the region, but another organization had the league rights to the market at the time. When those rights became available, Mossel was on the phone with the league the next day. His second call was to Xavier to secure a home field. The team finished second in the league with a 6-4-4 record in its first year, including a 4-1-2 record on Mossel’s one-time home turf—or what is a close proximity to his one-time home turf.
“The field was grass when I played here,” he says. “And my first year they didn’t want us tearing it up by practicing on it every day, so we had to practice on this field down by Reading Road in Norwood. It was full of holes and bumps. I kept turning my ankle and pulling muscles. In The Netherlands we wouldn’t let our cows on a field like that. I said, ‘We need a better facility. Who do I talk to?’ I was told the president made the final decisions, so I went up to see Fr. Hoff. He invited me in and explained that there was a plan to upgrade the facilities. He was very nice about it, but looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking—a 20-year-old student telling the president we needed a better field.”
Interestingly, one of Mossel’s goals now is to help the University improve the soccer facility. He loves the intimacy of having the fans close to the field, but he wants expand the seating and put a cover over the stands to protect them against the weather. It would benefit his team, he says, which plays on the field from March-August, as well as Xavier, which plays on the field from August-November. But one step at a time, he says. “We’re taking things slow,” he says. “We’re in this for the long term.”
The long-term business plan, he says, has the Dutch Lions Group owning five youth academies throughout the U.S., three Premier Development League teams, one Pro Division team and one MLS team. Financially, it’s a solid business model, he says. It covers all levels, includes a predictable income stream and
creates a pipeline of players—preferably those trained in the Dutch philosophy. He also has a solid group of investors backing him.
It’s a risk, he says, but so was coming to Xavier sight-unseen 20 years ago. And that worked out well.
“Even my wife tells me I’m crazy,” he says. “But one of the things that Xavier did more than anything was make me aware that if you want something, you go get it.”