MIDWEST REGION PREVIEW: PART II
MINNESOTA UNITED FC RESERVES
2014 record: 6-2-2, second place in Midwest Central, lost in regional semis to Lansing
State of the club: It’s an exciting time for Minnesota soccer fans, as the NASL’s Minnesota United FC was awarded the 23rd Major League Soccer franchise; the organization, owned by Dr. Bill McGuire, will join MLS in 2018. What does this news mean for its NPSL reserves team? Spots will be even more highly coveted than before, especially with the prospect of developing at a club on the rise. As if MUFC star Miguel Ibarra’s call-ups to the U.S. National Team weren’t enough inspiration!
The only reserves team in the Midwest Region, MUFC Reserves are part of a professional side that acts similar to a Triple-A club in baseball – whether that means helping injured or out-of-form players ease back into game fitness or providing minutes for younger players buried on the first-team’s bench. As a result, the Reserves’ roster tends to fluctuate depending on the health and needs of the NASL team.
The coach: Hired in February to guide the Reserves, Peter Rivard is a household name in the town in which the club trains and plays, having served as director of coaching for Woodbury Soccer Club since 2008. This connection, of course, should pay dividends for MUFC, as Rivard already has a powerful influence on the local youth scene, with the benefit of identifying prospects and training players in a system desirable to the parent club.
Old faces: Former Providence Friar Ben Wexler returns to the MUFC Reserves as a smart, poised midfielder, while goalie Adam Acosta comes back as the final line of defense. Given the anticipated roster turnover, Wexler and Acosta will be expected to be leaders on and off the field.
New faces: Experienced midfielder/forward Brad Whitsitt, who spent his college career at Christian Brothers University and then Memphis, joins the fray, while field-stretching forward Dogara Zamani is expected to be a menace for NPSL defenders. If Zamani can meet or exceed the demands placed upon him, perhaps the goal-starved first team will give him a shot.
Rivard says: “The degree of instability created by the first team’s needs is an accepted part of the opportunity [to play for the Reserves]. We communicate with the players our expectations and warn them there will be times a first-teamer comes to play with us and simply that’s the way it is.”
Interesting fact: The Reserves get to play crosstown rival Minnesota TwinStars three times in 2015.
FC BUFFALO BLITZERS
2014 record: 5-1-8 (W-T-L), fourth in Great Lakes East
State of the club: After reaching the NPSL postseason in 2013, FC Buffalo struggled through a down year in 2014, as a six-game losing skid mid-season left the Blitzers on the outside looking in. Two consecutive wins to end the campaign – one which spoiled Detroit City FC’s playoff hopes – and the selection of dynamic midfielder Russell Cicerone to the All-NPSL team were glimmers in an otherwise dark year.
FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy and his staff must cope with Cicerone’s departure; at this point, the plan is to replace his production through a collective effort instead of a solo star. Of the 36 players listed on their current roster, just seven saw the field for the Blitzers in 2014.
Old faces: Brian Knapp, who Murphy refers to as a “wily veteran,” will be an important presence again due to his experience, technical ability and leadership.Kendell McFayden, perhaps the best athlete in the Midwest Region, will frustrate opposing strikers with his pace and aerial ability, while goalie Andrew Coughlin – with the club in 2013 – is expected to start in net after a terrific junior season at nearby Canisius College.
New faces: 6’5 striker Scott Doney joins FC Buffalo, having transferred to the University at Buffalo from Marshall. He’ll give the Blitzers a target striker with a high work-rate, as well as a threat in the air off set pieces. His new college teammate, Fox Slotemaker, should pair with McFayden to give FC Buffalo one of the best center-back pairings in the region. SIU-Edwardsville midfielder Jabari Danzy, a “wild card” according to Murphy, could be an electric addition on the flanks.
Interesting fact: Appropriately, the Blitzers’ mascot, a wolf, and supporters group, The Situation Room, are references to longtime CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer.
Murphy says: “We have a great group of veterans who are committed, understand the [club’s] history and know where we’ve been.”
2014 record: 3-3-4 (W-T-L), fifth in Midwest Central
State of the club: Unlike its cross-state counterparts, this Minnesota NPSL team has become a capstone for the TwinStars Academy in Eden Prairie, Minn., which has blossomed quickly since its birth in 2012. Under the direction of technical director Youssef Darbaki, the academy teaches the same system and structure from U-9 through the NPSL squad, giving the TwinStars an edge over other Midwest foes frantically trying to find chemistry between unfamiliar players.
For 2015, Darbaki expects the senior team to carry eight U-17 players from the current TwinStars Academy – a fantastic test for teenagers with high-level college or professional aspirations – but also at times a physical disadvantage in a region dominated by fully-grown men.
The coach: While Darbaki still helps oversee the NPSL’s team’s training, the TwinStars return head coach Alex Bunbury, who played 24 matches with MLS’ Kansas City Wizards, earned 65 caps with the Canadian National Team and exceled overseas with Maritimo in Portugal. He’s the father of Teal Bunbury, a striker for the New England Revolution. Most of the elder Bunbury’s coaching experience came at Bangu FC, a Brazilian club in Rio de Janeiro.
