Duluth FC: Serenity and fire on Lake Superior

Founded by a priest and known inoffensively as the Bluegreens, Duluth FC seem so awfully nice that I suspect that there must be something else there, something not quite right lurking below the placid exterior that I might be able to catch a glimpse of if I look closely enough, in a Sinclair Lewis sort of way.

I asked Tim Sas, the club’s founder, about the origins of the club and, like so many others at this level, it began with a semi-serious thought: “[it] really started as a joke with a couple of friends. Then the joke turned into a serious encouragement from a few other friends. When it became apparent that there were enough players who were interested I decided to take a some time to think and pray about starting a team.”

The club’s first year was spent in the Duluth Amateur Soccer League, its second, last year, in the American Premier League, and now Duluth FC are gearing up for the NPSL.

So what are the biggest concerns with stepping up levels so quickly? “Clubs at this level will always struggle financially”, Sas said. “Travel costs for our North Conference season will be very manageable, however, if we qualify for playoffs we will face some very high travel costs. Additionally, we will face organizations with much more history, infrastructure and fan base than we. Nevertheless, we’ll step up where we need to and learn how to improve as we experience new accomplishments.”

Earnest and completely unflappable, just like they are on Twitter.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 2.28.08 PM
You are entering the Bantz-free Zone!

It is easy to envision, somewhere by the lake, Father Tim Sas sits forgiving any Twitter banter while just hoping for a fair, competitive game.

Maybe, just maybe, the placid exterior was all there was.


Kyle Bakas isn’t quite so serene.

Aggressive in the subtweet and particularly pointed at Minneapolis City, Bakas was conciliatory when I asked him about it directly saying “I have enjoyed [Minneapolis City’s] prowess with Twitter and it’s a great indoor activity trying to take them down in 140 words of less.”

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 2.30.31 PM
This is “indoor fun” in Duluth.

He forgot to add “even if I am subtweeting them so they don’t know I am trying to take them down unless they are paying attention.”

That may come off as unfairly harsh. After all, if the head coach doesn’t care then it is hard to imagine that anyone else would, and it is clear that Bakas cares.

We talked about player recruitment and Bakas said, “I think that Mpls is easy to peg as a ‘big name’ because they are pulling from a large metro area whereas we are not. But the Northland area has a number of quality players available to play for Duluth FC…I have also been in contact with a large number of players throughout the country: DC, California, the South, Ohio, and I expect that a number of them will sign with us.”

While Duluth is home to St Scholastica, UW Superior and Lake Superior College, the city is dwarfed by the Twin Cities metro and even though there are three Twin Cities clubs in the conference I would be worried about relative talent pool as well, if for no other reason than it could really start to matter in the playoffs.

Duluth FC is working through housing options for out of town players and that element is critical. These short summer leagues are about how much raw talent you can combine with how much dedication.

Bakas isn’t worried about the dedication part at least, saying “our players are not paid, but I would hardly call them amateur; the coaching staff will expect the highest level of commitment and professionalism to be exhibited by them.”

“It was an absolute joy to work with individuals like Kyle Farrar, Joe Watt, Ben Phillips” continued Bakas, who may just have released the list of his first signings for the upcoming season. The trio from St Scholastica are good players based on the scouting reports I received from two friends who follow small college soccer, and if you can’t believe anonymous sources cited by an anonymous blog then you are missing out on so much.

Last year, the Bluegreens competed in the American Premier League (APL). From an outsider’s perspective this division could feel similar to what Duluth saw last year because of the presence of TwinStars and Aris. My perspective is that NPSL will be a big step up. Both TwinStars and Aris will field full-strength sides, the demise of FC Fargo increases the depth of Dakota Fusion’s player pool and, of course, new conference foes Minneapolis City, VSLT and Med City already look formidable. From Bakas’ perspective, the biggest adjustment will be travel, with the 6 hour drive to Sioux Falls looming in his mind.

I asked him which team he thought would be the toughest and will admit to being surprised when he returned with Minnesota TwinStars.

“The Minnesota TwinStars were the most complete team besides us in the [APL]. I think that their coaching staff and management conduct themselves in a way that is very befitting a team at this level. Last year both games ended in a 2-2 draw and there was nothing but congratulations by both coaching staffs, I hope that there are other friendly rivalries that emerge.”

Like high school cliques forming, it strikes me as though clubs at this level seem to find other like-minded clubs and get into weird BFF relationships that reflect the similar nature of each club. The company you keep and all that.

More than that, the parity between Duluth FC and Minnesota TwinStars and the expectation that the two clubs will continue to operate on a similar level gives me pause because the last six years haven’t been great for the Dragons:

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 10.36.20 AM

As they say in the financial world, past performance is not an indication of future results, and there are reason to be bullish on the Bluegreens.

Though they have yet to release their team, Duluth will be able to build from an existing core. Familiarity among players makes such a difference at this level, and a quick start because of it could be critical in the race for a playoff spot.

Bullish I may be, but there is a difference between good and elite and unless Duluth are able to import a number of top players the the May 20 trip to Minneapolis could be quite the wake-up call.


In Kyle Bakas they have a fiery and driven leader who really cares about this team, at least enough to troll a rival on Twitter, and was a gracious and well-spoken interview. If winning in this league requires total dedication, and no little bit of fire, it’s hard to think of a better coaching choice for Duluth than Bakas.

Somewhere in Duluth Father Sas is serenely nodding in agreement.

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