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Northern Exposure: Duluth FC

by on 14 May 2017

Duluth FC is attempting to blend British Isles’ sporting sensibilities with a family-friendly atmosphere, while rostering players hailing from four continents. And, about to begin its inaugural NPSL campaign, it counts continuity among its strengths.

The club’s founder is a Romanian-born Orthodox priest. And while he’s since answered a higher calling, Tim Sas was drawn to soccer from the start.

“I grew up with the sport,” says Sas. “From the time I was a very young boy, I played it. One of my first pictures was taken with a soccer ball. I was not even a year old. The soccer ball was almost up to my waist. I didn’t realize, until I was 11 years old, that basketball hoops were in the schoolyard for a reason other than target practice.”

When Sas’ parents fled communist Romania for Sweden, he continued to play the sport into his teenage years. Then a second move brought Sas to Vancouver, Canada.

On his time in Cascadia, Sas reflected, “The sport was popular enough where I could play and have fun, but was not nearly as popular as what I had experienced in Europe growing up. I wouldn’t even say it was a secondary sport. It was more of a novelty sport for the general public, while it was the primary sport for a lot of the immigrant communities in Vancouver.”

Sas continued to play and improve, and at one point received a trial with VfB Stuttgart in Germany.

“As you can see,” said a laughing Sas, “I never made it.”

“But more importantly, I love the sport. I love the dynamics of it. I like culture of it. I like the experience on the field; the complete dependence on a large number of other players.”

Graduate school, marriage, and the priesthood would follow. Then, in September of 2004 a church in Duluth was in need of a priest. The post was supposed to be temporary.

“I agreed to come [to Duluth] for three years, and then I thought I would move on to the West Coast where I had, and still have, family,” Sas said. “But somehow God had other plans.”

Founding origins

Falling in love with the city and starting a family in Duluth, Sas looked for a way to scratch his soccering itch where he could.

Knee surgery had previously prompted an 18-month absence from men’s league play. Then in his mid-30s, Sas found upon his return from injury that he could no longer keep pace when playing against college students. A 10-year absence from the playing field followed.

“In 2014, I realized I was getting fat, and old, and rusty, so I decided to get back into it.”

Sas made calls to friends on different men’s league teams in Duluth to see there was a team for which he could play. At one point, half-jokingly, someone suggested to him he start his own team. So Sas did.

“I was looking for people to hang out with, and have a beer with, after the match,” Sas stated. “I got a bunch of guys my age, mid-40s or older, and put together Duluth FC. They encouraged me to run the team, probably because they didn’t want to do it. I thought about it, and decided if I’m the one running this team, I want it to have a particular character.”

Sas sent out an email to interested players with a few requirements: no swearing, no anger expressed, and post-game drinks would be had but not to the point of drunken excess.

“To my surprise,” Sas said, “I received more requests to join the team than I could field.”

In 2015, Duluth FC joined the Duluth Amateur Soccer League. The cruel hand of time would lay waste to a roster with 17 players over the age of 40. Within three weeks, a dozen of the aforementioned 17 were injured, and Sas was forced to recruit younger players.

“I asked the younger guys joining, ‘Are you willing to join a team that has this character? Would you feel comfortable?'” said Sas. “Nobody had an issue with it.”

It was during this period that the club’s nickname was born, with its origin a half-in-jest suggestion. Duluth started off wearing blue uniforms, and an early thought was that the club call itself the Blues. Then a game against opponents clad in blue prompted a switch to green jerseys, and one of the team’s players joked Duluth should call itself the BlueGreens, much in the same vein A.C. Milan is known as the Rossoneri.

The nickname stuck.

Discussions with Tim Singleton (FC Fargo), Youssef Darbaki (Minnesota TwinStars), Greg Saliaras (LC Aris SC) and others planted the seeds of joining a regional league. In 2016 Duluth entered the American Premier League. A second place finish behind Singleton’s FC Fargo, and the eventual dissolution of the league would follow.

Then the NPSL and its new North Conference came calling.

