As early as 1953, a group of Croatians in Cleveland wanted to organize a Croatian soccer club and started to schedule “friendly soccer games.”
In February of 1957, the first “Croatia” in North America was initially founded and Joe Hiltner was elected as the first president. From the time of Mr. Hiltner, to our current board members, many Croatians worked diligently to build a successful organization. That same year “Croatia” won the Ohio Cup beating the German Club “Liederkranz” from Mansfield.
The original membership cards have these principles and codes of conduct printed on them: “To promote and spread the Croatian name and culture through sport, at the same time being thankful to our new country America. Always participate honorably carrying the Croatian flag, firmly adhering to the sports rules and regulations, respect and honor our opponents on the soccer field without regard to their name and nationality, cooperate with all Croatian organizations in the strengthening of the Croatian cause.”
In the fall of 1959 “Croatia” started a reserve team fielded with young Croatians. This spirit of unity manifested itself when 18 young Croatians donated $100 each and opened the club’s first private club at 5502 St. Clair Ave in 1962.
Zvonko Monsider, the legendary Croatian goalkeeper immigrated to the United States in 1962, and coached our “Croatia” Cleveland for two years. Monsiders’ coaching of our club was truly revolutionary as the club never had an experienced soccer coach up to this point.
In 1963 “Croatia” was the Ohio champ in the US Open competition. That same year, “Croatia” Cleveland with the backing of the Croatian Catholic Union founded “The Croatian Soccer Federation of USA and Canada”. The first tournament was held in Cleveland in 1964 and the first winner of the tournament was “Croatia Cleveland”. In the fall of that same year, “Croatia” purchased ten acres in Thompson, Ohio, where the club built a hall and a soccer field.
In 1967, new premises were purchased at 5409 St. Clair Ave, again with the help of members.
The golden age of “Croatia” started in 1974 by winning the Lake Erie Soccer championships through 1983. The pinnacle of those teams was the 1975 and 1976 semi-final and quarter final finishes in the US Open Cup.
In 1982 “Croatia” started a major undertaking in the building of the Croatian Lodge- Cardinal A. Stepinac in Eastlake, Ohio. To this day, “Croatia” resides at this location.
“Croatia” soccer progressed in the 1980’s, and after a short halt, won the LESL championship in 1985 and 1986. In 1987 “Croatia” won the XXIV Croatian Soccer Federation of USA and Canada tournament in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
The 90’s started with a monumental step for our club by winning the 1991 Croatian Soccer Federation of USA and Canada Tournament hosted here in Cleveland in front of its hometown fans. This was an important step for the club for the fact that a whole new group of homegrown players were in the lineup now. The club was now starting to see players move up in their own ranks and represent the club around the entire Midwest in tournaments and competitions.
Over the next decade (2000-2010) these talented players continued on with the club and made the final 4 of the annual Labor Day Croatian Tournament of USA and Canada 6 out of 10 years with winning the entire tournament in 2008, by beating Toronto Croatia in London, Ontario, Canada, 1-0.
The team would win 8 LESL championships in the 2000’s, with a perfect undefeated season in 2006 going 22-0 in the LESL competition. In 2007, “Croatia” would win the prestigious Midwest Tournament of Champions in Chicago, Illinois beating Detroit United 3-0 in the finals. In 2008 and 2010, “ Croatia” won the Ohio North Amateur Cup and represented the area at the Amateur Cup Regionals.
Over the years, “Croatia” has had a solid juniors program with a number of our players going on to college and professional careers. While other soccer clubs come and go, we have always been able to produce players for our adult teams, something that has been able to keep this club in the upper echelon of soccer clubs in Cleveland. Our juniors program currently has over 120 players from our “In-House” teams to our oldest youth players, the U-18s.
Recently, “Croatia” made a significant step in our program and has the distinct honor of Mario Grgic taking the program over as Director of Coaching. Mr. Grgic played for professional soccer clubs in Europe and also for Croatia’s junior national team. He is a very experienced coach who will lead our junior ranks to success in the future.
The most important part of our history, something that has lasted well over 50 years and will continue into the future is You, the FANS of “Croatia” Cleveland Soccer Club that keeps the dream and reality of our club alive. No matter where this team plays or travels to in North America, there is always a large group to support the team. There is always a feeling amongst us of loyalty and tradition that has lasted for decades and with the help of so many individuals over the years, it is our hope that this feeling lasts in our community forever.