With all of the clubs in the conference save Med City FC reliant on local players, whether by choice or by financial necessity, that means that 2017 is a good heuristic for this year, as the teams just can’t change that much.
Last year†gives us every expectation that the 2018 season is going to be another one that goes down to the wire.
Everything went right for Duluth in 2017, and their extraordinary team spirit and physical style made them superior to the rest of the conference.
A new coach is in place this year and, while we will all miss the fedora, Joel Person is a prime time addition to the club.
The British contingent of Kyle Farrar, Gonnie Ben-Tal, and Tom Greensall look set to return and itís hard to think of a better team spine in this conference than they.
The BlueGreens are like Mourinho-era Chelsea, defensive about their place and quick find offense, and, like Mourinho-era Chelsea, itís a galvanizing force. As long as Person can keep that unique mix of swaggering bully and disrespected underdog as the teamís attitude, that and the group of talented, hard-working players they have make them clear favorites for the 2018 title.
It is still unclear where it all went wrong for Med City last season, but starting with the shock draw against Sioux Falls through to the home loss to Minneapolis City in the last game of the season that officially knocked them out of the playoffs, they went from lock as champions to fourth. It was as stunning and epic a collapse as any from the pre-oil money Manchester City.
A new coach is in place this year. Neil Cassidy†ó also the head womenís coach for St. Maryís University ó is another premier coaching appointment in the NPSL North, and his experience and expertise bode well for the Medicals.
Unlike the other clubs in the conference, Med City canvass the country for talent. They did a very good job this past season, and if they continue their focus on bringing in small groups of players from good NAIA programs to supplement the core of players that owner Frank Spaeth has said they want to retain, Med City are my choice to finish in the playoffs.
I mean, they canít spectacularly collapse again can they?
Everything went wrong for the Crows last season, and though they had a lot of talent, a disjointed style of play, injuries to key players, and a tendency to not quite deliver when the chips were down were enough to make them miss the playoffs.
From the announced signings, the talent is still going to be there. Midfielder Tommy Katsiyiannis is a legitimate No. 10 at†Big-10 Northwestern. Forward Juan Louis is a technically-adept goalscorer from Drake who was previously the Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year. Surely, there are other name players to be added on top of announced returners like Martin Browne and Ian Smith.
Every indication is that Adam Pribyl will return as coach, and the onus is on him to shape the team into an effective unit with a clear way to play and a team spirit that will see them through the inevitable bad breaks. He will find the competitive level even higher this year than last.
City may look at the results and think that with a different break here or there and there, the story of 2017 would have been all positive, and that’s partially right, except luck doesnít just happen. So far, I havenít seen enough change from this club to think that they have the grit to win a playoffs place. Theyíre so very Arsenal. Nearly men.
Los Viejos were there or thereabouts in every game this season, and after a year of seasoning are one or two new faces away from making a serious run at the title.
Will they get those new faces?
Thatís the key question for this side, as they need a few upgrades and have to figure out how to replace the aging core of Juan Fiz and Edi Buro. Both were impressive this season, but neither are getting any younger.
If Fiz, as he has said he would, does take a step back from playing to focus on developing the team, that would be a huge benefit to VSLT. Even as a player-manager, Fiz had his men playing a coherent, pleasing style. A focused-on-coaching Fiz should do even better.
Right now I have them sitting fourth but assuming that they sign a few new players, the Sky Blues are my early pick as dark horse for 2018.
While Jade Johnson was a deserved Golden Boot winner and Fusion are more than a one-trick pony, I have to believe that their very basic, long ball and cross approach is not going to bear the same fruit now that the rest of the conference knows what to expect. I was wrong last year, however, and anyone who watched Stoke City in the Tony Pulis days knows that itís a style that can be hard to break down, and when you only get a chance or two you can do far worse than giving those chances to Johnson and Isaac Kehson.
Organization and strong tactical coaching has become a bit of a hallmark from the teams from Fargo, and in this conference organization, team togetherness and a touch of quality in front of goal can go a long way. It certainly did in 2017.
Right now I have the Radioactive Bees taking a step back in final position, but I expect the top clubs to be separated by just a few points and the right bounce here or there could see them catapult back up the standings.
At their best, as when they tore Minneapolis City apart at Augsburg, the Dragons use pace and width to stretch play, which opens up opportunities for Karim Darbaki. Or, sometimes, the Oliver brothers (Justin and Tyler) on the wings do the damage themselves. With Sean Teske an absolute monster in goal, the space left open at the back is often not a factor, as Teske doing the incredible became almost commonplace. In other words, they can be very, very good.
At their worst, as when they brought nine players to Sioux Falls or when they face a non-premier team, they show a level of disorganization and lack of commitment that explains the patchy results and poor record of recent years. In other words, they can be very, very bad.
If they treated every game like they were playing Minneapolis City, assuming they have the same talent that they had last year, they could easily challenge for the title.
But they donít, and since they don’t seem interested in change, theyíre no better than sixth.
The Thunder are just so darn likable, with their duct-tape-and-Elmerís-glue grassroots approach to building a club and earnest attitude. Itís just that they drew with La Crosse Aris and that shows just how far they still have to go.
In their defense, there was a level of upheaval last season, with the sudden loss of their head coach forcing owner/player Amadu Myers, in my opinion the clubís top performer last season, off the field for long stretches.
They have moved to rectify the coaching issue with Mekonnen Afa†ó formerly the head coach of University of Sioux Fallsí womenís team ó announced as head coach for 2018. He is a great pickup separate from last yearís issues, plus it is a real benefit that he frees up Myers to play more.
Still, it will take more than just a focused Myers to get the Thunder to the talent level necessary to be a contender in the conference, and given the resources of the club and the location of Sioux Falls, I donít think that happens.
They havenít won a game since 2013.
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