The 2018 season begins this weekend, let’s take a look at each of the 8 clubs making up NPSL North as we preview the conference’s second season.
Dakota Fusion were 9-5 last year, with no ties. This year will almost certainly be more new than old, but the roots are familiar and are Jamestown orange.
They will once again be based out of Moorhead High's Jim Gotta Stadium on the Minnesota side of the border with North Dakota, the state the club is representing in the US Open Cup.
Replacing North Dakota State women’s coach Jim Robbins at the helm of Fusion in the NPSL is Nick Becker, the head coach of the University of Jamestown women’s team in NAIA division 2.
Fusion lost its only playoff game ever, but in playing that game gave Fusion qualification into the US Open Cup against Duluth FC. The cup run may be short, but the club should be well equipped for another run at a playoff berth with 2017 NPSL Golden Ball winner Jade Johnson expected to return.
The tradition of title defenses gone wrong is one that echoes throughout sports history like the sorest of thumbs. Duluth will be facing that challenge without Kyle Bakas who, as you’d want a head coach to be, was a key mind within the club. In his place stands Joel Person, a coach with a long list of collegiate and lower division experience. Person looks keen to add Duluth to his list of successes.
The clearest issue for the BlueGreens is their lack of home games early in the season. They won’t play at home until the fifth game of the season when they play Minneapolis City at PSS, a sizable gap considering the season is thirteen matches long. The schedule is a negative through any lens you can look through, but most great seasons are defined by the obstacles a club overcomes and Duluth is being presented with a chance to fulfill that destiny.
The light at the end, or rather the beginning, of the tunnel will be Duluth’s first run in the U.S. Open Cup. Their May 9th first round game will provide their only home game for quite some time. Key names like Kyle Farrar, Tom Greensall, and Garga Nyuah will aim for big returns while Person develops new names. An exact line up isn't out, but a healthy mixture of old and new shouldn't surprise anyone.
La Crosse Aris FC
They’re nickname should be the cockroaches: you think they’re going to die, but they just keep coming back and bugging you. Meet the Cleveland Browns of soccer.
LC Aris went 0-13-1 in 2017 and has gone 0-29-1 in their last 3 seasons (Aris did not play in 2015) and their last win came all the way back in 2013. This team is the proverbial punching bag for NPSL North. With a Twitter account that hasn’t been active in years and a Facebook that’s updated irregularly don’t expect anything to change.
The Mayhem were one of three true expansion teams in 2017 and along with Duluth FC one of two teams representing outstate Minnesota. Med City FC finished 7-3-4 with 25 points tying themselves with Minneapolis City SC for fourth place, just two points out of the playoffs.
Off the field fan support is no issue as they have drawn an average of around 600 people per game. On the field Med City FC‘s initial head coach, Luke Corey, stepped down in August of 2017. He has been replaced by Neil Cassidy, former head coach of the long defunct Rochester Thunder of the PDL.
From a player perspective Med City was setup well for their first season as evidenced by their finish as well as having the tied for the best defense in NPSL North, allowing only 16 goals in 14 games. Tiernan Talbot will return to the Mayhem and looks to make an impact again this year after being selected for the 4th Annual NPSL Showcase back in January. The problem for the Mayhem however is with the attack as they had the 3rd worst amount of goals scored in 2017 at just 23. It’s hard to determine who out of their goalscorers will return as the roster on the team site and NPSL site do not match but they’ll need to get better in order to contend for a playoff spot in 2018.
Few NPSL teams operate with the profile that Minneapolis City does — flashy jerseys, active social media with a clear personality, attendance solidly in the high triple digits. It’s why this site was willing to say last year that a North Conference title was an expectation rather than a goal. For any other side, a season being competitive until the final day, finishing third in the conference, and winning a majority of games would be a good start to NPSL life. For the Crows, it was a disappointment.
Minneapolis City approach the season with some changes. The team will be leaving the urban Minneapolis core for the north suburban confines of Osseo High School during construction at their home ground at Augsburg University. Their late season roster boost Brandon Bye left for greener pastures with MLS side New England Revolution. In his place is the 2017 NCAA D3 Men’s Soccer Player of the Year, St. Thomas midfielder Shae Bottum, flanked by a solid crew of returnees including Martin Jr. and Whitney Browne, Issac Friendt, and Trey Benhart.
There’s no doubt that Minneapolis City can play attractive soccer, and they return the bulk of a defense that tied for the least goals allowed in 2017. That said, given the team’s difficulties with teams like TwinStars and Duluth FC, the big question will be if they can learn to win against physical teams that are willing to disrupt play with fouls. If they show an ability to adapt their play to how NPSL teams defend, City may be able to take the next step to compete for the playoffs. What hasn’t changed for the Crows: the expectation level.
Results have been secondary for Minnesota TwinStars over the last few years compared to continued development for their academy graduates. In many respects it explains the Dragons’ 5-7-2 record in 2017, with a zero goal differential. It also explains some of the self-inflicted poor showings last year, namely an away trip to Sioux Falls that had nine players.
The preseason returns suggest the same issues will be at play. As of yet, TwinStars haven’t announced their lineup publicly, something the club has done for their WPSL side. They’re also yet to announce venues for two of their early season home matches against crosstown rivals Minneapolis City and Viejos Son Los Trapos — the rest of their home games are set to return to Minnetonka High School.
Standout goalkeeper Sean Teske and midfielder/forward Karim Darbaki are expected to return for 2018. However, they’ll be breaking up the partnership they’ve had with twins Tyler and Justin Oliver, with the latter signed for a Kansas-based PDL side. Their pair of tough 2-0 wins against Minneapolis City last year showed what they can do when they apply themselves, and coach Youssef Darbaki made smart tactical decisions throughout 2017. The question will be how seriously the team takes the season; early returns aren’t positive on that front.
Sioux Falls, SD may have the 10 time Indoor Football champion Storm but apparently Thunder just isn’t good enough on it’s own. Sioux Falls Thunder came into NPSL North as another expansion team last year, and well did they play like one. They finished with just 13 points and a record of 3-7-4.
Off the field not having a single home can’t help the club or fan support as last year they played one game at Yankton Trail Park and six games at the USF Sports Complex. In 2018 that won’t change much as they’ll play four games (including two friendlies) at USF Sports Complex, one at Yankton Trail Park, and four games at McEneaney Field at O’Gorman Catholic High School.
Behind the bench Mekonnen Afa will replace Azzaro Suehne as head coach of the Thunder for year two. On the field the Thunder will look to massively improve as they gave up 31 goals, the third most in NPSL North and only scored 22, the second least in the conference. Sioux Falls hasn’t announced any signings for the 2018 season but they did lose a friendly to Bugeaters FC (Lincoln, NE) 3-2 on Tuesday May 1st at the USF Sports Complex in Sioux Falls. The real question is will Sioux Falls be able to improve and climb out of the cellar.
VSLT don’t have the social-media-active following of Minneapolis City, but their support is still strong enough that there were real expectations of them last season. They finished 4 points out of the playoffs on 23 points with a 7-5-2 record. That summed up most of their 2017 campaign: close, but not close enough.
From an off-the-field perspective, the club is well-prepared for their second season. They’ve landed a partnership with Minnesota United, as well as plenty of area businesses. VSLT’s strong organization with multiple MASL reserve squads means that their player pool is deep.
The 2018 NPSL North season isn’t going to be any easier than the previous edition, so VSLT will have to refine their approach while keeping up with the other frontrunners.
Week 1 Schedule*:
Sioux Falls Thunder vs Minneapolis City
*For exact kickoff times, locations, and tickets, visit the websites of the home club, which can be found by clicking the bolded team.