Last season, we won our conference without taking a loss, with a record number of points, as the highest-scoring team in the country, using only players from the Twin Cities. It was an incredible achievement, made all the more impressive by how good the teams in our conference were (validated by the North Conference performance in the playoffs).
After a season like that, what do we do as an encore?
Well, we start by maintaining our focus on Minnesota-based players. We are not going to recruit guys from outside the state and try and get them to move to Minneapolis for the summer in an attempt to win another title. We’re a community club. We’re going to give opportunities for players from our community.
My grandpa always used to say “it’s not a value if it doesn’t cost you anything.”
It’s easy enough to say that we will only use local players if we don’t have any other choice. But we can afford to house guys if we wanted to. And, as of the writing of this article, 382 professional, Division 1, Division 2, and NAIA players from around the country—and the world—have reached out to us directly with their playing CV and their video clips asking to play for Minneapolis City. There are an awful lot of talented players that we are leaving to other clubs because of our local focus—because it’s one of our core values.
To be successful in this league with just local players means that we have to attract more than our fair share of the top players to Minneapolis City. We put a lot of effort into talent identification and recruiting.
From the beginning, we worked hard to build relationships with college and club coaches and with players. We talked to everybody and anybody. And we still do.
Our ace in the hole, however, is Jon Bisswurm.
The guy could out-recruit Jim Harbaugh. He is working the phones all the time, checking in with coaches and players, getting recommendations and making introductions. He is watching games and checking out highlight videos. He is getting to know the players as people, even guys not in our club, and he ends up building strong relationships with them and continue on after their Minneapolis City days are over. He communicates to college coaches before, during, and after the season with a level of detail that would make Mourinho blush.#
Sure, he’s a decent salesman but mainly he’s a great communicator, had a good eye for talent, and he really cares about people. That’s what makes the difference.
And if you’re choosing where to play, you would want to play in a place where they’ve watched your tape, talked to your coach and gotten to know you, right? Right.
Part of this is doing the basics right. Our season is scheduled out and communicated to the players on day 1. We have a scheduling app that gives players reminders for games and practices, including directions. We have a training facility that we use at the same time on the same days all season long. The training sessions are purposeful, well-attended, and high-octane. We have staff and coaches available to our players if they ever need help with anything. Those little things add up, especially when not every club does them.
But the second part is not stopping at the basics.
For example, the training facility is indoor, so weather is never an issue. It has meeting space for face-to-face meetings between players and coaches, be that tactical sessions or 1-on-1 conversations.
We don’t just have any trainer, we have David Bloomquist. Formerly with Minnesota United, he is a top-level trainer and possibly the best trainer for soccer in the entire state. Players and their coaches know that they are getting the highest standard of care all season long. And he’s not just at games, he’s at every single playing touchpoint.
I could go on, but the point is that if you are a player and you want to get better then you need an organization that can enable that—and we have it.
We have been targets of ridicule by competitors because of the magnitude and pervasiveness of our social media-driven hype machine. Any disappointing result and “Twitter SC” is castigated for focusing more off the field than on.
And yet, the hype machine is both a reason top players play with us—and a reason they should.
First, it’s fun for players to play with a club that hypes them up. It shows that they matter to us, to our fans, and it’s a good feeling when someone recognizes you in a restaurant for playing soccer. It’s a great emotional benefit players get when they play for us.
Second, it makes a difference. There are so many players trying to elevate their game and get to the next level. If that is you, is it better to play with a regular club or a club that has video, social media, and other hype around you as a player? Couple that with our relationships with coaches and other clubs and our hype machine gets our players noticed.
Which means they skip cattle call trials or some burned out assistant coach reviewing their highlights video. The hype machine gives players a higher chance of success in breaking through and it would be silly for a serious player to play for a club that doesn’t give that to them.
The Citizens make it special.
Home and away, they’re in the stand singing and chanting and unfurling tifo. They’re loud and fun and weird and awesome to celebrate with after scoring a goal.
And, for anyone who remembers watching those Peyton Manning commercials where he was a fan for ordinary workers and thinking to themselves that it might be pretty fun to have some people cheering them on, you know that given the choice of playing in an empty stadium or in front of the Citizens there is really only once choice.
Because there really is no substitute for playing in front of a rowdy group of people who care about you.
It’s especially true in an atmospheric home stadium like Edor Nelson. It creates the sort of playing experience that players want to have—and gives us a critical edge compared to clubs that don’t have the supporters we do.^^^
We work hard to make sure that we are looking at all sorts of players, not only the ones who come out of the big-reputation youth clubs. That means that our tryouts are a big focus. We have signed up players from every one of our tryouts and, given that the talent level continues to rise as our profile does, I have no doubt that we will continue to do so.
There is a lot of talent here.
We host two open tryouts every year and we have an invite-only mini-tryout for guys who go to college out-of-state. We hold that over the Christmas break. We cap the total number of players to keep it manageable. We reach out to and research the guys before they come to the tryout—we are prepared!—so we have a session planned that makes sense for the types of players that we will be looking at.
I asked Matt vanBenschoten, our new head coach, to talk about what he looks for from players that are trying to make the Minneapolis City team.