Soccer up north

Following episode 33 of the FiftyFive.One Podcast, which featured a brief discussion of the NPSL’s new North Conference, a trusted source familiar with the Twin Ports’ soccer scene reached out to offer their thoughts.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed surprise that a team rostering a significant number of current and former players from the College of St. Scholastica and University of Wisconsin-Superior could get by without the use of on-field profanity.

“Those two teams play the Bridge Derby every fall up here,” the source offered. “If you ever want to see the soccering equivalent of a blood bath, you need to come see a CSS-UWS men’s game. Those average around seven-to-nine yellow cards and one send-off per contest, and have seen two or three red cards issued on several occasions.”

They continued, “CSS usually has a bunch of kids from England, and they don’t come over here on some sort of religious mission. They speak like English footballers, with the word ‘f—k’ used as a noun, verb, adjective, and sometimes a preposition. To them, a proper use of the Oxford comma involves the phrase, ‘F—k you, f—k them, and f—k all.'”

“A few years ago, at a CSS vs. Macalester game, the referee spent most of the afternoon trying to keep a Catholic, Irish center midfielder from Mac and a Protestant, Northern Irish winger from CSS from re-enacting the Troubles right there on the field.”

And so it has fallen to Duluth FC head coach Kyle Bakas to blend together a range of sensibilities.

Cohesion

Bakas, a native of Southern California, previously worked as an age group director for the Alexandria Soccer Association in Washington, D.C. During his tenure with the ASA, Bakas was one of more than a dozen coaches with a U.S. Soccer National B license.

“After coaching at [ASA],” said Bakas, “possession-first soccer is now ingrained in my soul.”

Bakas made his way to the Twin Ports area to take an assistant coaching job with Lake Superior College. With his help, the IceHawks’ fledgling program, which did not record a win in 2015, earned the No. 2 seed in the NJCAA Region XIII tournament this past season.

At the helm for Duluth FC, he now has the challenge of getting players from Jamaica, Colombia, Canada, England, Ghana, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Twin Ports area to play together. That task has been made easier thanks to continuity between the BlueGreens’ 2016 and 2017 rosters.

“I have enough veterans, and enough quality coaches within the squad, that I probably talk to five or six after each session,” said Bakas. “Some of our guys have played together for years. Letting them have a say in how we play is going to be critical. I could get out there, and teach possession, and teach high press, but if they don’t want to do it, they won’t be able to do it well.”

“Unless we’re absolutely dominant, we’re going to have to adjust based on opponent,” Bakas said. “I think there will be teams against which our style of play will be markedly different. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to think we have to sit in and defend more against Minneapolis City and TwinStars than we do against La Crosse and Sioux Falls. Of course, this is without having seen those teams play, yet.”

Bakas, who has his team’s sights set on a top-two finish and a place in the NPSL’s Midwest Region playoffs, has the benefit of returning several key players from Duluth FC’s 2016 team.

English forward Kyle Farrar, a First Team NSCAA All-American while playing for CSS, is back in the fold. So too is midfielder Sean Morgan.

“[Morgan] has embraced a leadership role within the team,” said Bakas, “All the new guys we’ve brought in keep saying how much they like playing with Sean, and it’s because he can play all across the midfield, and is someone who is going to create chances and score goals.”

Morgan, like Farrar, is a CSS player hailing from the British Isles (Northern Ireland to be specific).

Asked directly about a potential conflict of cultures between Bridge Derby soccer and the BlueGreens’ founding ethos, Bakas seemed comfortable balancing the two.

“I make a point to shake every player’s hand and say something positive to them, publicly, before training,” stated Bakas. “That way I can prevent any possible division, even if I’m not seeing it.”

The head coach concluded by saying, “We’re working with guys on keeping their composure while maintaining their intensity on the field.”

If things go to plan this season, Bakas and Duluth FC will pull the best from disparate points of view, and integrate new roster additions with an established and familiar core.

The BlueGreens’ first significant test of the year will come later this afternoon, when they play away to the Minnesota TwinStars.


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