Keystone Conference

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Atlantic City FC

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Atlantic City FC had a big launch of its club with a lot of fanfare surrounding the launch of its crest and kits when the club was announced prior to the 2018 season. The Aces began what was a tough learning experience in their first NPSL season that ended with the club just below the playoff spots despite some very difficult challenges they were forced to overcome.

The Aces began their season extremely strongly and looked to be competing for a conference title when they were struck with several injuries to key players and suffered three straight 1-0 losses. With that tough stretch putting them on the back foot, ACFC was unable to bounce back and qualify for the playoffs in an extremely competitive conference. It only finished four points behind rivals FC Monmouth who qualified on the last day of the season. The season was fruitful nonetheless for the club as it learned lessons about the administration and logistics of a club and is positioned as well as anyone for a challenge in 2019.

The next season for ACFC will likely lead to a new home as the club looks to move away from Stockton University and into Atlantic City proper. Talks are ongoing with the city to move the club to Surf Stadium, a former minor league baseball stadium. This aligns with the team’s goals of establishing a youth program in the city and surrounding area and giving kids the opportunity to develop through the ranks of the club. Between developing the club at large and returning fifteen players to the men’s team, the club seems poised to seriously compete for the conference title. It has also pulled off a bit of a coup, grabbing David Nigro, scorer of the goal that took FC Motown to the National Final. That is some kind of coup to pull off within the conference. If they can stay healthy, the Aces will be serious contenders in the NPSL in 2019.

Surf Stadium. Image courtesy of  Press of Atlantic City .

Surf Stadium. Image courtesy of Press of Atlantic City.

Electric City Shock

The Electric City Shock, based in the hometown of Dunder Mifflin’s Michael Scott, had a difficult season in the NPSL. It was slow to adjust to the new-look division and won just one of its ten games. This was not supposed to happen. The year prior, it was a playoff team and the next steps were supposed to be forward. Unfortunately, this season became a solid step back.

The challenge that the club faces now is in a conference that is becoming increasingly competitive. How does it keep the pace? The benefit that Electric City has is geographic dispersion from its competitors. This may lead to some slightly lengthy travel but it also provides the opportunity to build a foundation of solid players from its area without much threat of having them poached by teams nearby.

The improvement needs to take quickly though, as the clubs at the top get more ambitious and raise their profiles, it will be harder and harder to keep the pace. Improvements need to be made at both ends of the pitch, with just 8 goals scored and 35 conceded last season. This could be another long campaign for ECS if things do not improve quickly.

FC Monmouth

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There are not many teams in the United States that can claim to play in a facility named for someone quite as cool as FC Monmouth. Its home is Count Basie Park in Red Bank, NJ and the outfit from an area known for producing musicians will be looking to make sweet soccer music of its own in the 2019 NPSL season.

FC Monmouth, also referred to as the Raptors, enjoyed a successful season in the Keystone Conference last season, finishing fourth and just qualifying for the conference playoffs by defeating local rivals NJ Copa FC on the final day of the regular season. Several players distinguished themselves, but defender Thomas Judge, midfielder George Akampeke, and forward Jordan Saling were named to the Conference’s Best XI (with Judge also earning NPSL Best XI honors). Securing six wins on the way, FC Monmouth gained its league position through imperious home form, drawing just one of the five matches at Count Basie Park while winning the rest. The club’s attendance of around five hundred fans per game and its supporters group, The 732, were instrumental pieces in creating an atmosphere that was difficult for teams to perform in and the record at home more than speaks for itself. The away form is the only question mark from last season, as two wins away from home was not enough to push Monmouth into the upper reaches of the conference. Despite the overall tough form away from home, Monmouth’s best win of the season was arguably a 3-1 triumph over NJ Copa in Metuchen, NJ.

In the playoffs, Monmouth’s stay was short as it came up against regular season conference champions and eventual playoff champions, FC Motown. It was always a challenge having to go away from home to the best team in the conference, and it proved to be too much for the Raptors, as they fell to Motown 4-1. The disappointment of the postseason exit has since given way to pure optimism now for 2019. Obviously on the field the playoffs are the goal, but the development off the field is important to the club as well. Its motto, “We Are Monmouth,” demonstrates what it hopes to achieve this next season. It wants to double the amount of fans at the games and connect more with the community. The goals are admirable and the potential is palpable. Monmouth’s potential for 2019 basically depends on maintaining home form and improving the form away from home. With the community behind them, the Raptors will have a lot of potential to push for the Conference Championship.