“From an on-field standpoint, there isn’t much that separates most players. Granted you have a few game changers, but what it really comes down to is; speed of play and consistency. Are you able to keep up with how fast the game is and are you able to do it consistently? It’s those two things that separate players at any level whether it’s U9 or professional.
But there’s something else that factors into being placed on a MPLS City team and think Kirk Russell says it best when he’s playing Herb Brooks in the movie “Miracle.”
‘I am not looking for the best players. I am looking for the right players.’
Players who wear pink/black, or black/white, or blue/white…or whatever color scheme we come out with in 2020, have to embody who what the club is about. We are about passion and hard work. We are humble but have some swagger and arrogance when we need to. We battle and get after it, but are equally willing to serve and do whatever is best for the club.”
It’s an odd complaint, but the number of very talented players interested in Minneapolis City makes building the team a challenging task.^^
There is a strategic and tactical aspect to it but, like Matt said, so much of it is about attitude. Imagine being younger—I know I can—and dedicated the bulk of your summer, including weekends, to traveling around the Upper Midwest playing soccer. Your evenings are spent training. You need to keep fit and focused. It’s a lot to give up when you could be grilling and drinking beer and hanging out with girls and going to the cabin and doing all the things that “youngin’s” do in the summer.
It requires dedication and sacrifice. It requires guys who really want to do this, who are willing to be part of a greater whole, and who will fight for each other day in and day out.
We are looking for players with the right character, basically.
Cue Matt vanBenschoten again:
“We want that undefeated attitude: grit, teamwork, positivity, and a willingness to overcome.
Coaching the U23’s last year we had a number of individuals who fit that description, and two that immediately come to mind are Abdi Kadi and Arthur Parens.
Abdi basically forced his way on to the team by sheer force of will and persistence. Even when we didn’t have a roster spot for him, he came to everything, worked his ass off and when other players didn’t show up he would be there to replace them. Even this winter when he was injured and we did a City kick around, he drove 40 minutes just to come hang out. In a matter of two months, he went from being a practice player to being a player who we couldn’t live without.
Arthur was very similar in that regard, but the moment that really sticks out to me was when the U23s traveled down to Omaha to go play Bugeaters. We traveled 11 guys (including 2 GK’s) and which meant our assistant coach Ryan Nichols had to jump in. Midway through the second half, Nichols lost a mark and was a split second too late on his tackle. The Bugeaters attacker missed his chance but Arty immediately got on Nichols and yelled ‘Pick him up and put in a @&%! tackle!!!’
It was awesome.”
In other words, to make the team you gotta want it. As we build the team, we are going to build around guys who want it.
We are going to begin announcing our roster starting on January 22. So, while I cannot give out any specifics now, I can say that there are probably going to be a few key players that won’t be coming back.
It’s not because they don’t love playing for the Mighty Crows.
Over the years we’ve seen the likes of Andy Lorei, Brandon Bye, Abbai Habte, and Miles Stockman-Willis move into the pro ranks—and we want that to happen as much as possible.
We have also seen instances where college coaches want a player to play on a specific team, typically in the PDL and typically near the coach and with a few other members of his team. Samuel Ruiz-Plaza is an example where that happened. We want our guys to get the most out of their college careers and spend a lot of time speaking with each of our player’s college coach to make sure we’re doing what we can to make that happen. Sometimes, unfortunately, that means seeing them placed with another club. It happens.
And, as the years go by, we will also see players who can’t make the same commitment to the game that they used to. Often, it’s because their career is taking off. Like with Matthew Gweh. What a great thing for guys to move their lives forward. They know that they’re always part of the club.
The end result of all of this though is that we are forced to constantly reinvent the team much more than we would if we were an MLS side. And way more than anyone in their right mind would do with a championship team like we had last season.
We knew this was the outcome of our local player-oriented values.
We did some things to prepare for it, like launching the U23 team, which gives us a pool of players with familiarity with our club and our system who our coaches know and who are chomping at the bit to step up. And it’s a part of our planning process as we think about how we approach the season, the training sessions, etc.
The level has risen every season and it’s only going to keep rising.
We believe that we have the talent locally and the structure within the club to continue to rise to required level. And we believe in what we are doing enough—our focus on being a locally-focused, community club—that we are willing to risk a result. Yes, we have the means and the ability to recruit top players from all over the country. But we believe in our guys. We believe in ourselves.
And we have seen over the years that, together, we will fight through any adversity. That’s what is behind the #undefeated. It’s out unflagging will to keep on going, through challenges and disappointment and successes, for each other and for our mission. It has never been able to wins and losses, though it was nice last season not to have any losses.
But that was a special season. Others won’t be like that in terms of results.
They will share, however, our community focus, our high-performance environment, the hard work of our staff and coaches, and local players going toe-to-toe with other top players and clubs from around the country.
In other words, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing with local guys and we’re confident that they will keep getting results.
^ Med City and VSLT were both particularly good and, with a bounce here or there that went their way, could easily have been playoff teams too.
# He has been approached by professional clubs to take on their Scouting & Player Personnel roles, he’s that good.
^^ For real. If we could take everyone we could because we have more ballers than spots (and also our competitors wouldn’t be able to sign them up).
^^^ You can—and should!—check out the Citizens on Twitter at @mplscitizens.
Tags: Minneapolis City SC