MIDWEST REGION PREVIEW: PART I
2014 record: 8-4-2 (W-T-L), first in Great Lakes West, won Midwest Region
2015 U.S. Open Cup draw: vs. Red White Blue Adria in Lansing on May 13
State of the club: Lansing United’s achievement last summer is a beautiful NPSL story: an expansion team in a soccer hot-bed that defied the odds to win a regional title. The Michigan-based newcomers went unbeaten in their final eight regular season games, knocked off Minnesota United FC Reserves and Fort Pitt to win the Midwest Region, then fell to eventual champion New York Red Bulls U-23 in the NPSL Semifinals.
Repeating in 2015 won’t be an easy task, particularly with a region-wide table replacing the three conferences. Moreover, Lansing – which never beat Detroit City FC last summer – faces Le Rouge twice again in 2015, and you can be assured that the defending champs won’t have the element of surprise this year.
The coach: Eric Rudland, who turned around the Spring Arbor men’s program in rapid fashion just a few years ago, enters his second season as Lansing head coach. He’s spent the last eight years as Michigan Rush’s Director of Coaching, and Rudland also coached the West Region to two victories at the NPSL Combine this spring. Former D.C. United player Boyzz Khumalo, an inspiration from Soweto, South Africa, serves as an assistant.
Old faces: All-NPSL selection, leading scorer and captain Matt Brown returns after an 11-goal campaign, but he’ll have to adjust to new strike partners as Brian Cunningham (New York Cosmos) and Tyler Pasher (Pittsburgh Riverhounds) have joined the professional ranks. Effective and durable center back Austin Dunn, creative midfielder James DeCosemo and lefty Michigan State winger Jason Stacy are other key pieces expected back.
New faces: Rudland is excited about the arrival of Marcelo “Cholo” Petit, a Paraguayan striker who won co-player of the year honors for the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference, potting 22 goals in the process. Will he be able to adjust to significantly higher competition? Stacy’s Spartan teammate, Jimmy Fiscus, will give Rudland another ball-winning center back with high-level Division I experience, including a trip to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2014. A product of Celtic’s youth academy in Scotland, Liam Madden is a wild card in the midfield, joining Lansing from USAO, a small liberal arts college in Oklahoma.
Rudland says: On the growth of Michigan soccer from just the PDL’s Bucks to three NPSL teams and three high-level adult teams: “[Michigan] is definitely on the map of pro soccer in the U.S. I would anticipate that in the next 1-2 years a pro club will be established that will further solidify the growth of football in Michigan and showcase the talent our state has developed.”
Interesting fact: Lansing abides by the Latin motto “coniunctis viribus,” which means “with connected strength.”
Supporters Group: Sons of Ransom: https://sonsofransom.wordpress.com/
DETROIT CITY FC
2014 record: 8-3-3 (W-T-L), second in Great Lakes West, missed postseason
2015 U.S. Open Cup draw: vs. Michigan Bucks (PDL) on May 13
State of the club: No other NPSL team has received more national buzz this offseason than Le Rouge, as Yahoo Sports and Howler Magazine have praised an organization thriving off the pitch through a raucous game-day atmosphere, rabid supporters groups like the Northern Guard, and a social savvy ownership and management team.
Despite all this attention, DCFC missed the 2014 NPSL playoffs by a mere point, in part due to a wild game five-games-in-10-days stretch to close the regular season, where Le Rouge went 2-1-2. To rub salt in the wound, neighboring Lansing United conquered the Midwest Region before falling to the eventual NPSL champions. You bet Le Rouge are hungry for 2015.
The coach: Michigan State men’s soccer assistant Ben Pirmann enters his third season at the helm of Le Rouge. With a sterling record of 20-4-4 – and a trip to the conference finals in 2013 – the DCFC head coach does well to distribute minutes and opportunities for a massive player pool. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an NPSL coach with more vibrant fashion statements, too.
Old faces: Considering the adrenaline rush of playing in front of a noisy, jam-packed Cass Technical High School crowd each summer, it’s not shocking that DCFC players are eager to return each year. Pirmann has a wealth of returning options in the attack, as 2013 star Zach Myers and two University of Michigan teammates, William Mellors-Blair and Colin McAtee, will vie for a regular place in the XI.
Maestro Cyrus Saydee returns to pull the strings in the midfield, while physical holding mid David Edwardson will provide a sturdy complement. Zach Schewee, a Bowling Green graduate, is a modern outside back, eager to get forward into the attack but fit enough to stay responsible defensively.
New faces: A few unfamiliar names will dot DCFC’s team sheet this year, as versatile Michigan Wolverines captain James Murphy is a left-footed attack-minded player. Le Rouge pried center-half Bennett Jull from NPSL foe Fort Pitt, while Saginaw Valley State keeper Alexandre Bouillennec is the early favorite to be Pirmann’s No. 1 in net.
