When one thinks of sports in Duluth, soccer is not typically the first one that comes to mind.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs claimed the NCAA Division 1 men’s hockey national championship for the second time in program history last month. The UMD women have won five hockey titles, and sent goaltender Maddie Rooney to the Olympics in February with Team USA to bring home the gold medal. Another squad from the area, Team Shuster, also won gold in men’s curling this year.
If anything, the place is a winter sports haven.
But the Beautiful Game has seen growth in the region over the last few years, thanks in large part to the advent of Duluth FC, the precocious club that hopes to transform the Twin Ports into a soccer hotbed one match at a time.
Though Duluth FC has its work cut out as far as reshaping the city’s sports scene, it has come a long way from its humble beginnings, and winning a conference title in its debut season in the NPSL has certainly helped put the club on the map. Now, a sense of familiarity has even taken hold as the team prepares for its second season in the NPSL North.
Its second season in any league, really.
When the club was founded back in 2015, it was just another startup in the local Duluth amateur league, a touchstone for aging players looking to stave off the rust, and an airtight justification for a post-match pint.
The Bluegreens upgraded and went unbeaten in the short-lived American Premier League in 2016, then took a big step forward into the newly formed North Conference in the Midwest region of the NPSL last year.
We all know what happened next.
So, when their title defense begins this week, the Bluegreens will, for the first time, face the same clubs they faced last season, travel the same roads, and play in the same venues (for the most part). Still, as happy as they are in their new home, plenty of change is afoot for the Kings in the North.
Apart from an update to the club crest, Duluth FC went through a coaching change in the offseason. Kyle Bakas left for big skies after winning the conference last year, making way for coach Joel Person to take over at the helm for the 2018 season. As an assistant for the team last season, and a former semi-pro player himself, Person brings another level of familiarity to the club even in change.
Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Person moved south to play in college at the University of Mobile, where he was an NAIA national semifinalist three times. After stints with the Jackson Chargers, Mid-Michigan Bucks, and Chicago Eagles in the PDL in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he returned to Alabama to begin his coaching career.
Early last year, Person moved on from Birmingham Hammers to take over the men’s soccer program at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He became involved with Duluth FC almost immediately. The move makes obvious sense for Person, considering his wealth of experience at the nexus of collegiate and lower division soccer.
“Long story short, I was down in Birmingham, Alabama, as the head coach of the Birmingham Hammers,” he said. “These semi-pro franchises, they’re awesome and they’re at a really high level, but they’re also part-time gigs. Very few around the country have full-time jobs at this level. I had actually previously worked with Justin Sexton, the women’s coach at Northland, so when the men’s job came open last year, he gave me a shout. I immediately thought it would be an awesome opportunity for me to go up there to a college program and still have the possibility during the summers of getting involved with a franchise like I had previously, so it just worked out. When I got here, Kyle Bakas asked me to be on the staff.”
After years of playing and coaching at this level, Person has developed an understanding of how the lower division game and the collegiate game differ despite being ostensibly similar.
“Typically, semi-pro franchises and the level of the player and level of competition is a little bit higher than in college,” he said. “The recruiting aspect of it is actually quite similar. The only difference is trying to get somebody to come to the place for three months instead of four years, but the actual process is pretty similar. You look at who is able to return, who wants to return, who moved on or got a job, who stayed. I’m using the contacts I have throughout my career, and the try-out process as well, to try and fill in the gaps.
“The season itself is little bit more packed, and there are a lot of games in a shorter period of time, so the season is a little bit different. Once you get into the middle of the conference schedule, it’s game after game after game. Your training environment is a little bit different because you’re always either recovering from a game or getting ready for the next game. You’ve got to tweak that a little bit because you can’t physically beat the players into the ground during your session, because that’s counterproductive when they’ve got two games in the week coming up. So you’ve got to be creative with your practice sessions and recovery sessions, and how you’re cycling players through and keeping them fresh, trying to use the rotation of your starting lineup so you’re not just having the same players out there the whole time. You want to make sure you’re deep on the bench.”
If replacing Bakas was not easy, neither will be replicating his success, but that is the obvious goal for the North Conference title holders. Exactly how the Bluegreens plan to accomplish that goal remains to be seen, but Person would like to see his side play with a bit more control of the ball.
“Formation-wise, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll mess with that too much. Formationally, we’ll probably play very similar, but stylistically, I would like to see a little bit more possession of the ball. We were very good last year as a team getting back and defending and working the counter, and it works, but at the same time I would also like to have us get accustomed to playing the ball out of the back, so that will be a good project for the summer.
“Goals-wise, we want to win. We want to repeat as conference champions. At the same time, last year the conference was brand new and that includes us, and we’re playing against a lot of teams that are brand new. I expect the competition to get tougher just within the conference as teams grow and they figure things out, both from an on-field and off-the-field standpoint. We are going to compete and try to win that conference championship. We’re going to go out there and try to do what we’ve got to do.”
If he already seems like an excellent fit to lead the way for Duluth, the real kicker is that Person brings to the table the exact kind of experience the club needs as it tackles its biggest change yet. It is not just a new coach, of course, but a new competition that will define this season for the club from the Zenith City.
Winning the NPSL North title may have put Duluth FC on the regional map, but that same success has also hoisted the club into the national spotlight as it makes its debut in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the country’s oldest national soccer tournament.
