It is only now, after experiencing first hand just how much work it takes to write a good piece on a surprisingly well-read blog while personal things, in my case my company merging with another and me scrambling to ensure I maintained my employment after that whole process and uncertainty finally finishes, that I can truly understand and even more fully respect all of the soccer writers who produce incredible content for free.
I really do enjoy writing and I enjoy writing about the lower division soccer conference in my own back yard. I have been able to interview and email and speak with people from clubs around the NPSL North and it has been surprisingly interesting.
Despite the personal value that I get from this, it is awfully difficult to find the hours to put in to writing consistently when life rears its ugly head. Those that are able to do it through thick and thin, you have my deepest regard and respect.
With apologies out of the way, and months gone in the season, I want to focus on a few of the most interesting storylines in the conference this summer.
Rise of the Medics.
From the very beginning, I called Med City the dark horse to win the conference and yet, when it was decision time, I chose them to finish lower mid-table.
As I wrote in my season preview, I always choose the right teams for March Madness but never stick to my gut and watch on as the teams I chose go on to win victory in the pool for the person who chose them because their mascot is cool. I knew they had the potential. I did not go with my gut. I know better. I cannot help myself.
Now that you know it’s all about me, let’s look at the fantastic rise of the brand-new club that sits atop the division.
Med City are drawing magnificently. Their opener, with somewhere between 900 and 1,500 fans depending on which report you read, is far and away the highest attendance in the conference this season.
Med City are building their profile. They have a dedicated FiftyFive.One writer in Luis Garcia, whose work in excellent, and they are relentlessly active in their community and on social media. It’s year one, but they are already among the highest profile clubs in the region and just wait until they’re in the playoffs.
Med City are a business powerhouse. They have a beer brewed just for them, they have an impressive list of sponsors, and they have been able to get a ton of value from their Mayo Clinic partnership to the point that they may just have scared Minnesota United’s USL team to Madison. While that last point is just a thing you hear on the internet, the rest is true and superbly well done.
Med City are top of the league. They get results at home. They get results away. They have dynamic players and solid defenders and a team attitude that is hard to beat. They may be mercenaries, but they’re good at soccer and really fun to watch and they have been the best team this season and are a very well deserved top of the league.
The good Christian boys.
I was fascinated by the Duluth FC story and I spent time researching, interviewing and writing up a piece about the club. I was excited to see them play and, more than that, was interested to see how the explicitly stated Christian values would be put into practice.
An older version of the website outlined three points that all players, coaches and staff involved with Duluth FC would subscribe to:
– No intentional fouls or reckless play. If we ever commit fouls, we simply accept the referee’s decision and apologize to the opponent.
– No inappropriate language, actions or emotions toward anyone, opponent, official, teammate or even ourselves. We will play with a calm and patient temperament even when we make mistakes.
– Post-match outings for a drink…must be [at appropriate venues]…[and] with a commitment to remain sober.
Those first two bullet points were what drew me to the team.
Like so many fans, I had watched with dismay as the top level of the sport had seemingly been taken over by clubs, players and managers who were willing to do anything, kick anyone, dive anytime, scream at refs and teammates alike, spit and fight and otherwise act poorly all in the name of the final result. Any behavior was justified in the quest for points. I had seen those behaviors work their way down the levels as well to the point that here in Minnesota we are looking at a referee shortage because referees don’t want to be screamed at by parents, players and fans at amateur youth level and men’s league.
Here, finally, was a team that would take a principled stand against the worst behaviors in the sport.
Then they arrived in Minneapolis for their opener, kicked Isaac Friendt every time he touched the ball, surrounded the referee for every foul and at halftime, headbutted Whitney Browne off the ball to goad him into a red card, kicked off the ball and after the play and otherwise violated every club tenet except the drinking one and acted like the people this club said they wouldn’t be.
“[The club] strives to live out a few Christian virtues that all the players and staff adopted without hesitation” owner Tim Sas said to me before the season.
But when they fell short, and with Sas there in person watching it all, he did nothing.
When an anonymous Duluth-aligned Twitter account that everyone knows who is behind compared my tweets to an autistic person via a tasteless and offensive visual, he did nothing.
When his coach threw his fedora to the ground and screamed at the referees in the return match against Minneapolis City, he did nothing.
When a Duluth player had to be substituted in a critical game after shoving his own teammates and shouting at the referee over a call, he did nothing.
When just yesterday a Duluth player was sent off for complaining to the referee, he did nothing.
I am courting a Twitter storm from the four club-aligned people who tweet at me whenever I talk about Duluth, and even that is indicative of the hypocritical disconnect between the stated goals of the “values club” and the behavior from the people within the club.
I was looking forward to a different Duluth FC, was looking forward to seeing their espoused values in action, was excited to see what a club with their point of view could do but, in the end, it was just a story they told to get attention. Just marketing.
In reality, they’re just another team doing whatever it takes to get a result.
That attitude might be fine for some, though I don’t like that style, but allowing the bad behavior circus to happen means that they aren’t what they said they were and somewhere between the behavior and the hypocrisy they turned a potential fan into quite the opposite.
My new second team is, without a doubt, Sioux Falls Thunder.