Interesting fact: Detroit City FC must be one of the first NPSL clubs to have a craft beer named after them. Motor City Brew Works released the Le Rouge, an amber ale that’s available in Detroit bars or at the brewery.
Pirmann says: “In order to perform better on the road, we need to make sure that we go into each game as a business trip and earn points. Other teams in the league make this very difficult and unfortunately, DCFC will ALWAYS have a target on our back and get the opponent’s best performance and crowds….resulting in more difficult matches.”
Preseason video: https://vimeo.com/113303559
2014 record: 6-2-6 (W-T-L), second in Great Lakes East, missed playoffs
State of the club: A consistently strong product on the field wasn’t enough for the Erie Admirals, who won their region three of the past six years, advancing as far as the NPSL championship game. With fan attendance struggling, current goalie Danny Mudd and ex-Admiral Dan Howell joined the Erie soccer ownership group with majority holder John Melody in rebranding the Admirals to the Commodores, ending the affiliation with one local youth club and broadening its fan-base in the process.
On the pitch, Erie must avoid the sluggish start that plagued them last summer, where the club won just one of its first six matches. Neil Brown, Erie’s associate head coach in 2015, takes the full responsibility from Micky Blythe in 2015. An outstanding tactical coach who’s familiar with Erie’s style and personnel, Brown represents continuity in the face of the rest of the club’s transition.
Old faces: Team leader and outspoken goalie Mudd will continue as Erie’s last line of defense, despite his new ownership responsibilities. One of the coolest stories of the Midwest Region offseason was Mudd’s agreement to send his pink goalie jersey to Detroit in return for a $500 fundraised donation to the Wounded Warrior Project. Fans from Erie, Detroit City and Buffalo easily eclipsed that goal, donating $770 (http://www.gofundme.com/o0ytr4). Veteran midfielder Jared Ott will be a rugged presence in the center of Erie’s midfield, while the Commodores welcome back Mercyhurst defender Tom Davis from the team’s 2013 regional championship. Davis’ college teammate, Jack Watson, a Division II second-team All-American, will guide the strike force.
New faces: Melody remains tightlipped about his additions – Belichick-ian secrecy, almost, though he said there were still players choosing between the Commodores and other clubs. The lone player he chose to mention was 6’2 Mercyhurst defender Sten Marcson, who will join Davis in Erie’s defensive unit. We anticipate there will be a heavy Mercyhurst influence on the Commodores’ opening roster, but that’s still to be seen.
Interesting fact: Like the Admirals, the new nickname connects Erie to its proud maritime history.
Melody says: “Since the rebranding, we’ve really been pounding the pavement to attract fans to the Commodores.”
FORT PITT REGIMENT
2014 record: 6-3-5 (W-T-L), first place in Great Lakes East, lost in the Midwest Region final
2015 U.S. Open Cup draw: vs. West Virginia Chaos on May 13
State of the club: Behind a formidable backline, the poise of center midfielder Sean Riley and blazing speed and clinical finishing of Robert Morris striker Neco Brett, Fort Pitt took Lansing to the wire – double overtime, actually – before United’s Gabe Mateo crushed the Regiment’s 2014 regional title dreams.
Unfortunately for the Regiment and returning head coach John Kowalski, the entire back-four will have to be replaced, and Brett – who finished fourth in NCAA Division I in points last year – has moved on as well. The coming campaign will test the chemistry of the new Regiment additions immediately, as Fort Pitt starts with three road games, one of them a rematch against Lansing.
The coach: With Kowalski entering his second season as Fort Pitt head coach, the Regiment are in very capable hands. Presently the Robert Morris University women’s head coach, Kowalski has coached an MLS side (Tampa Bay Mutiny, 1997-98), the U.S. Futsal National Team (’89, ’92) and even spent three games leading the U.S. Men’s National Team in 1991. Fort Pitt technical director Paul Halford was capped seven times with the New Zealand National Team in the late ‘80s.
Old faces: Riley, Fort Pitt’s metronome, captain and one of the purest technical players in the region, is expected to stay with the club, while standout keeperBrenden Alfery will have to organize – and perhaps bail out – a green defensive corps. All-NPSL selection Nick DiSomma and fellow defenders Andrew Wright and Chris Miller all have pursued either further schooling or careers, while Bennett Jull bounced over to Detroit City FC. Four other 2014 contributors – forwardsJesse Scheirer and Lamine Balde, former Duquesne striker Tyler Tompkins and rugged defensive midfielder Michael Tuohy – the Pittsburgh Panthers’ captain last fall – will all trusted with major roles again.