FC Motown

FC Motown (formerly known as Clarkstown SC Eagles), based in Morristown, NJ, had a landmark season in the NPSL last season as it stormed the Keystone Conference, suffering just one loss at the hands of West Chester United en route to a regular season conference championship and a berth in the playoffs as the top seed. It dispatched FC Monmouth quite comfortably in the first round of the playoffs, led by former MLS attacker Dilly Duka. West Chester United proved a stern test again for Motown though and it took penalties to send the New Jersey club to the Northeast Region Semifinal. There, a double from Daryl Kavanagh helped Motown to a solid 3-0 win over FC Baltimore, before a Dilly Duka penalty proved enough to hold off the stiffest competition- and favorites to win the national title, NY Cosmos B -to 3-2. It was no surprise after such a performance; you would be forgiven for thinking Motown would walk over FCM Portland in the national semifinal. But the Oregon club was a tough but to crack for Motown, which needed extra time and a late David Nigro winner in added time at the end of the extra period to triumph 2-1. It was there that it ran out of magic, as a 35th minute equalizer from Duka in the national final against Miami FC 2 proved to be a mere consolation, with the South Florida former NASL club proving to have too much firepower.

Julius James returns, bringing a wealth of experience. Image courtesy of  FC Motown .

Julius James returns, bringing a wealth of experience. Image courtesy of FC Motown.

The expectations for the upcoming season for Motown are exceptionally high, although the departure of Dilly Duka to play professionally in Albania and David Nigro joining Atlantic City FC will put a slight dent in its title aspirations. Despite a plus 35 goal differential in the division, averaging 4 goals a game and allowing just 5 the whole season, the brief campaign meant it only finished 3 points ahead of Junior Lone Star in second. There is no margin for error in the current format and the expectation is that the rest of the conference has improved. There is absolutely no time for sentimentality over the run from last season and the Celtics will need to bounce right back with the same quality and intensity we saw take them to the national final last season.

Hershey FC

Hershey, PA is famous for chocolate (and more recently Christian Pulisic) but Hershey Soccer Club has been a fixture in youth soccer in the area for over thirty years. The commitment of the club to the development of young players in the area led to it establishing a senior team at the top level of its youth structure known as Hershey FC. The club is entering its sixth season in the NPSL and will be looking to improve on last season’s return.

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The club claimed just two victories and a draw in the Keystone Conference last season, but the gap between it and a playoff spot is perhaps not as wide as the record would suggest. It suffered a couple big defeats, no doubt, but it gave extremely tough games to FC Monmouth and Junior Lone Star and kept most other games respectable against the big sides in the conference.

It will no doubt take a big improvement to push for that fourth place finish, but it is not trailing as far as the bottom of the conference and with a short season could pull a big upset if it gets the right influx of young talent into the squad.

New Jersey Copa FC

New Jersey Copa FC of Metuchen, New Jersey has had an up and down couple of years. In 2017, it lost just once all season enroute to a regular season conference title and a conference playoff final appearance. The season was ended in that final with a 3-1 loss to FC Motown (then known as Clarkstown SC Eagles). Last season, it did not climb to the top of the pile and was scraping to make it back to the playoffs. Going into the last match of the season, it was level with FC Monmouth on sixteen points. The game would be played in Metuchen and the winner was headed to the playoffs. This was an extremely favorable situation for the reigning conference champion to advance from. However, as they say, some days you are the pigeon, some days you are the statue, and after a stunning opener from Monmouth, and not for lack of trying, NJ Copa ended up on the wrong end of a 3-1 result. There would be no playoffs and NJCFC would be left wanting.

Having playoff hopes ended on the final day of the season is a difficult blow for any club to take, luckily NJ Copa FC is not just any club. The Copa Academy has been around for fifteen years, providing playing opportunities to Metuchen’s men, women, and kids. NJ Copa FC was founded, like others in the conference, as the senior team as part of a larger club setup. This sets a solid base for the club to draw on and gives a goal to those traveling up through the club’s ranks.

