The National Premier Soccer League’s title game will be set after this weekend, and the national semifinals provide two very intriguing matchups, including a rematch of the 2010 championship, in which the Sacramento Gold beat Chattanooga FC.
Both of those clubs are perennial contenders in the NPSL — Chattanooga also was in the 2012 final — and nobody’s the least surprised to see them here.
The other semifinal is something else entirely, matching a would-be giant — with all the advantages of Major League affiliation — against a first-year club that proved it belonged with the NPSL’s best as soon as it hit the field.
The giant is the New York Red Bulls’ U-23 side, which captured the Northeast Division title, has a perfect record — 14-0-0 — and has outscored its foes, 62-7, with five or more goals seven times and four in both of its divisional playoff victories.
The upstart is Lansing United, out of Michigan’s capital, which pipped Midwest Division powerhouse Detroit City FC for the Great Lakes West Conference crown and is 10-2-4 after snaking past Fort Pitt Regiment in overtime in last weekend’s Midwest final.
On paper, it might look like a mismatch. The Red Bulls U-23s have players who train with the club’s first team — alongside Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Bradley Wright-Phillips and so forth — and have sent players, this season, to Europe. They’ve got one of the NPSL’s largest and most dynamic rosters and are finally finding playoff success after posting a 32-6-6 regular-season record but going 1-3-0 in the postseason during their first four seasons.
But Lansing United has a lot of talent, too, a handful of former pros and perhaps as many sure-things among its youngsters, and it has arguably played a more difficult schedule than its foe, with far more experience in tight encounters.
Neither side thinks any of that will mean a thing when they hit the field Sunday evening at the Red Bull Training Facility in Whippany, N.J.
“I think once you’re into a knockout stage of a competition, it’s a level field, really,” said Simon Nee, the Red Bulls’ coach. “Both teams are going to be very, very motivated because now there’s obviously more at stake. We expect it to be a thoroughly competitive game. The records up to this point count for nothing.
“I mean, it’s great that we’ve had a good season, because it’s given us the opportunity to host in the playoffs, but that’s all it’s allowed us to do. It doesn’t give us the right to go into any game as the favorite, and we understand that, and we always try to approach each game the same way, in the sense that the next opponent is the most dangerous opponent.”
Lansing United knows it is facing a terrific challenge. Head coach Eric Rudland plans to give the Red Bulls a test every bit as difficult.
“We have to respect the opponent, but we also have to come out flying as well,” Rudland said. “Honestly, I think teams throughout the course of the year have tried to just sit in against them and hope for a more bunker/counter type of attack and game plan. And I think with a team like [Red Bulls U-23], you have to come out and try to play and give them a good game.
“We’re not going to travel all the way out to New York to hope we can nick a goal or make something happen. We want to go and try to give them the best game possible.”
A priority beyond winning
New York Red Bulls U-23 is a post-Academy team under the club’s umbrella, a summer home for college players from the program and young prospects looking to climb the ladder to the top squad.
They’ve been winners all along, with three conference titles, three years with double-digit wins, four seasons with one or fewer loss, and 160 goals (and just 38 conceded) in 56 regular-season games.
This has been their most dominant team, by far, with eight victories by at least four goals and triumphs in tight North Atlantic Conference contests with NYAC and the Brooklyn Italians. Nee says he doesn’t believe it’s necessarily a better squad.
“I think one of the things we did this year is that we made sure we had strength in depth at every position,” he said. “I think we have a more rounded team this year. We have quality in every position, we have cover in every position, which is the reason I think that we’ve done so well this season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a better group. I would just say it’s a more rounded group.”
Nee uses a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 system and riding midfield creativity to 4.43 goals per game. They’ve got a terrific spine, led by attacking midfielder Victor Manosalvas, the team’s top scorer, with 13 goals and seven assists.
The Seton Hall senior, Nee says, is “very dynamic in his movements, a very technical player, a very intelligent player.”
He’s joined in midfield by Duke senior Sean Davis, who has trained regularly with the Red Bulls’ first team this summer, and ball-winner Sean Sheridan, from Villanova. The backline is anchored by 6-foot-4 central defender Antonio Matarazzo, an Ivy Leaguer at Columbia.
Maryland’s Mael Corboz and Bucknell goalkeeper Mike Lansing also have trained with the first-team this year, and several players — Matarazzo and Sheridan among them — have trained with the Red Bulls’ reserve team.
Everything is geared toward developing talent.
“It’s great that we’ve gone so far in the competition, but the purpose of our program is to develop what we consider prospects for the first team,” Nee said. “So performance is always stressed over results. … Opportunities do exist [to train and play with higher teams in the organization]. We’re very conscious of the prospects and make sure to put them in the most challenging environment we can.”
Building ‘something you think could be special’
Rudland joined Lansing United last September, as general manager in addition to coaching, and has painstakingly built his team from the five NCAA Division 1 programs in Michigan, from his contacts in the NAIA game, a handful of players from England and some guys with pro experience, including South African midfielder Boyzzz Khumalo, who spent time in MLS with the Chicago Fire and D.C. United.
Building the team from the ground up — “I came in basically with a blank slate,” Rudland says — has been most rewarding, and the on-field success has been a bonus.
“I don’t want to say we’re surprised,” Rudland said. “You build toward something that you think could be special. I knew we were going to have the personnel to be competitive. We’ve got a good staff, and our owner, Jeremy Sampson, has been ultra-supportive to make sure we’re doing things properly and creating a professional environment for the players.
“We definitely have the groundwork for success, but to be where we are at this point in our first year, I think, has been a big surprise for a lot of people.”
Rudland said he told Sampson that he’d have an idea how good they could be after four games. The team went 2-1-1 in those four — the only defeat to Detroit City, on the road — and then swept a weekend trip against the Erie Admirals and Fort Pitt Regiment. At that point, he said, “we knew we could make a run.”
“Most teams in our conference dropped points on that road trip [to Pennsylvania],” Rudland said. “Looking back, I think that was a pivotal moment in getting us to where we are right now.”
Lansing United has been led by English forward Matt Brown, the captain, who has 11 goals, with holding midfielder Greg Timmer, from Western Michigan; center back Austin Dunn, who plays at NCAA Division III school Olivet; and Michigan State goalkeeper Zach Bennett providing a foundation.
The rising star is 20-year-old Canadian forward Tyler Pasher, who “fell into our lap through a comedy of errors,” Rudland said. He last played for a club in Finland, but his MLS rights are owned by Toronto FC, where he’s been working out this week.
“From a pure footballing standpoint, he’s the most talented kid in our team, and, honestly, he’s probably one of the most talented kids in the NPSL,” Rudland said. “We played [the NASL’s] Minnesota United in a friendly, and they’ve asked him to come in to trial with their first team. He’s a next-level player, an honor and a joy to coach.”
Rudland isn’t certain Pasher will return in time for Sunday’s game, and Timmer is doubtful, too, after missing the two playoff wins with a foot injury suffered in the regular-season finale, a 2-2 draw at home with Detroit City that left Lansing United one point up in the standings.
The plan was to play good possession soccer, build out of the back, create through passing — the kind of soccer everybody wishes they could play. It hasn’t worked out that way, Rudland admits, but that’s not a bad thing. Lansing United plays with heart, with great grit, and that makes them an extremely tough foe.
“Our team identity hasn’t really matched our philosophical soccer vision,” Rudland said, “but it’s a very adaptable team, a group that comes together to do whatever we need to win games. Direct, build out of the back, bunker and counter — we’ve done a little bit of everything. We take what the opponent gives us.”