The itch to mix it up on the soccer field is as strong as ever for Ben Crognale.

A 2011 Gahanna Lincoln High School graduate who helped the Lions win the Division I state championship as a junior, Crognale went on to play for Loyola University of Chicago for four years before returning to central Ohio in 2016.

Now a youth coach for Columbus Crew SC Academy and an older brother of Alex Crognale, who plays for Crew SC, Ben Crognale is one of about 30 players who will get to play their own brand of high-level soccer over the next few weeks.

FC Columbus, which played its fourth "friendly" May 5, opens competition as an expansion club in the seven-team Great Lakes Conference of the National Premier Soccer League at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 13, when it plays host to the Milwaukee Torrent.

The club is playing six of its 12 league games at Grandview Heights High School.

"I've never played with any of these guys," Crognale said. "I just came to the tryout and kept playing. I've just been coaching and now trying to play a little bit. I coach the youngest team, the U-12s for the Crew Academy, so it's not about competition at that age. I need to get a little bit of that competitiveness day to day."

The NPSL, which is sanctioned by U.S. Soccer and is the largest organized men's soccer league in the United States, had 96 teams in 2017.

Along with the Premier Development League, the NPSL is considered a part of the fourth level of American soccer and is the highest level of organized amateur soccer under professional leagues like the North American Soccer League, the United Soccer League and Major League Soccer.

FC Columbus, though, is hardly just a start-up club.

Owner and coach Maziya Chete founded the youth Santos Futbol Club in 1995, and later a men's team was formed that Chete hoped eventually would become a member of the PDL.

About three years ago, he began the application process for joining the NPSL.

The team is comprised of players whose college careers are over, like Crognale, as well as players who currently are playing collegiately and are back home over the summer.

"It's a kind of platform for younger guys who fall through the cracks," said J.J. Bain, the Wellington boys coach who is competing for FC Columbus after growing up playing for the Santos club program and then at Cornell. "There are some guys who are home from their college teams and some immigrants. It's more of a grassroots thing."

Bain and Crognale, both midfielders, are among several players from central Ohio competing for FC Columbus.

Forward Wes Ryan, who helped Grandview reach a Division III state semifinal last fall, is one of the youngest players.

Other forwards from central Ohio include Demani Camara (Westerville South), Michael Chilton (Pickerington Central), Amadou Dia (Columbus Global Academy) and Abdullah Mulatawfiq (Centennial).

Others on the team include midfielders Bismark Agyeman (Horizon Science) and Abdoul Magid Sy (Westerville North), defenders Devin Collins (Olentangy Liberty), Hakim Diaw (Columbus International) and Kangni Gabianou (Beechcroft) and goalkeeper Brennon Davis (Dublin Jerome).

Also with the club are Kevin Blackwood, a midfielder/defen-der and native of Jamaica who played for Cleveland State and Ohio State; Wladimir Bagaew, a defender who competed for Northern Kentucky; and Demarco Andrews, a midfielder/defender who plays for Ohio Dominican.

"I think we'll be good," Crognale said. "We played Cleveland (SC) a couple times (in friendly games) and matched up well with them. We've got that extra unique talent with really skillful players, really aggressive defenders, and I think we match up well in a lot of situations. We usually have an advantage in (the) middle because we play with three center-midfielders and we're all good and use our athleticism and skill to beat teams."

Season ticket packages are available for the six home games.

Conference play ends July 7, and the top two teams in the Great Lakes Conference will advance to the regional playoffs.

"(FC Columbus is) not some new idea but has been percolating for years," Chete said. "Since I first came here in 1988, a lot of guys would come back and we'd have a pickup game for just fun. During that whole time, we'd talk about having a team that could play in the summer. The PDL came but we couldn't get the funds together. This team (gets its funding) from the youth club and from some other funds we've put together. A lot of these guys migrated and ended up here in Columbus and some of them went to high school or college here. We have a couple local guys that have been here all their lives."

FC Columbus beat Ohio Dominican 3-1 in its first friendly March 28 and then played consecutive friendly matchups against another new team in the Great Lakes Conference, Cleveland SC, winning 3-2 on April 13 at Medina Highland and losing 3-2 on April 15 at Grandview.

"We're looking forward to (trying to win) the league," Gabianou said. "It's a community here. I've played with most of these guys for years. Of course, we've got some guys coming in from school, but we're getting to know them and I think it's going to work out."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek

Schedule

Below is the schedule for the FC Columbus men's soccer team, which is competing for the first time in the National Premier Soccer League and will play its home games at Grandview Heights High School:

May 13 -- vs. Milwaukee Torrent, 4 p.m.

May 25 -- at Detroit City FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 28 -- vs. Kalamazoo (Mich.) FC, 3 p.m.

June 3 -- vs. AFC Ann Arbor (Mich.), 3 p.m.

June 8 -- vs. Detroit City FC, 7 p.m.

June 15 -- at Grand Rapids (Mich.) FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 17 -- at Kalamazoo (Mich.) FC, 5:30 p.m.

June 22 -- at FC Indiana, 7 p.m.

June 24 -- vs. Grand Rapids (Mich.) FC, 3 p.m.

June 29 -- at AFC Ann Arbor (Mich.), 7 p.m.

July 1 -- vs. FC Indiana, 7 p.m.

July 7 -- at Milwaukee Torrent, 7 p.m.