This foundation could put NJCFC right back into contention for a conference title next season. Players like Captain Raphael Araujo provided the team with the spirit that it used to continue to compete to the final day. If things break differently on the final day next season, we could easily see NJCFC back in the postseason, competing for titles as it has since it joined the league in 2015.

Philadelphia Lone Star

There are seasons and eras for clubs that feel special; when the momentum that has been built by a club, both on the field and off it, feels like it is all peaking at the correct time to have the greatest impact. That is what the feeling at Philadelphia Lone Star FC is. Named for the “Lone Star” on the Liberian flag, the homeland of the club’s founders, the club finished second in the Keystone Conference last season, just three points behind national finalists FC Motown and with a fresh name to back its historic identity, the club is looking to build upon last season’s success. “Our goals are to win the NPSL Keystone Conference and go as far as possible in the NPSL Regionals and/or Nationals,” said Club President Paul Konneh III. They might just be able to do it, you know.

Lone Star’s rebrand and new kit design blew it out of the water. Image courtesy of  Philadelphia Lone Star.

Lone Star’s rebrand and new kit design blew it out of the water. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Lone Star.

Lone Star is returning a large portion of its roster, including Keystone Conference XI defender Kouassi N’Guessan, forward and Captain Anthony Allison, and NPSL National XI midfielder Yaya Fane. Keeping this core intact is key to competing since so much roster turmoil is common across the amateur levels of soccer.

The first mark on the wall for those players will be the matches against West Chester United this season, who dispatched the Stars in the Keystone Conference playoffs on penalties following a 2-2 draw in which Lone Star finished with just ten men. This is a problem Paul intends to correct, “We lost the conference playoff semifinal against our rivals West Chester United due to indiscipline. We have to improve on that this season and avoid unnecessary red cards in crucial games.”

Philadelphia Lone Star will truly be Philadelphia’s amateur club, as it plays at the South Philadelphia Athletic Super Site, practically in the shadow of Citizen’s Bank Park and in a great location for those in the city limits to reach. The club will be pushing for a lot of success this season (and looking great doing it) and I think Philadelphia may want to stand up and take notice of this community-focused club.

Torch FC

Torch FC- representing Bucks and Montgomery Counties of PA -has been providing players in that area with soccer opportunities for ten years and will be entering its ninth season in the NPSL’s Keystone Conference. The club has had varied success across its seasons in the league, but last season will be one to forget for this long-running club.

It was the team at the bottom of the division, securing zero points while shipping fifty goals and scoring just eight. It also handed Electric City Shock its lone win of the season. The conference may have reached a point where the community club is not able to secure the level of talent required to truly compete. It will take a momentous turnaround for the club to be competitive and it will likely find the division even more competitive this year than the last. This is a hard-working club though, and the challenge is not something it will shrink from, just as it has not for the last ten seasons.

The club will return to the same home ground it has used for years, utilizing Palisades High School in Nockamixon Township and Dock Mennonite Academy in Towamencin Township. It will provide the same good opportunities for young players that it always has, and here’s hoping it experiences more success in doing so.

West Chester United SC

West Chester United SC is nothing if not consistent. Having finished in third place with 20 points in 2017, it finished third with 21 points in 2018. I am no scientist but my deductive reasoning leads me to believe it will finish third with 22 points this season. Prediction over.

Image courtesy of  Brotherly Game (SB Nation site) .

Seriously though, West Chester is part of Penn Fusion’s academy system. The infrastructure at Penn Fusion academy is extremely impressive, but the club on the field last season was able to impress as well, with West Chester upsetting Junior Lone Star on penalties in the playoff to earn a spot in the conference final against FC Motown. The club was able to push Dilly Duka and his band of merry Celtics all the way, finally succumbing to the eventual NPSL national finalists narrowly on penalties. Chas Wilson, scorer of West Chester’s sole goal in that match, will be leading this group to bounce back from the potential disappointment of challenging a top team only to come up short.

The club does seem poised to push on from its finish last season as it will be able to draw on a significant talent pool in the academy. Not to mention the potential motivation for players who, with a bit more luck, could have been into the regional playoffs past one of the best teams in the NPSL.

Photos courtesy of club social media and Protagonist Soccer, unless otherwise mentioned. Custom art designed by Laura Mills. Previews written by Phil Baki with input from David Baker, Joshua Duder, and Dan Vaughn.