It’s spring, it’s warm, the other conferences in southern climes have already started playing and so it’s time for the final power rankings before the season starts in earnest and is complete with a prediction for how the teams will end that will no doubt be utterly, laughable, completely wrong.
It all kicks off on Saturday.
This group has a chance to win the league and, though there remains a consensus favorite, the pre-season just may have convinced onlookers that this is going to be a tight battle for the title, and for playoffs qualification.
1. Viejos son los Trapos FC
An emphatic 4-1 win away against Premier League of America side Aurora Borealis shows the potential in this team. That they followed it up with a 0-0 draw against MASL powerhouse Cardinals shows that it isn’t a one-off result. The wind is at their backs and that is why they are top of the power rankings.
Why they won’t win the league: the knock on them is that their signature win is against a Borealis team that wasn’t the worst in the PLA only because of the Aris-like ineptitude of Grand Rapids Ole. Add to that depth and rotation issues. There isn’t the strict delineation between NPSL and MASL rosters that you see with, say, Minneapolis City and that could mean that a rotating group of 30 guys face games on Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, which is an alarming amount to ask players to play.
On the credit column, this side will feature some handy players. We’ve talked about Rodrigo Galvan. Angel Riera is laconic, but surprisingly quick when he needs to be and has an adhesive touch and good vision. Wily old Juan Fiz might just step in to marshal the backline and nobody ever said that experience was a bad thing for a defender to have.
VSLT will be organized, keep the ball, and be dangerous from set pieces. Juggling NPSL and MASL will be difficult, though, and I expect them to fall off as the season continues but a strong start could be enough to see them to the title.
VSLT host Minneapolis City in their first game on May 13.
2. Minnesota TwinStars
If, spoiler alert, Fusion have the biggest upside to break into the group of contenders then TwinStars have the biggest downside to drop out of it. Still, newfound stability in the front office, a raft of impressive signings and indications (by that I mean a Tweet) that their college players are already back and in training bode well for TwinStars.
Why they won’t win the league: a reliance on youth just might be their undoing, however, and while I think that they have what it takes in terms of talent to challenge for the title the question is whether this year is just a year too soon for them. Organizationally, the focus is typically on their academy and there has been some recent chaos in the front office. Will that impact the team?
That said, there is real talent in this club. Like Minneapolis City, they have a good blend of older leaders, like the Darbaki brothers, and youth talent, like most of their returning players from the Dallas Cup-winning U18 team. This will be a team of Division 1-caliber talent, albeit mainly players who just finished their freshman year. Standouts include Chase Wright (Loyola Chicago), Grant Dumler (Xavier) and Sean Teske (Hartford).
This team could blast up the table behind young, hungry talent as easily as it could implode due to disorganization and apathy. On talent alone they are a threat, especially next year once the young guns are more seasoned.
TwinStars host Duluth FC in their opener on May 13.
3. Minneapolis City SC
Minneapolis City are undoubtedly the favorite for the conference title, though arguably that is a function of the visibility club and, therefore, its players having a higher profile than others in the conference. It’s not hype as much as it is marketing competence, the largest market in the conference and, in many cases, a year’s head start.
Why they won’t win the league: the knock on them is that they’re not as much better than the rest of the league as others and perhaps they think, and if they don’t come hungry they will find themselves on the wrong side of some bad results. In other words, expectations are a bitch. Friday’s friendly against the Gophers club team showed that and, while it was hardly the City first team, it was a performance so disappointing that it needs to be heeded. On top of that, every team is going to want to beat them. In a league where it matters which players travel to which games, where effort in the summer heat makes a difference, this is a major disadvantage. The road to the title is tougher for City than for others. Finally, while City has a number of college players still to return, they open the season against VSLT and Duluth which both have their teams almost completely intact and playing together. Is an early stumble in the cards?
On the plus side, there is a lot of talent in this team. From experienced leaders like Brian Kallman, Martin Browne, and Ben Wexler, to younger guys like Whitney Brown, Miles Stockman-Willis, and Matt Elder, to college chargers like Samuel Ruiz-Plaza, Isaac Friendt, and Max Kent, there is an interesting and thoughtful blend of players in this team. Experience. Youth. Hunger. Energy. Leadership. It’s a heady mix.
The talent and experience in the team should be enough for City to prevail, but I expect the conference to be a lot harder and a lot closer than than anyone thinks.
City open against cross-town rival VSLT FC on May 13.
4. Duluth FC
There is a quiet undercurrent of support around the conference for the idea that Duluth has a realistic shot at the title. While they lost a pre-season friendly to Dakota Fusion, I simply cannot imagine that it was the first team this close to the start of the season against a league rival.
