The upcoming season is going to be a fascinating one.
The top four clubs in the conference were separated by a mere three points at the end of the last season. It took until the final day of league play to determine the champion and the playoffs places. It was a very close-run thing.
Adding extra interest, outside of Med City FC and Dakota Fusion, whether by choice or by financial necessity, the clubs in the conference are overwhelmingly reliant on local players. Indications are that Duluth and VSLT will house at least some players as they look to build for 2018, but there isn’t a team in the conference that comes close to Detroit City’s over $1.5 million budget (for context, larger than the Minnesota Stars’ NASL budget) and, therefore, our region’s teams will play with a primarily local roster.
So who should fans of the lower division game be keeping an eye on this season?
The Crows may have played pleasing, passing soccer last season but all it brought them was third place in the conference. It was a surprising finish. The defense was joint best in the conference and they did score buckets of goals, though the numbers are skewed by the two Aris games; they just weren’t quite able to get over the finish line. Will they this season?
If they are going to a lot relies on:
The Crows’ leading scorer last season, and from a wide forward position no less, Friendt was always one of City’s most dangerous attackers.
A phenomenal dribbler and a willing shooter, Friendt is young — having just finished his sophomore year at college — and is surely one of the top emerging talents in the conference.
Yet his strength was, last season, often a liability as opposition defenses locked into his dribble-first tendencies.
He is an electric attacking player, a phenomenal talent. Will he come from a season with Indiana, national runners-up, more mature and more varied in his game? If so, expect even great things from “The Birdman.”
He won just about every award and accolade a player could last season, picking up NCAA Division III National Player of the Year honors, All-American honors, MIAC First Team honors, and on and on and on.
Anyone who watched Bottum’s St. Thomas team in action would recognize why.
He is a prototypical box-to-box midfielder, big, strong and mobile, and as comfortable winning the ball and protecting his back four as he is surging forward to play the killer pass. In fact, such were his assist numbers this past season that it’s easy to think that the Tommies played him as a No. 10. They could have, he’s that good.
He fills a need that the Crows desperately have. His passing and technique will fit well into this team, and his engine and physicality will help to stiffen up an occasionally lightweight midfield. If he plays like he did at St. Thomas, he could light up this conference.
According to 55.1 style rules my second mention of them has to be their formal nickname, the Bluegreens, but everyone I know calls them the Donkeys, and they are formidable, physical defending champions and favorites to retain the conference crown.
If they are going to stay top of the heap, they need big performances from:
The ‘Lower Division Drogba’, as he is known around my apartment, bullied NPSL defenses with a combination of strength, power and positioning and was the second-leading scorer in the conference.
In truth, stats aside, he may be the most dangerous forward in the North.
With strong hold-up play and the ability to score with his head or with both feet, he is always a threat. Now that teams know his game, can he still be effective? With his talent the expectation is ‘yes’ and keep an eye on him because when he plays, he scores goals.
Duluth has been scouring the country for talent and they managed to find, no surprise here, a big, powerful Englishman. From Northwest College in Wyoming by way of Liverpool, Ryan Tyrer joins the club with an eye to using NPSL as a launching pad for his professional soccer dreams.
“[I have been with] Stoke City FC, Morecambe FC, and The New Saints FC. My journey to the United states has been great, I started to think to myself and I wanted to play in the MLS after it not working out in England. I hope to continue to play well for Duluth FC this summer and can’t wait to get started!”
The 6’2” 20-year-old will fit the Duluth template well, and with professional soccer in his lineage — his great grandfather turned out for Fleetwood Town and Preston North End — and an accolade-filled season at Northwood that brought him NJCAA All-American, Region 9 First-Team, and Region 9 Defender of the Year honors, there is no doubting his ability.
If he can maintain, or even tighten up, the Duluth defense, there will be no stopping the Donkeys this season.
After leading the conference for much of the summer, a defeat to Minneapolis City on the last day of the season torpedoed the playoff dreams of the Mayhem, or Medics as they are more popularly known on the internet and in my heart.
There is a strong foundation of local players in the team, but the star power is provided by college players, primarily NAIA, recruited from out of state and housed by friends of the club in Rochester.
The standout defender for the Medics, who were the joint-meanest defense in the conference, Milla was comfortable on the ball and willing to step forward with it out of defense which helped to key the Medics’ attack.
He compliments that skill with the typical defender’s traits: he is good in the air, strong in the tackle, his positioning is thoughtful, and his communication is good.
Perhaps more than that, he seems to be the heart and soul of the team which is critical given that the team is constructed from a lot of players who meet each other for the first time when they arrive in Rochester in May. He will be a critical part of this team again in 2018.
