National Premier Soccer League North Conference champion Duluth FC is seeking to enter the 2017 USOC through the Open Division’s national-league track. This is partially out of necessity, as NPSL teams may only enter on the strength of their league performance from the previous season, and are not allowed to apply for at-large bids.
The number of NPSL sides taking part in 2018 USOC won’t be announced until January, but per the rules laid out in the U.S. Open Cup 2018 Open Division Handbook, Duluth FC is in line to be the 10th NPSL side admitted to 2018 USOC. The BlueGreens earned that priority based on having the third-best regular-season points-per-game average (2.0) in the Midwest Region. The NPSL is guaranteed a minimum of eight berths, but to give perspective, the league had 18 teams enter the 2017 competition.
“[W]e believe that spot will be given to Duluth FC based on early indications and discussions,” said Duluth FC owner Tim Sas.
Sas, a Romanian immigrant, noted, “I have been following the USOC ever since I moved to the US, although at the time — pre-social media — it was an unknown entity even among successful college players. We started thinking seriously about the USOC early in 2016 when we moved Duluth FC from the local Duluth Amateur Soccer League to the regional American Premier League, [much of] which has merged into the NPSL. Our success this season has only emboldened us.”
At the end of July, Duluth network affiliate FOX 21 reported that BlueGreens head coach Kyle Bakas was departing the Twin Ports for a coaching job in Billings, Mont. Bakas exits after leading Duluth FC to an unbeaten 4-4-0 APL record in 2016, and the aforementioned NPSL North Conference title this summer. He left open the possibility he could take some part in the BlueGreen’s USOC campaign, telling FOX 21:
“[Y]ou have to respect depending on when that occurs, I may have something else I’m involved with and [Duluth FC] may already have a coach that’s working on preparing them for that season. But even if I came back and was just a third assistant coach I would relish that opportunity.”
When asked directly about the present odds Bakas would work with the BlueGreens in their cup run, Sas stated, “Our club would love to have Kyle back and I will remain in frequent contact with him in regards to whatever involvement may be possible. It’s [too] early to state what that involvement will look like at this point. Obviously, for the time being, I am speaking with potential candidates for the head coach position.”
Though Bakas’ level of participation has yet to be determined, the BlueGreens are confident they can return a number of players from their 2017 NPSL roster.
“Quite a number of our players have expressed interest in returning; some of them have already made arrangements for next summer,” Sas said. “The berth in the USOC is a high priority for our players, as well, and we know this will attract other good players, also. Given that we will not be part of the early qualifying rounds we still have some time until these matters must be finalized.”
A little over two hours south on Interstate 35, Duluth FC’s North Conference rival Minneapolis City SC is gearing up for a qualifying run — albeit by proxy.
Minneapolis sits further down the NPSL’s pecking order for national-league track qualifying berths after averaging 1.79 points per game en route to a third-place conference finish. Eager to again take part after last season’s disqualification for changing league affiliation, City opted to enter qualifying through its parent organization, Stegman’s Soccer Club.
“Though there is, in a Dumb & Dumber ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance!’ sort-of way, the possibility that Minneapolis City will qualify for the Open Cup through our points per game in the NPSL, we decided not to hope and wait and signed up as Stegman’s,” said MCSC chairman and Stegman’s co-founder Dan Hoedeman.
In addition to Minneapolis City, a number of Minnesota Amateur Soccer League and Minnesota Recreational Soccer League teams are contained within the Stegman’s umbrella — most notably Stegman’s 1977. The later won the MASL’s first division — arguably the strongest men’s amateur league in the state — clinching that title earlier this month.
No doubt owing in large part to Stegman’s 1977’s MASL success, both in this and recent seasons, Stegman’s was successful in applying for an at-large qualifying berth.
“After the disappointment of last season, we’re hungry for another shot at this tournament. And, now that we’re familiar with the details, loopholes, emanations, and penumbras of the rules, it’s fun to use the letter of the law to our advantage,” said Hoedeman.
Several players — Aaron Olson, Tim Wills, James Neher, Miles Stockman-Willis, Ben Wexler, Kevin Hoof, Nick Hinds, and Joey Gustafson — turned out for both Minneapolis City and Stegman’s 1977 this summer, and Hoedeman is confident of fielding a competitive team in USOC qualifying, even with a few of those players returning to college in the fall.
“While some will be heading back to school and won’t be available, and the two teams have different names, it’s a consistent foundation of players within the same club and under the same management.”
The USOC offers amateur clubs a valuable chance to market themselves. For Duluth FC, that means a new opportunity to engage local fans.
“The feelings around the club are on a very high note about the USOC. That feeling translates with the same enthusiasm to only a fraction of our local fans as many local fans have never even heard of the USOC, nor understand how it functions,” Sas said. “In that respect we have some work to do; sharing what a positive tournament this is for the sport and for each club that participates. But we now have a very devoted following and we’re sure they’ll pick up on it very early on.”
Drawing a season-high 651 fans in its NPSL home finale on July 12, Minneapolis City is eager to continue to build its following, but must contend with playing under the Stegman’s name as it seeks a place in the 2018 USOC proper.
“We’ve simply entered the competition in disguise, not unlike the time that a Stegman’s legend was kicked out of a local bar, went home to shave his beard and cut his hair, and slipped back past the bouncer…” noted Hoedeman.
“In all seriousness, while it is classic us to have two names for one club and does present potential confusion, I’m certain that should we go on a little cup run we’ll find a way to get Minneapolis City noticed for it.”
There was no love lost between Duluth and Minneapolis players and fans when the two sides locked horns twice during 2017 NPSL league play. Queried separately about any opponents the two club officials would like to see their sides face in USOC play, both Sas and Hoedeman turned their attention towards the potential of upsetting professional competition.
However, if Stegman’s advances through its early qualifying game(s), given the USOC’s inclination towards regional matchups, there is a very real chance the somewhat incognito Crows — who intend to wear Minneapolis City’s faux-back kits — could square off with the BlueGreens in the tournament.
Should either reel off a series of victories, an eventual meeting with Minnesota United FC remains a distinct possibility.
While Duluth must wait until 2018 for specifics, Stegman’s may learn of its first opponent before the month is out.
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