I had concerns about them when they launched, not least because their name, logo design and website screamed amateurism and, at this level, amateurism typically results in clubs that fold quickly.
Then they connected with their lead sponsor Lemonly and launched really attractive kit, and then they got more active on social media and showed how engaged they were with their community, and then they got on the field and looked decent, and just yesterday I was looking at photos of a very good crowd for their game against Med City.
Starting a club cannot be easy and kudos to Sioux Falls and their leadership for what they have been able to do. I would still appreciate it if they responded to my interview requests, but I understand that there is work to be done.
I love to see a club grow, especially one with such upbeat, happy people.
I was at their game in Minneapolis and, while the result didn’t go their way, I was impressed by their team, their tactics and how they played with enthusiasm and positivity. I was impressed by how after the game they and the home players interacted with each other. I am impressed by how I have heard nothing but good things about this nascent club from everyone I talk to. I am impressed by their draw against Med City!
I said on Twitter that Sioux Falls are my pick as overachievers this season, and with the foundation they are building brick-by-brick I can see them continuing to punch above their relative weight.
I wish the club all the best. They really are a lot of good, clean fun.
The downside of a high profile.
Let’s get the excuses out of the way: the referees have been terrible, the only luck they’ve had is very bad, injuries have been a significant issue, the schedule a disaster.
Let’s also say that, even if all the excuses are valid and meaningful, this has been a very disappointing season for Minneapolis City.
I think that there are reasonable questions to be asked about the club’s recruitment strategy, about the in-game tactics and about the ever-rotating squad. I also think that, like I said from the beginning, this was always going to be a competitive division and that fans who only knew the clubs’ relative profiles might have expected a cakewalk because no North team has the awareness of Minneapolis City. These other teams are good and awareness, sadly, does not win games.
Awareness does, however, put a big target on your back and what we have seen this season is that opposing teams come into games against Minneapolis City always at full strength, always at full motivation and always at full fire. The biggest game is against City because that is the game that people remember, that gets on the internet, where a player can celebrate in front of any/opposition fans when they score. It brings the best out of the opposing teams.
Also, it skews expectations. I have noticed these past week weeks that City, Duluth and VSLT have been just about equal in points and yet for City it’s been a disastrous season while the others are flying high and fighting for a playoff place. I think that City should/could be doing better than they are, but I also think that Duluth and VSLT, and Med City and others, are legitimately good teams and there is no shame in dropped points to them.
All that said, stopping the hype is not even close to the right answer.
As a fan, thank God there is a team that has hype, that brings attention to soccer in this part of the country, that attracts a passionate and active fan base, and otherwise, with Med City, is a beacon for people to get into lower division soccer.
I look to Detroit City, another team with a justifiably high profile, and see how they responded to last year’s disappointing season on the field. They didn’t change their business or marketing. They did adjust tactically and re-load to build a team that played a style that would win games in the NPSL. Now they have the wind at their backs and are charging toward the playoffs.
I am not suggesting that it’s a lost season for Minneapolis yet, though it almost is, but I am suggesting that dealing with a high profile is difficult, there is much more to the frustrating results than a single issue, and future success in this conference is going to require a tactical re-think and some roster re-engineering.
The season’s most unexpected result.
I was reading FiftyFive.One’s recap of Minneapolis City’s 6-0 win over La Crosse Aris and I definitely laughed out loud when I read this quote from Aris coach Greg Saliaras: “June is usually kinder to us than May as the team comes together, and by July we’re usually hitting our stride. By then, we always have the spoiler role, taking points from teams we’re not supposed to.”
This is a team whose last point came in 2013, I reasoned as I laughed to myself, wondering what in the world that coach was going on about talking like Aris takes any points from any teams. Haw haw.
Then, their very next game, Aris dug out a 1-1 draw at home against Sioux Falls.
It took years, with many a brutal defeats along the way, but dammit if Aris didn’t keep at it and actually win a point. When you consider their history of futility means that they are not supposed to take points for any team ever, they even fulfilled Saliaras’ prediction that they would take points from teams they’re not supposed to. Incredible, and something to be celebrated.
The most interesting thing for me has been just how different the styles have play are among the teams in this conference and, for me, that is the reason behind the crazy anybody-can-beat-anybody results that we see every week.
A few quick-hits:
My favorite tactical set-up is TwinStars’ 3-5-2 with the wingbacks set-up super high and wide and a tight midfield three. It’s a fresh, interesting approach that takes teams a while to figure out and, as their young players mature, could be the platform for some real success in the coming years.
Isaac Kehson and Jade Johnson are why Dakota Fusion are where they are in the table. With all due respect to the rest of the team, without the power, athleticism and finishing of those two, it’s a lower mid-table team in terms of talent but also a testament to how hard-working grafters bought into a cause plus guys who can score goals can go far. It’s ugly soccer, but it’s really a lot of fun to watch them get “underserved” results again and again.
Edi Buro and Juan Fiz in the midfield of VSLT’s re-jiggered line-up is why they recently charged up the table. While they will be aggrieved not to have gotten a result against Duluth last night and there are probably fair questions about how long those two aging warhorses can keep going, if I needed two midfielders to start a team today I could talk myself into these two guys and their combination of passing and defense. They are really impressive players and a good partnership.
Don’t @ me.