Old faces: Two of Darbaki’s children, Mounir, a freshman forward at Saginaw Valley State, and Karim, a former standout at Northern Illinois University, return to the lineup, while speedy Carlos Boquin, central players Nate Engel and Sam Contreras, and Martin Browne should all play key roles again.
New faces: While the list of returnees is bigger than most clubs, a crop of gifted youngsters should press for playing time. Decorated center back Ben Miller, a TwinStars academy product who’s signed with Northwestern, gets a pre-Division I tune-up, while talented HS juniors Ethan Pitre (also a Northwestern commit),Grant Dumler and Chase Wright will be given chances to carve out a role on Bunbury’s team.
Darbaki says: On the ripple effect caused by Minnesota United’s MLS future: “All Minnesota [soccer] youth now have a great opportunity. We will always have a good team because of our system, but I’ve been pushing kids to go tryout [for the professional team.]”
Interesting fact: TwinStars has produced players who now suit up professionally for clubs in Mexico, Indonesia, Sweden, Finland, Australia and India.
2014 record: 3-1-10 (W-T-L), fifth in Great Lakes West
State of the club: Entering their second season in the NPSL, the Cincinnati Saints have taken steps to insure 2015 won’t be as rocky as the three-win expansion season. A 7-3 record in the Premier Arena Soccer League, good for fifth out of 26 clubs, helped breed continuity and elevate the confidence of a team that scored the fewest goals in region, with the exception of folded Eau Claire.
Off the field, though, owner David Satterwhite has built a strong administrative team. Replete with a 2015 preview video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cikU2puULYM) on their YouTube channel, nearly 10,000 Facebook fans and regular live-streams of their home games, the Saints excel at reaching and engaging fans. When will the on-field product catch up?
The coach: David Wall, a former professional in Ireland, enters his second season at the helm. He runs DW Soccer in Troy, Ohio – just over an hour from Cincinnati – which trains soccer players between the ages of 8 and 14; his playing stops include Leicester United (England), Limerick FC (Ireland) and the Minnesota Thunder, and he had a short stint as an assistant coach for the Wright State University men’s team.
Old faces: Captain James Thomas is the club’s elder statesman – he played collegiately at Alabama A&M in the early 2000s — but his consistency on the field makes him more than just a strong leader. Fleet-footed striker Marc Hansson, who blossomed from JUCO star to NCAA Division I Fairfield to a professional team in the Czech Republic, will buoy the attack, while center defender Ryan Handbury – whose resume includes three years as a University of Dayton captain and three years with English pro club Nottingham Forest – directs the back four. Former Cincinnati Bearcat and Jamaican youth international Andre Sharpe is an exciting, pacey prospect for Wall’s attack.
New faces: R.J. Best, a dominant midfielder at Division III Thomas More College, will ply his trade for Cincinnati this summer, as will former Drexel University box-to-box midfielder Phillip Hagerty and former Northern Kentucky striker Craig Heard. Ashani Walker, a 5’4 ex-Jamaican youth international who just concluded his career with the Bearcats, could bolster the attack significantly.
Interesting fact: Goalie Jamie Starr, a former NPSL player-coach, has made the full transition to an assistant on Wall’s staff. The Xavier University assistant will likely have his hands full in molding the Saints’ next keeper.
2014 record: 4-3-3 (W-T-L), missed postseason
State of the club: If any club will feel adverse effects from the conference realignment, it’s Madison, which will have plenty of bonding time on the bus. No road trip that Jim Launder’s team will make is short than four hours (one way!), but at least the schedule softens a bit with three consecutive home games to close the regular season.
The 56ers have missed the playoffs the last two years after finishing third in the entire NPSL in 2012. With FC Bordo and Quad City FC – frequent foes of the past – no longer in the league, Madison will have the chance to prove itself against six opponents that it did not see on its schedule last year.
The coach: Jim Launder – who guided Wisconsin to its first and only NCAA title in 1995 – is perhaps the region’s most decorated head coach. A former assistant for MLS’ Columbus Crew, Launder has been an NPSL force since 2005 while also serving as the director of coaching for the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association.
Old faces: For an organization that’s boasted remarkable continuity in the past, Madison’s 2015 roster shows considerable turnover. Guiding the newcomers on the pitch will be tough-as-nails midfielder Keenan Newallo, whose NPSL career approaches 10 seasons, and Brown University center-half Jack Hagstrom, a three-time all-state selection at Middleton High School. Former Notre Dame and Wisconsin midfielder Josh Thiermann will provide pace on the flanks, while Wisconsin soccer legend and former German professional Jed Hohlbein could still play some role with the club.
New faces: Launder is excited about the arrival of Lucian Parvu, a 32-year-old who played in the first and second divisions in Romania. Connected to Madison through 56ers manager Cristian Brei, Parvu will either play up front or just behind the striker. After a short professional stint for USL Pro’s Charlotte Eagles last summer, Ghanaian midfielder Gideon Asante will try to turn heads in Madison and receive another pro call. The 56ers have their sights set on two English players for the coming season as well, including a Portsmouth academy player.
