Denton Diablos #1: Filling the Roster
It started as a conversation between myself and Brian Burden. We had both been talking with expansion clubs for the 2019 NPSL season and were comparing notes. Brian came up with the idea and pitched it. What if we followed these two clubs over the course of this season. Got close with the people involved, discussed the process of building a club from scratch, week by week. He came up with the idea and I named it, “Expanding the Map.” Over the next year, we’ll be working with two expansion clubs in the NPSL, each of us producing an installment article every two weeks on what the club is working on, dealing with, planning. The clubs are coming from different levels of development and vastly different parts of the country. Today is my first installment of Expanding the Map: Denton Diablos.
Putting together a team from scratch seems incredibly complicated from the outside looking in. Discussing that process with Damon Gochneaur, co-owner of the Denton Diablos, doesn’t make it seem any less complicated. What is clear, however, is that there is a plan for the club and they are ticking boxes off as they move towards the opening match for this expansion side.
The first and biggest focus of the club currently is staffing the team with players. To get there, the team has been holding open tryouts in Denton, looking for the right mix of players to field a competitive side in a conference full of strong teams. Two open tryouts have already been held with one more to come on the 17th of February. The tryouts that have been held have sold out and the upcoming one is on track to sell out even faster than the previous two. Two weeks out and the slots are already halfway filled.
I’ve always been curious about paid tryouts, if they are money makers for clubs, so I probed a little on how much was being charged. Denton charges $50 for entry. But Damon was quick to offer that there’s more value being offered than shot at a roster spot. “Every player gets two tickets to a home game of their choice for the Diablos’ regular season. We give them a t-shirt as well. The fee goes to the staff and actual physical logistics it takes. What I tell every kid that tries out, ‘If you come back to the club, this is the last money we’ll ever ask of you.’ Talking to other clubs at the annual owners meeting in December, if you go too low [with the fee] you get kids that aren’t qualified.” The tryouts do require a large number of staff present. At each tryout there’s 6-8 staff members, a head coach, a general manager, and one of the owners.
The tryouts has been held at a facility with two fields, each turf, and the players divided up to scrimmage against each other. The staff is evenly divided between the scrimmages to observe and collect data about the players involved. So far the team has worked out 88 players, 44 a tryout, 11 players per team to scrimmage each other. What type of players are showing up for the tryouts? “The first open tryout we had, the best player on the pitch, in my opinion, was the oldest player there, 33 years old. He was so composed on the ball, so well positioned, played with so much knowledge, you could tell. We’ve gotten everything from the youngest kid was 17… but mostly it’s kids just out of school, 19-20, 30%-40% of the group. The other group is just out of college, 22-26 [age] range, that’s another 40%-50% of the group. That’s the bulk of it.”
Denton is taking the approach to roster building in an interesting fashion. The goal is to carry a player pool, somewhere over thirty players, to offer the club flexibility for its game day roster. The players will “train, get equipment, be officially registered with the club, the whole nine yards.” The players will be competing for the starting eleven throughout the season. The club has 23 players signed and rostered, so the pool still has room to grow through the upcoming open tryout. Those already on the squad include players with “national team experience, MLS experience, international club experience. Guys are current NCAA All-Americans and local standouts.” That description certainly sounds as if Denton will be competitive from day one.
The depth of available local talent was part of the plan in putting a club in Denton. “When I made this bet, that Denton would be a great community to try and make this team home, part of it was the knowledge, that when I graduated from high school twenty years ago, I could go field a team of 15-20 guys, just out of my group, that would have been really strong. In the twenty years since then, the metroplex has exploded and with three academies, thirty classic league teams, and all of the different opportunities for kids to play now, there’s just so much talent getting turned out in the metroplex every year.” Does geography and demographics give the Diablos an advantage over other clubs? Damon certainly thinks so. “I’m not a guy who gambles much. Talent, both from a coaching standpoint and a player standpoint, I felt it was just overflowing [in Denton]. It’s crazy.”
With much of the club’s focus being on finalizing the rosters and locating player talent, the challenges of starting a club from scratch means even more for Gochneaur to deal with. “Right now, I feel like it’s the hardest it will ever be, because there’s never been more things trying to get created out of nothing with so many moving parts.” Aside from rosters, the club is working to nail down sponsors, developing and solidifying those relationships - with the goal of finalizing kit sponsorships. Kits have to be ordered for players. And there’s the issue of where games will be played. Denton is home to the University of North Texas (UNT). The Diablos have entered into an agreement with the University to play their home matches at UNT Soccer Stadium, just over 1,000 seats, but it can hold up to 3,000 - if you include standing room. But there’s still details to nail down - specifically beer sales and parking - and finding out what will be allowed in the facility as it pertains to game day atmosphere - drums, smoke, horns. “We’re 90 plus days away. We’ve got a lot that needs to come together, but I think we’re in a really good position.”
While there’s a tremendous amount of hope that Denton will be a great success, I asked Damon if he was prepared to lose money. “You have to be. You have to get into your why - why would you do this? Yes, am I prepared to. Do I plan on it, no. The first place I always go in conversations [about the club] is ‘I want to know the worst case scenario,’ because then I can plan, mitigate potential losses. So yes, I’m prepared. I’m not doing this as a part of my portfolio from an investment perspective, but we plan on creating a sustainable, and profitable club starting in year one.”
When I asked Damon about the schedule for the season, he mentioned that he didn’t want to reveal any information that wasn’t public. However, while the schedule isn’t public yet, he was willing to tell me that the beginning of May will see the first matches played in the 2019 edition of the Lone Star Conference. As Gochneaur described it, moving back from that match, the club plans on playing several friendlies in the second half of April. Which clubs will face off against Denton remains to be seen, but Gochneaur did offer that Denton’s opening regular season match would be against a conference opponent, but not against local rival, Fort Worth Vaqueros.
Looking forward to the next two weeks, the milestones are big. Later this week, the schedule should be announced for the 2019 Lone Star Conference. And with that announcement, all the things that come with a schedule can begin happening - selling tickets, planning fan engagement, building a buzz. And part of that buzz is the second milestone Damon is looking towards, announcing the first player signings for the club. As he put it - “Who and when are we playing and who will be on our team!”
- Dan Vaughn