Spring is here and we are starting to see action, or, in the case of Duluth, threatened action, from the other clubs in the division, and that is an encouraging sign. Out ahead of the group is Minneapolis City, with the club releasing its roster in a series of tweets last week.
With a hat tip on post format to Boys in Rouge and thanks to Sporting Director Jon Bisswurm for the email exchange, I am going to break down the roster for your reading pleasure.
Minneapolis City call themselves “the Athletic Bilbao of the North” because of their exclusive focus on fielding players from Minnesota.
It’s a selling point for me as a fan, and watching local players succeed is a draw at any level as we saw with the excitement around Brent Kallman’s first MLS appearance. It’s also a different approach than I’ve seen many NPSL clubs take, with clubs like Detroit City, Stockade and even Duluth scouring the country, and other countries, for talented players and housing them for the season, which means that their approach to building a team is going to be different than what City will do with an all-local cast.
The major benefit to this approach, beyond it being the right thing to do to develop local talent, is that it allows for a level of consistency of roster that competitive teams using a different recruitment model can’t always match.
1. Central Midfield
While there is going to be fierce competition for playing time throughout this team, it’s the central midfield that is the most stacked and, therefore, where the competition will be most pronounced.
The Crows return Premier League of America (PLA) Team of the Year selection Ben Wexler, fan favorite Samuel Ruiz-Plaza, defensive midfielder AJ Albers and Ian Smith, who payed his way into the team last summer and then went on to have a breakthrough freshman year at Wisconsin-Green Bay. While, as we saw in the U.S. Open Cup, Albers can also play centerback, this was already an excellent returning group.
On top this was added Martin Browne, recently called into the Liberia National team, Dan O’Brien, formerly of Tampa Bay Rowdies, Miles Stockman-Willis who showed well in the U.S. Open Cup, and no doubt Brian Kallman, formerly of Minnesota United, wouldn’t look out of place in central midfield though he is a fullback by trade.
The good news for these players is that there are a lot of games, with the second week of the season alone bringing a Saturday-Wednesday-Friday set of games.
Given the flexibility of the defensive players, it could be extremely competitive across the entirety of the backline.
City return PLA Team of the Year selection Abdallah Bah and 2016 ever-present Aaron Olson while signing the aforementioned Brian Kallman, who played 153 professional games in Minnesota mostly as a fullback and who, apparently, “crushed the beep test”. On top of that, Charlie Adams did well as fullback in the Open Cup game against Oakland County, and the Crows also brought in Nick Hinds, who comes to City after winning the NAIA National Championship.
AREA OF STRENGTH
While it would be easy to plump for either the midfield or defense given the depth of quality, it’s attacking wingers that are the Crows’ true strength. Whitney Brown tore apart Oakland County from the left wing with his pace and ability on the ball, and it was only a Gordon Banks-esque performance by County goalkeeper Nathan Steinwascher that kept Browne to only a brace. Right winger Isaac “Goose” Friendt, before his injury, was a bright attacking spark for the Crows, all pace and trickery and with a sumptuous chipped goal against Madison 56ers that underlined his quality. Now imagine them in the same team.
AREA OF CONCERN
At risk of repeating myself or FiftyFive.One, who have a great analysis of the roster written, and with due respect to tactical innovations that make it possible to play without a stereotypical goalscorer leading the line, it’s at striker where question marks loom.
The lack of a reliable goalscoring striker is cited as a reason for Detroit City’s struggles last year, and it is something to keep an eye on in this league.
Connor Stevenson and Tim Wills are the only recognized strikers in the squad. Stevenson is coming off of a season with a very good Loyola Chicago team but is a relative unknown for this observer. Wills put in a good shift in the Open Cup, holding the ball up well and making intelligent runs, but is perhaps not a Shearer-like finisher. Javi Alcantara is an option, surely, and this is all speculation until the ball is kicked, but given the relative lack of depth here it’s a question mark.
This is a very good team and, importantly, it is a team that is familiar with each other. From my experience in men’s league, there is a lot to be said about playing with guys who know how to play with each other and surely the hope is that City, given the core that returns from last summer and the group that played in the Open Cup qualifiers, will hit the ground running while other teams are figuring each other out.
With the Open Cup run ended prematurely, without the team being defeated, City won’t have the distraction of a May 10 midweek game, and potentially another after it, and can instead focus completely on the league.
It’s hard to tell how this team will stack up against teams from the other Midwest divisions, but the roster stability coupled with the addition of proven, veteran talent, makes this a much stronger side than last year’s version. They will be exciting to watch.
If I were the manager, I would struggle to decide between two line-ups, both tuned to try to get the best out of the wingers with the latter using Ian Smith as a Mascherano-like defensive midfielder who can drop into the backline as needed to allow the fullbacks to push up. These options may show why I’m not a soccer coach, but I don’t care.