One place where Med City need help is in scoring goals, and so it’s no surprise to see them looking hard at a goalscorer. Repetto, from Genoa, Italy, finished his freshman year at Grand View University were he scored eight goals and had three assists in a campaign that brought him second team all-conference honors.
He looks technically adept and knows his way around the penalty area, but bring no preconceptions about Repetto to the table. He’s a powerfully built 6’3” striker who fits right into the Kyle Farrar/Jade Johnson mould.
The St. Paul side are my choice as this season’s dark horses. They were there and thereabouts in every game last season, and really can be surprised at their bad luck in a few games. It won’t take a whole lot for them to move up from mid-table.
Tambe did not get the buzz that Dakota’s Jade Johnson or Duluth’s Kyle Farrar got, but the diminutive forward, all speed and quickness, has a claim to be one of the conference’s elite strikers.
His goal tally holds up to even strict scrutiny, and he did it in a team that was often content to play the ball into the channels for him to hunt down.
A full season of Tambe, some luck, and improvements in the midfield service could set the stage for a breakout year for the forward and for the Sky Blues.
Creative midfielder Al Abase spent last season with Dakota Fusion, but has been seen playing with VSLT’s indoor sides this winter. While he has not been formally announced, it does seem a done deal.
Al Abase provided a touch of passing quality in a Fusion team that was otherwise Johnson, Isaac Kehson, and a bunch of rugged, hardworking players.
Occasionally hot tempered, when Al Abase gets a bit of space he can pick his head up and play raking passes of the sort that unlock defenses and don’t leave a trace of the crime. It is easy to see him fit in an attacking role alongside Edi Buro and Juan Fiz, should those two continue to be the midfield lynchpins.
New coach Nick Becker takes the helm of the Fusion this season keen to retain a playoff spot and no doubt aware just how narrow the qualifying margin was last season.
The Golden Boot winner for the conference and the Region, Johnson just scored goals. A rangy target forward, everything good goes through him and, happily for Dakota, he is rarely off his game.
It’s not criticism of the team to say that they need Johnson back on form to stay near the top of the table. It is worth being wary though, as late in the season teams began to get smart to Fusion’s approach and defend differently. Johnson will be reliant on his teammates to create changes for him this season more than last, when he was able to spring some surprises in a new conference.
Coach Becker is taking Dakota in a new direction this year and is happy with the players at his disposal. “We have a wide group of potential starters for each spot, [and] we have a lot of incoming college players from outside the area that will add more depth to last year’s team.”
Early indications that the homegrown policy of last year’s Fusion team is going out the window and that the wealth behind the club is being put to use to bring in talent.
If that influx of players can ease the team’s reliance on Johnson and Kehson, it’s going to be an even more competitive season than the more optimistic observer would expect.
The Dragons are in an interesting spot this season, having lost standout winger Justin Oliver to the PDL’s Kaw Valley and looking to integrate the rising young talent from their youth club. Results have often been secondary for the TwinStars, at least when they’re not playing metro rivals Minneapolis City.
Teske single-handedly won the Dragons’ points last season and it’s not hyperbole to suggest that he’s the De Gea of this conference such are his monumental displays between the sticks.
It’s hard to imagine how he could improve on his 2017 season, though the University of Hartford man has no doubt been working hard at it, and even if he can just stay consistent with last season he will again win his team points all on his own.
He may not play a lot of defense, but his free role in the team allows him to pop up in uncomfortable positions and torture opposing defenses.
He has the ability to conjure goals from nothing, helped by his ability to generate power on a shot without a lot of backlift. That means that he can twist and shimmy around a defender and launch a missile of a shot while more players are still winding up. He’s a weapon.
Sioux Falls laid the foundation for something special last season despite disappointing results on the field. They have a long way to go before they can truly challenge the teams at the top end of the table, but thoughtful team building and the continued upgrading of talent should be enough to pull them into mid-table.
The question is whether, given the Thunder’s budget and location, they are going to be able to make the needed talent upgrade happen.
Myers was the Thunder’s most accomplished player last season and so it was a pity that issues with the coaching staff and the challenges of owning, coaching, and playing for an NPSL team pulled Myers off of the field in the second half of the season.
A classy defender who is comfortable going forward and athletic enough to cover for his forays forward, a full season out of Myers will help Sioux Falls improve.
Aris have never been about results, and it shows. Set up as a development club in an area of Wisconsin where the talent is thinner on the ground than, say, the populous hotbed of Milwaukee, owner/coach Greg Saliaras is competing in the NPSL so his players get a taste of higher level competition in the summer. Hopefully it helps them prepare for their college season.
He is currently recruiting players and all expectations is that it will remain the youngest in the conference and largely made up of local high school players.
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