Why they won’t win the league: the knock on them is that they couldn’t even win the not-very-good APL, and their friendly loss to Dakota Fusion, while not their starters, speaks to a continued parity with the Fargo talent, so why would they be able to win the title in a more difficult league? Add to that a lack of splashy signings to supplement last year’s team and a schedule that sees the first half of their season all away and playoffs could be enough of an ask for this club.
In their favor, this is a settled and familiar side and settled and familiar is critical in a short season when points are at a premium. The ability to start fast matters. On top of that, there is quality in the side with Joe Watt and Kyle Farrar headliners. There will be goals.
In the end, do they have the right balance of cohesion and talent to take the title from a side from the Twin Cities? Maybe not this year, but they have the ingredients to start hot and the second half of the season at home means they could run things close.
Duluth visit TwinStars in Minnetonka to open the season on May 13.
They (probably) won’t win the league, but they’re here and they’re going to give it their best shot.
5. Dakota Fusion.
They beat Duluth FC 3-2 in a pre-season match that largely featured players not expected to break the starting line-ups, which is a nice confidence booster for this team of primarily former FC Fargo players. Largely is the key though. The standout players from last year, Jade Johnson and JP Soglo, have not returned which is a massive blow to the Fargo side and make them not-really-contenders in my estimation.
Positively, the excellent Ben Eastwell returns from Minnesota United Reserves and Fusion were able to get NPSL experience with Jack Hartley (Storm FC) to play for coach Jim Robbins. Robbins, who coaches the North Dakota State (D1) women, is arguably the top coach in the conference and he does have talent to work with in the team so the potential to surprise is there.
That said, it’s hard to see where the goals are going to come from. Johnson was a particular talent, a quick, rangy and technical forward who can operate as a target and off the last defender. Soglo is pacy and direct and a great complement. Yet, even with the both of them and in the weak American Premier League, Fargo were hardly Barcelona in terms of goals scored.
Unless that weakness is addressed, expect a low block reliant on the quality defenders, low scoring games, and mid-table aspirations.
Fusion open at Sioux Falls on May 13.
6. Med City FC
This club remain my dark horse pick, the new team that just might have it in them to go on a mazy run all the way to the title, or at least to the playoffs.
In the plus column, this is an organization that has hit the ground running and gained sponsors, media attention, an independent supporter’s group, signed a solid coach, and been able to find the housing to bring in players from across the country. Good organizations off the field tend to have the ability and interest to put together good teams on the field.
If their off-field success is any indication, they have the ability to break into the top echelon and challenge for the title.
In the minus column, first seasons are notoriously difficult. The learning curve is extremely steep on player management, team rotation, travel and accommodations, recovery management and all of the little things that only experience can teach. In the face of that, they have elected to bring in small clumps of players from mainly NAIA schools all around the country. Those players will have 2-3 weeks to get acclimated with Rochester, the coach, and each other before the season starts. That’s a tall order for even as established organization.
If the headwinds are really this tough, it might be a mid-table season of learning for Med City.
Med City open the season at home to Aris on May 13.
7. Sioux Falls Thunder.
Positively, many of the players went all out in their official photos and you absolutely have to see them: https://www.siouxfallsthunderfc.com/roster/
It is an overwhelmingly South Dakotan roster, as a club they look extremely likable but, though your intrepid blogger tried a few emails to the FO and Googling a little, it was hard to get a read on their quality.
Which leads me to the primary negative, which is the lack of an obvious game changer. There are more than a few in this league and, while it may just be lack of knowledge on my part, the heavy hitters from others sides have high profiles and are easily found. Top that off with the toughest travel schedule of any of the clubs in the division and the first year learning curve and it could be a tough first season for the Thunder. Also, their name is a weird knockoff.
There are enough of an unknown to be surprising, but it relies on a large, untapped and unknown talent pool in Sioux Falls for a sustainable surprise and I’m not sure it’s there.
Thunder host Dakota Fusion in their opener on May 13.
8. La Crosse Aris.
There have been no updates from the club coming out of their April 5 tryout, which is not a surprise, and considering their history and early signings there is a talent deficit that it is hard to see Aris overcoming.
Positively, in a conference full of new teams they have experience.
Negatively, that experience has been almost exclusively in losing games badly.
In the end, Aris will do Aris things like they do every year.
Aris open the season away to Med City on May 13.
So, how do I think it is all going to finish?
I can see Minneapolis City getting surprised early and losing ground, but depth issues will doom VSLT, Duluth will again struggle to too many draws, TwinStars have another crisis or two in them, and Med City will disappoint like all dark horse March Madness picks of mine disappoint, all allowing the Crows to battle back for the title.
It is going to be a very close and competitive division, but here is my take:
1. Minneapolis City
2. Duluth FC
3. VSLT FC
4. Minnesota TwinStars
5. Dakota Fusion
6. Med City FC
7. Sioux Falls Thunder
8. La Crosse Aris
(ducks and disables Twitter mentions)