“We want to do well in the Open Cup, whether that’s showing well or making a run all the way to the professional rounds,” Person said. “Either way, it’s our first time in that competition and we want to compete.”
When they take the field this evening, the Bluegreens will be the first amateur side from Minnesota to play in the Open Cup proper, and Person will be hoping his team can spark a run through the tournament that rivals the memorable ones he made as a player nearly two decades ago.
“I actually had an opportunity as a player to be part of that process, and it was one of the great experiences I had in my playing career,” he said. “Back in the day I was playing for the Jackson Chargers from ‘98 to ‘99, and we made it to the professional round of the Open Cup, and actually lost to the precursor club to Orlando City. We got to go down there and play, and we ended up losing in overtime, but it was a really cool thing. I was also on the roster for the Mid-Michigan Bucks in 2000 when we made a run through and beat the New England Revolution in Foxborough, and then lost to the Miami Fusion back when Carlos Valderrama from Colombia was playing down there. It was a pretty cool event for the city.”
Playing in the Open Cup means that the Bluegreens have to get ready for an even longer season and stuff even more matches into an already short window, and it will be critical for Person to maintain a roster deep enough to endure the extra work that comes with preparing for and playing in additional competitive matches.
“At this point all I’m looking for is just to plug a few more holes,” he said. “I’m keeping a bigger roster this year compared to last year just because I want more healthy competition for playing time and for spots. My goal is to have at least two or three quality players at every position so that in case somebody gets hurt, and to create a good environment for training, we’ll have plenty of depth. We’ll probably have between 35 and 40 guys by the time all this is done.”
The NPSL North season is short enough as it is, which allows time for players to return to their clubs, but with extreme winter weather pushing into late April across the Upper Midwest, the impact on preseason training this spring has been even greater than in years past. Person even considered shifting from evenings to a morning training schedule.
“If you have bad weather, then you have every group in town trying to get on that same space,” he said. “So the spaces are just a little bit harder to find. If we were going to continue to try to push through and practice in the evening like we usually did, basically what it would mean is the schedule would change on a week-to-week basis, and it’s really hard for our players to plan for that.”
Adding an extra competition to an already compressed schedule also affects rosters, and makes it harder for a team to gel in a timely manner and develop the chemistry required to be successful on the field. In this conference, players frequently are not able to return to a club until just days before its opening match, and that is certainly the case again this season.
“I actually think the biggest challenge with the roster is the fact that a lot of our current college players couldn’t get in until the week prior to that game,” Person said. “Some of them won’t even get in until a day before that game, so trying to put together a roster that has decent chemistry and cohesion is going to be difficult because some of these players won’t even know each other more than a day before playing that game. That to me is the biggest challenge. I’m excited about the roster. I’m excited about the players we have coming in. I think we put ourselves in a position to be successful, but trying to put it together that quickly is a major challenge.”
The club even had to cancel its planned first event, a preseason friendly against Green Bay United FC, which was scheduled to be played in mid-April at Ponzio Stadium, the new venue at Northland College.
“My players were talking to people on campus, and there was a decent buzz about it,” Person said. “I think we would have gotten a couple hundred people to come out just from Northland, so that always stings to lose a couple hundred people. But we have no control over that, and we definitely made the right decision. It was sustained winds of 35 miles an hour when we’re supposed to have the game. We couldn’t have done that anyway.”
Once it stopped looking like Winterfell outside, Duluth was able to schedule and play several scrimmages with local teams including the College of St. Scholastica and University of Wisconsin-Superior. Now that May has arrived in earnest, the team is as ready as it will ever be to take the pitch.
The Bluegreens’ first-ever appearance in the Open Cup begins with a home tilt against a familiar opponent, NPSL North rivals and last year’s runner-up, Dakota Fusion FC, and for Person, there are clearly both positive and negative elements to this matchup.
“The positive is that, even though it’s a brand new year, we still know their organization,” he said. “They’re in our conference. We play them twice a year as part of the regular season. We were successful against them last year. From that standpoint, it’s positive. From a negative standpoint, you’re playing in a very special competition. I would have liked to reach outside our own conference to play that first game, just to play somebody new or somebody from the PDL or a different league. But another positive is that since we do play Dakota, we host the game instead of having to travel.”
If they win their first-round match, the Bluegreens would have the option to host again a week later, and continue their run in a matchup with St. Louis FC of the USL. But the second round is the farthest thing from Person’s mind with the opener just around the corner.
“We would have the option of hosting that next round against St. Louis because we won our conference and they did not, even though they are professional and we’re amateur,” he said. “Now, where this gets complicated is that there are situations where you could come to an agreement between the two teams to actually play the game somewhere else if they’re willing to split revenue or something like that. So we would actually have the rights to host that game, but there’d still be a chance that we might play it away.
“At the same time, and I try to say this as much as possible because I don’t want people to get ahead of themselves, I really don’t want people thinking too much about that St. Louis portion of this because we’ve been focused on that first part, including that first game. That’s going to be hard enough in itself. It’s the first game for both teams, so both teams won’t really know that much about each other as far as our new players, and they even have a new coach. We really have to focus on that first game. That’s really all that matters right now.”
The U.S. Open Cup first-round match between Duluth FC and Dakota Fusion will be played at James Malosky Stadium on the UMD campus on Wednesday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
The Bluegreens open the regular season with a match against TwinStars FC in Minnetonka on Saturday.
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