On Jan. 22, 2011, Aston Villa secured an unlikely 1-0 win over Manchester City, which at the time was still coming to grips with its new vaults of cash. Villa was fighting to stave off relegation while City was attempting to push into position to challenge for the title.
The match was notable in particular because of the man between the posts for Aston Villa. Brad Friedel was just four months shy of his 40th birthday, and even then, four years ago, questions about his retirement swirled. But at least on this day, Friedel acrobatically silenced them. The Ohio native was clearly breaking down as a player, but the glint of his world class ability burned through the fog. At one point he turned away a tricky header from Vincent Kompany, as if to make a statement that his career was much farther from its conclusion than his hairline would lead you to believe.
But there was more to it than that, more boiling underneath the surface than anyone in the stands that day understood. Two days before the match, an English judge declared Friedel bankrupt. He owed more than $8 million on a failed academy venture in his home state called Premier Soccer Academies. Despite earning $40,000/week in wages, one bad venture forced arguably the finest American goalkeeper to ever live into the depths of financial reorganization.
This week, Friedel announced his end-of-season retirement at the age of 43. One of the oldest players in English first division history, Friedel’s remarkable career has no American equal in more ways than one. He was responsible for helping launch the mythic figure of the American Keeper into the global stratosphere, and while it’s easy to lose those memories now considering most of Friedel’s career predated YouTube, evidence of his former greatness exists.
But Friedel’s failed soccer academy was a speed bump with jagged claws reaching out of the asphalt. Not only did it force Friedel to scramble financially (he’s never spoken publicly about the bankruptcy), but it also dynamited a legitimately good idea undermined by poor execution. Ten million dollars. Gone.
Friedel’s academy began with typically humble roots. In 2003, he started a series of camps in Columbus and Cincinnati called Premier Soccer Academy. With the help of the Columbus Crew, Friedel’s camps provided hands-on instruction from the man himself during a week-long overnight session for boys between 14 and 19. The camp was announced in the warm twilight glow of the 2002 World Cup, when Friedel helped guide the U.S. to a quarterfinal finish that has yet to be replicated. Capitalizing both on Friedel’s cachet – which would never be higher – and the renewed interest than naturally accompanies the frenzied moments following World Cups, the Crew didn’t even wait a week after the U.S.’s loss to Germany to make the announcement.
As the camps gradually grew in popularity, Friedel wanted more. Namely, a place for players to train year-round, free of charge. Globally, as Friedel well knew by now, this was not a novel idea. But at least on the scale he wanted, nothing like it existed in America. When he arrived in Columbus for his first camp session in 2003, U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy model was still four years away. The idea was only in its nascent stages, and even then it was only a glimmer in idea meetings. In a lot of ways, the academy planned to break ground in the U.S. in a way nothing else ever had.
In 2005, Friedel announced he’d purchased a portion of the Emerald Valley Country Club in Lorain, a western suburb of Cleveland. Through an LLC called Soccer Ventures, Friedel purchased 24 acres from the Scott and Fred Ritenauer families of Lorain for $677,500, according to the Lorain County Transfer Office. The undeveloped parcel of land was nothing to look at – a windswept piece of suburban sprawl – but Friedel and his investors had grandiose ideas. Plans were drawn up for the palatial $9 million facility, which aimed to be aspirational focus of American soccer development.
On May 26, 2006, they broke ground. By the next summer the facility had been completed and filled with 24 permanent boys soccer residents, in addition to thousands of players who used the world class facilities on a part-time basis. Four years after it was abandoned, court-appointed receiver Mark Abood called it “some of the nicest commercial space I’ve ever been involved with.”
The facility’s listing still lives on LoopNet, and it tells a compelling tale. The 30-plus acre campus housed an 11,000-square foot building with amenities the envy of any professional academy on the planet: 20 dorm rooms (all 1bd/1ba), executive offices, classrooms, conference rooms, commercial kitchen-cafeteria, institutional quality laundry facilities, multiple recreation-entertainment rooms, fully equipped exercise-workout facility, full-sized outdoor stadium, multiple turf fields, 150+ lighted parking spaces and high-tech security. By the time the facility opened, its costs had ballooned to nearly $11 million. The road that led to the academy had even been renamed: to this day its address is 2101 Brad Friedel’s Avenue of Stars.
Friedel became the venture’s public face, but there was a problem. Two problems, actually. For one, Friedel was still playing in England. Friedel, 36 by the time the academy opened, had to work camp appearances around his duties with Blackburn, where he played from 2000-2008. And when the academy was launched – a charity match that featured Gianfranco Zola helped trumpet its arrival in 2006 – he was about to be between clubs. A year after its 2007 open, Friedel moved to Aston Villa. A large part of his business model involved heavy delegation.
The second problem was more unavoidably disastrous: The Great Recession. The economy’s spiral reached its nadir with the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15, 2008, almost a year to the day after Premier Soccer Academies opened its lavish doors in Lorain. Within another year, RBS Citizen’s National Bank, one of the primary lenders on the property, had initiated foreclosure processes. There was more than $10 million debt being called in, stemming from, according to the New York Times, unpaid property taxes and difficulty convincing investors to commit to the project in a down economy. All the while, Friedel was in Birmingham.
In 2009, the facility was officially foreclosed upon. Ultimately the combination of the economy’s tank-job, the naivete of its investors and the academy’s inherent free-to-play model doomed it before it ever lifted off the ground. From 2009 to 2013, the ordered receivers conspired with a local real estate agent to offload the property, but its enormous price tag put off buyers. In April 2011, two months before Friedel moved again, this time to Spurs, the academy went up for auction in a sheriff’s sale for $7.12 million. There were no takers. At that price, Friedel could have at least hoped to recoup a majority chunk of his investment, but it sat on the market for another two years, empty.
Friedel’s move to Spurs – albeit in a backup role – earned him a tidy weekly paycheck, which helped fill the void left by his bankruptcy proceedings and dormant academy system until, finally, there was movement in 2013. Local Avon-based company All Pro Freight Systems was approved as a buyer for the property, which they planned to turn into a multi-use facility featuring recreational activities, restaurants and more. In late 2013 the sale was court-approved for $2.4 million, less than a fourth of the cost of the original investment. Abood called it the “bargain of the century.” Early last year, the renamed facility’s lavishly appointed indoor space was sold to the Arena Football League’s Cleveland Gladiators as a practice space.
Today, the All Pro Athletic Center in Lorain houses a variety of services, but it mostly serves as a rental facility for programs and events. It’s a mere shadow of the days when it served as the grandiloquent brainchild of one of the most ambitious American soccer players in history. One whose bejeweled career has almost reached its brilliant conclusion.