Jake Brown Photo / Duluth FC players compete during an intrasquad scrimmage on June 13 in Ashland, Wisconsin.

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NPSL Playoff Preview: Duluth FC vs. Grand Rapids FC

by on 14 July 2018

Duluth FC locked up second place in the NPSL North last weekend with a 1-0 win over Med City in the regular season finale, and qualified for the playoffs in the Midwest Region for the second straight year. As the fifth seed, the BlueGreens enter the postseason in the opening round and host sixth-seeded Grand Rapids FC on Saturday.

Though they failed to defend the title in the end, the BlueGreens put together another strong season to finish runners up in the North this year, and became the first team from the conference to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

If nothing else, they’ve proven to be consistent.

After a slow start to the NPSL season that saw the club draw four of its first five matches, Duluth caught fire in the second half, posting five clean sheets and winning six of its final seven under first-year head coach Joel Person.

Duluth closed out the schedule with an 8-2-4 record in conference play, identical to the mark set last season. And while those same 28 points weren’t enough to keep pace with the title-winning Crows this time around, they were enough to get the BlueGreens back into the playoff picture.

This level of consistency is difficult to maintain for any club, let alone one with U.S. Open Cup obligations to start the season. Clearly, one of the most important keys to the BlueGreens’ continued success has been roster depth.

“It was really important transitioning from last year to this year to really make sure we had a deep roster,” Person said. “We expanded the roster size to around 40 players, and we included some reserve team-type of matches, even though we technically don’t have a reserve team, so that ensures that all the players we brought in for the summer were getting a lot of playing time. That really paid dividends down the road when most teams at some point during the season struggle with injuries, and we’re able to absorb those losses much better.”

Having a deep bench certainly helps, but consistency also demands commitment, the kind of commitment from staff, coaches, and players that ensures a quality product is put out week after week, from year to year.

“There’s been a core group of people, both in the front office and ownership, and on the field as players who have been involved with this process from the very beginning, and I think a lot of the guys are very invested,” Person said. “I think that’s gone a long ways and helped push the club forward toward success over the last couple of years. Really, all the work behind the scenes that goes into this, from the front office people and advisory board, and it goes back all the way to January before the season even gets started, goes a long way to help the organization as well.”

Person will be hoping that investment pays off when Duluth hosts Grand Rapids FC, runner-up in the Great Lakes Conference, in the opening round of the Midwest Region playoffs Saturday.

The club is looking for its first-ever playoff win after falling to Detroit City on the road in the Midwest semifinal last year, and Person certainly sees some upside in having one more home game to set the table for a potential semifinal matchup with the top-seeded and still unbeaten Crows.

“Whether it will help us as a team moving forward into the next round, if we are fortunate enough to win, only time will tell,” he said. “But the fact that we get to play a playoff game at home at our stadium in front of our friends and family and fans, and continue to grow soccer in the community, that’s an awesome opportunity.”

Of course, the BlueGreens remain focused firmly on Grand Rapids, a club that poses a real threat despite its squeaking into the postseason on the back of results in other matches.

Two years ago, GRFC won the Great Lakes title and lost to the eventual NPSL champion AFC Cleveland in the Midwest final. The club also boasts one of the highest attendance figures in the league over the past few years, with over 2,000 fans coming out in support of the team each time out. But the Boys in Blue dropped points in three of their last five matches, and haven’t played a competitive match since June 29.

Considering how both clubs finished the season, that the match will be played at Denfeld, and that Duluth has last year’s playoff experience to draw from, the BlueGreens look like the favorites coming into the match. Of course, anything is possible in the playoffs.

“The playoff game we played last year because we got the bye in the first round was at Detroit City, in front of 7,000 fans all screaming and yelling the entire time,” Person said. “It was a really, really tough atmosphere to go in and play last year, and I think our performance reflected that a little bit. It was very uncomfortable for the guys, especially ones that hadn’t been in that type of environment before. Now, going into this year we have a very experienced portion of the team that was at that game last year, and so to go out and experience that atmosphere and what NPSL soccer is all about, how to handle all that, I think is going to pay huge dividends this weekend.

“We’re playing a team from a very, very good conference. We know that. They have a very good following, and get thousands of fans at their games every day, so we know we have our hands full. At the same time, we’re going to be prepared, we’re going to be at home, so we’re definitely not going to back down from anyone. Really, at this point, all the teams are quality, so it should be fun.”

The Midwest Regional quarterfinal match between Duluth FC and Grand Rapids FC gets underway Saturday at 7 p.m. The winner advances to face top-seeded Minneapolis City SC on July 20.

 


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