Interesting fact: Former 56ers – and close friends – Ryan Onwukwe and Carlos McCrary (the 2012 NPSL MVP) are exceling in the sixth division of German soccer with 1. FCA Darmstadt.
2014 record: 7-3-4 (W-T-L), third in Great Lakes West
State of the club: One of the unheralded success stories of the 2014 NPSL season was expansion club Indiana Fire, which began the season as Westfield Select before becoming an affiliate of the Chicago Fire of MLS. The NPSL Fire’s 1.71 points per game (a measuring stick because Midwest teams did not all play the same number of games) was good for fifth in the region, especially considering six of its 14 matches came against Lansing and DCFC.
In May of the 2014 NPSL season, two Indiana youth soccer associations – Carmel United Soccer Club and Westfield Youth Soccer Association — merged to become Indiana Fire Juniors, a development program of the MLS’s Fire. The NPSL’s Indiana Fire, then, became the peak of the youth-to-adult club pyramid.
Armed with the Chicago Fire’s coaching curriculum and insight, Indiana also benefits from a more reasonable schedule in 2015, clashing with Lansing just once and avoiding Detroit City FC altogether.
The coach: John Simmonds, Indiana Fire Juniors’ director of coaching, will lead the NPSL squad again in its second season. The head coach hasn’t strayed far from Indiana, spending over 20 years in various roles with suburban youth soccer programs before stepping into the role of technical director for Westfield Youth Soccer Association in 2009.
Old faces: The Fire only return three players from 2014: Nago Mbengue, Kevin Klett and Jack Griffith, which means former Akron star and last year’s leading scorer Tommy Schmitt has moved on. Striker Mbengue is a menace, though, with a resume boasting a stint in USL Pro’s Dayton Dutch Lions and a terrific 2015 NPSL Combine. He’ll serve as captain. Klett, who has committed to Temple for the fall, shined in several roles for the Fire last summer, while defender/midfielder Griffith was a super-sub for the Hoosiers as a freshman, and his summer form could help him crack the IU XI.
New faces: Four more current Hoosiers figure to play vital roles with the Fire this summer. To prepare to impress IU coaches and former Columbus Crew teammates Todd Yeagley and Brian Maisonneuve, Derek Creviston, Phil Fives, Richard Ballard and Billy McConnell will have a chance to further them chemistry under Simmonds. An NPSL debutante last year for AFC Cleveland, Creviston is part of IU’s starting back-four with McConnell, while Ballard and Fives are reserves looking to crack the storied soccer program’s XI.
Simmonds says: “We are grateful for our MLS affiliate Chicago Fire at all levels of our organization (youth rec., youth travel, Developmental Academy, Elite Clubs National League squad and the NPSL). The affiliation gives us great coaching and player resources that we would not have otherwise as a standalone NPSL team.
Interesting fact: From 2008 through 2011, the Chicago Fire affiliated with an NPSL club in Bridgeview, Ill., called Chicago Fire NPSL. The team went 17-7-11 (W-T-L) over the four seasons.
2014 record: None, expansion team
State of the club: Through the dawn of its first NPSL team, FC Indiana has a capstone for its youth development academy – known locally as La Academia. Brothers Erik and Chris Castro will tag-team the coaching duties, with the former listed as the primary man on the bench and the latter dubbed head of player personnel. Both have been central figures in guiding FC Indiana women’s top-level amateur programs to sustained success, but the birth of the men’s senior club – especially given the rigors of a strong Midwest Region – will be yet another test for the proud academy that’s churned out some terrific boys’ teams, too.
The coach: Erik Castro, a former professional at Atletico Paranaense in Brazil’s Serie A, has been with FC Indiana as a coach since 2003, while his brother spent six years directing the club before also assuming duties as head coach of the Haiti Women’s U-17 National Team and an assistant with the full national team.
The roster: Selected as the NPSL team’s inaugural captain, Victor Martinez – a part-time starter for Division II Illinois at Springfield through 2012 – will play a pivotal role in the midfield, while midfielder/striker Desmond Scott (Div. II’s St. Joseph’s, returning from Achilles’ tear) and attacker Ricardo Ruiz are club veterans who’ve powered FC Indiana’s Premier Arena Soccer League outfit.
Recent additions to the club include former DePaul keeper Jack Rubin (now at USC Upstate), Marshall starting midfielder Ryan Forde, Zimbabwe-born midfielder Victor Chagonda (Philadelphia University) and Australian midfielder Daniel Deblaere (Delta State University). Keep an eye on 14-year-old La Academia prodigy Jerry Escobedo, who’s expected to see some first-team minutes this year.
Interesting fact: FC Indiana is the lone expansion club in the Midwest Region for 2015, assuming you don’t count the rebranded Erie Commodores; FC Bordo, Quad City and Eau Claire – all from the former Central Conference – were the only clubs to depart. There were six Midwest expansion teams in 2014.
Watch their well-produced hype video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f7mcrkyCaQ