New faces: 6’4 center back Matt Fonagy, a starter at Robert Morris, fills one of the defensive holes, while Duquesne freshman Patrick Sullivan, also 6’4, will pair with Fonagy. Good luck out-jumping Fort Pitt’s new central defenders, but how quickly will they gel?
Kowalski says: “It will be a bit of a rebuilding year, because we’re almost starting from scratch.”
2014 record: 4-1-9 (W-T-L), fourth in Great Lakes West, missed playoffs
State of the club: Aside from upset wins over Fort Pitt Regiment and Detroit City FC, Michigan Stars – formerly FC Sparta Michigan — had a largely forgettable 2014, mustering only a tie in seven road matches and conceding the third-most goals in the 15-team region.
For a fresh start, owner Dr. Ned Fawaz and team president Shereef Akeel moved the team from Dearborn to Pontiac, where the Stars will play in renovated, 6,600-seat Wisner Stadium. Only two players from last year’s squad will suit up again for the black, red and white, so new head coach Mark Christensen will be able to mostly shape the team from scratch.
The coach: Christensen prides himself as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, demanding his club show more respect for their opponents, referees and teammates than the Stars and FC Sparta Michigan did the last two years. He’s coached all over Michigan – spending several years with Vardar Academy and, more recently, as coach of Alliance Academy, which beat the U.S. U-17 National Team in December 2013. Recruiting more heavily from Pontiac than Dearborn, Christensen tried to sign one of his former youth players, FC Buffalo’s 2014 All-NPSL selection Russell Cicerone, but was beaten to the punch by the PDL’s Michigan Bucks.
Old faces: Christensen didn’t look fondly upon many of last year’s Dearborn-based squad, but he did recognize the abilities of two players: Mustafa Raychouni, a Cleveland State defender whom Christensen coached at Vardar, and Tariq Akeel, a decorated midfielder from Brown University who won first-team All-Ivy League honors in 2013. This pair will have the responsibility of helping 17 newcomers adjust to the NPSL’s caliber of play.
New faces: A trio of Mexican players from Pontiac will form the spine of Christensen’s Stars, as No. 10-type Jairo Bustos will dictate play, clever-if-unorthodox target striker Jose Acosta will pressure defenses and Edgar Castillas will hold down the central defender role. The Stars expect to field one of the NPSL’s most diverse teams in 2015, adding a few Greeks, as well as Lebanese, Sicilian, Romanian and Cameroonian players.
Christensen says: “I understand the [popularity of the] Bucks because of their history, but I don’t see it with Detroit City. They were one of two teams the Stars beat last year. Obviously they have a good following, but it’s really a bar crowd that can be pretty nasty.”
2014 record: 5-4-5 (W-T-L), third in Great Lakes East, missed playoffs
State of the club: Loyalty plays a big role at AFC Cleveland, as the 2012 Midwest Region runners-up have turned to former captain and Team MVP Carter Poe as the team’s new head coach, replacing Andy Hoggarth, who guided the Royals in their three years of existence.
AFC Cleveland nearly leapfrogged Fort Pitt on the final day of the 2014 regular season to reach the playoffs, but a 2-1 loss to the then-Admirals of Erie quelled any hopes. A brutal schedule awaits Poe’s debut on the bench, as the Royals play three of the first four games on the road, including a home-and-home with Erie and a visit to Detroit City FC before the end of May.
The coach: Through his dedication to the NPSL club, wealth of experience and knowledge as a player, Poe landed the Cleveland job last fall, then also accepted the Mount Union (NCAA Division III) head coaching job in March – not too shabby for a 25-year-old. According to the new gaffer, a high-pressure defense and a possession-oriented attack is in the offing for Royals supporters.
Old faces: AFC Cleveland wouldn’t be the same without Vinny Bell starting up top, and the former Case Western star will trouble defenses with his size-and-speed combination again in 2015. Threatening winger Antonio Manfut, a nightmare to defend one-on-one because of his quickness and turns, prevents opponents from focusing solely on Bell. Former Ohio State goalkeeper Alex Ivanov – who Poe thinks might be the most talented at the position in club history – will protect the pipes this summer after posting a .97 goals-against-average in his senior season as a Buckeye.
New faces: Even though terrific defenseman Dan O’Callaghan is no longer with the Royals, Poe has added a trio of players with strong technical ability and composure on the ball. Sergio Manesio, a midfielder from London, England, who led Cleveland State in goals and points in 2014; Mike Derevic, a midfielder who finished second for Cleveland State in points; and Admir Suljevic, a Bosnian striker who was a three-time Horizon League first-team pick during his college career; will be three newcomers expected to bolster Poe’s squad.
Poe says: “A captain is like a head coach because you focus on the big picture, and you begin to look out more for your team than yourself.”