Right at the end of March, things in the NPSL North started to get real with clubs announcing players signings and otherwise getting ready for the summer. The season doesn’t feel all that far away anymore.
The clubs haven’t moved in lockstep with their announcements, which is reflected in the power rankings, which are not a suggestion of what the final table will be but rather the relative strength of each club at this point in time. That rewards that teams that are ahead of the game, perhaps unfairly, because of course they play the games for a reason.
Before the kickoff, I will do predictions for the season and, while I am not releasing those until I know the final rosters, it seems like the conference is settling into two tiers, with quality of players on the roster matching quality of other club operations.
Which tier is your favorite club in?
The Crows released their full roster in mid-March and I broke it down in detail here. For those of you not interested in reading my fascinating write-up complete with potential line-ups, the succinct version is that they announced forwards Connor Stevenson (Loyola Chicago) and Javi Alcantara (Minnesota United Reserves), returning defenders Abdallah Bah and Trey Benhart, and a few others.
It’s a very talented group.
Playing on the turf surface at Edor Nelson Field is a huge bonus too. Last year, City were unbeaten on turf, including away draws against USASA National Cup finalists Milwaukee Bavarians and the professional Cedar Rapids Rampage, and the better surface should play to their strengths.
Like VSLT, City have already started training and it is going to be fascinating to see both teams open the season against each other.
The question is if they as good on the field as they are on paper.
First off, I refuse to accept the crowdsourced “Mayhem” nickname and will continue to use “Medicals” as my nickname for them because online name votes are Stupid McStupidface and this is my blog and I will do what I want.
That out of the way, it is encouraging to see Med City pursue a clear recruitment strategy. Building a squad of foreign-born players is a great way to get quality in the team. One only has to look at FC Fargo’s Ben Eastwell or Duluth’s Englishman Kyle Farrar to see the kind of quality that can find its way to this level, and especially NAIA kids who face fewer of the pesky NCAA amateurism rules and also, often, have a chip on their should because they aren’t NCAA players.
Particularly impressive is the capture of midfield trio Pepe Cejudo, who scored 11 goals in 24 games and looks the business, Jose Pizarro and Ludvig Hordegard from NAIA tournament quarterfinalists University of Northern Ohio. They already know how to play together and could form the nucleus of the Medicals side.
Each group of signings has a touch of real quality, and talent will not be an issue for Med City.
The question is if coach Luke Corey can forge a coherent team from so many players meeting each other for the first time.
The St Paul club that clearly needs a nickname have stayed relatively quiet, with my email inquiries politely responded to with a suggestion that I find time to speak with them after they had finished preparing for the season. That focus should help them as they have a lot to do to elevate from MASL Division 2 champions to the NPSL.
We have seen, however, smart early moves that include bringing in NPSL-level talent in Rodrigo Galvan and Peter Xiong to build on an established core of players that know how to make the most of their own talent.
This side is a huge question mark, but one with vast potential upside. Their focus on the Latino community, their history of growth and success, and the talented, but few, signings they have announced bode well.
The question is if this is all that they’ve got.
The Bluegreens announced three signings that, while expected, still represent quality players. Forward Kyle Farrar and midfielders Mualigbe Keita and Joe Watt are back for a second season with Duluth and represent a good early catch of talent produced by local Division 3 schools St Scholastica and UW Superior.
Sources in the north suggest that Duluth will feature predominantly returning players, with a large portion of last year’s squad returning. There are obvious pros and cons to this. The pros are all around cohesion and familiarity, which is critical on any team where the players aren’t training every day. The cons are around a side that wasn’t quite good enough to win the not quite good APL.
Coach Kyle Bakas has told us that he is looking to bring in some out-of-state players to supplement this group and it is with unbridled interest that I await their announcement. They could well be the talent necessary to propel Duluth into the top echelon of clubs in this conference.
The question is if they have what it takes to win games against top teams, something that they couldn’t quite do in the APL.
Their campaign of secrecy continues apace. Your intrepid reporter has been reduced to Googling the names of players Fusion announce on Facebook and try to match the picture they post with one on Google to get information on their background. Fortunately, I have sources in the Red River Valley to help me. Unfortunately, I still believe that Dakota Fusion are a team that hopes to attract fan interest and can tell them that hiding is not the way to do that.
Amid a number of West Fargo High School products and former FC Fargo players, Fusion announced Jack Hartley who played with Storm FC of the NPSL last year.
It is the harsh reality of soccer that playing often and at a high level creates better players, and it is harsh only because there aren’t many schools in the Fargo-Moorhead area where a high school player can stay local and keep playing above club standard. Unless I am missing something, I count just Division 3 Concordia Moorhead and NAIA Jamestown College. Given that most kids go to college near their home, that is a real drawback for a club like Dakota Fusion. It also means that a signing like Hartley, proven at NPSL level, is a meaningful one.
The question is how much more NPSL-level talent can Fusion attract up to Fargo.
Can crickets play soccer? I ask because that’s all I’ve gotten from TwinStars: crickets.
After a burst of activity on Twitter, including the launch of an “independent” supporter’s group, they’ve gone silent and stayed silent for nearly a month. What is going on in Minnetonka?
The Dragons stay as high as they are on the rankings due to their longevity in the league, ability to draw Twin Cities talent, and the expectation that the Darbaki’s, Sean Teske and K.P. Toure will all turn out for them. It’s a set of good players to build around.
The question is if TwinStars have slipped back to their old indifference.
Sioux Falls Thunder
There is video proof that the Thunder exist and are actively building a team.
Not to give them short shrift, but they have a partially-finished website, have made no player announcements, and have not responded to my inquiries, so there is very little to do besides skip to the end of the section.
The question is if there is enough talent in Sioux Falls to compete at this level.
La Crosse Aris
According to their Facebook page, “this year the focus shifts more towards winning.” It certainly couldn’t shift more the other way.
While Aris will still field a very young side, including 16 year old Evan Espelien, they have added two players with college experience. Forward Brett Huebsch played in all 16 games for Viterbo and scored twice, both against Augsburg, while Zach Snyder finished his freshman year at Wartburg without an appearance but no doubt with valuable experience at a good Division 3 program.
Aris also re-signed Sam Naik and Addison Freybler. The duo from Onalaska High School return to Aris after playing in the yellow and black last season.
The focus on local talent is admirable though, given their history and the quality of the rest of the division, much more is required to truly shift the focus towards winning.
The question is whether Aris will continue to be just happy to be here or if they have a plan to actually compete.