Soccer in the Last Frontier – UPSL’s Alaskan Conference
In a stirring piece from Alaska City FC’s homepage, founder and General Manager of the Anchorage Alaska based soccer club recalls the story of a talented Alaskan player, who has to make the difficult choice of staying home to be just another local player or leaving to pursue soccer at levels not available in the US’s largest state. An all to familiar story, really, because it could be his own or that of countless amounts of players who want the familiarity of working and studying close to home, but know there just might be a chance of breaking through, if only they can get the opportunity. To be fair, leaving home is a challenge which players from all over the country face when going to off to college to play or taking a chance on playing for that UPSL side far away—but let’s be honest, Alaska is really really far away and until recently, there were no easy choices to make.
Early Spring 2019, however, it was announced by UPSL that the situation in Alaska was about to change for high-level players—the league announced the Final Frontier Conference. It was to consist of four clubs, all based, in and around the largest city in the state, Anchorage. Currently the 68th most populated city in the United States, with 291, 538 residents, spread out over 1,706 square miles; twice the square miles of Houston, Texas. Alaska City FC, Arctic Rush, Cook Inlet SC, and Olimpa FC were shown, first as provisional clubs on the UPSL’s standings page, then as an official conference followed, a month later, by their conference schedule. While the rest of the league, for the most part, kicked off in early Spring, the Last Frontier had to wait until June for their season to begin—it’s Alaska after all, the weather window for outdoor soccer is a small one.
A month before the season was set to start, Olimpia FC was still in the standings table, but organization non-grata in the Last Frontier schedule. According to the league release, Olimpia FC had participated in the Anchorage-based Soccer Alaska League since 2015—placing third in the competition as recently as Winter 2018. The club was founded in 2015 by owner, coach, and Anchorage’s East High School graduate Jose Osequeda. No reason for the club having disappeared from the schedule was given, but a league official has confirmed Olimpia FC will participate in conference play starting 2020. For the other three Alaskan sides, after a short pre-season, the regular Final Frontier fixtures list is underway. According to the schedule, the three organizations take turns hosting at any of the four local soccer fields: Anchorage Gardens, Kincaid Soccer Stadium, Machetanz Stadium, or at Service High School—none of which are more than an hour away from one another.
Because there are only three active clubs, the league schedule is easy to track, with only one Conference match a week. The inaugural Last Frontier match was between Alaska City FC and Arctic Rush, and ended a nil-nil draw. The preseason matchup, however, finished as a goal fest, with Arctic Rush putting six past City and City giving their best to score three goals of their own. Alaska City FC, whose name is an historical reference to the effort of former territorial governor, John Franklin, to rename Anchorage in 1915—ultimately, the name didn’t change, but the club likes to say “Alaskans now have the name they voted for 100 years ago, and the club they’ve wanted for years.” According to Alaska City FC General Manager, Brett Banks, the club’s vision is to be “A true community team that flourishes in Matanuska Valley, partnered with the local community to elevate the level of competitive play in Alaska, provide opportunities for youth development, and provide a positive force for community engagement.” The club’s number one goal listed is to be a participant in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup by 2020—perhaps look for them this fall in the qualifying rounds!
Brett says it was his son (Josh Banks) who approached him, initially, to look into bring UPSL soccer to Alaska, and set up the state’s first semi-professional soccer team. He pushed back, explaining all the reasons it wouldn’t work, but his son’s persistence and entrepreneurial sprit won the day and paved the way for more local clubs to make the decision to join the league’s expansion conference. Clubs like Artic Rush, who’s badge seems nice, shiny and new, but according to Mike Naylor, the General Manager of Arctic Rush, it comes from some hybridization over the last decade, plus. “Back in 2005, the Alaska Gold-Strikers Soccer Club combined with Rush Soccer… Arctic Rush came from the affiliation of Alaska Rush SC and Arctic North FC, an amateur men’s league team that was run by myself.” Much like Alaska City FC, Artic Rush was born from a player’s love of the sport and the desire to provide a place to play for like-minded athletes.
Mike Naylor goes on to attribute the inclusion of Arctic Rush into the Last Frontier to the Banks family, “I was approached by Josh Banks of AK City FC about the UPSL wanting to start a conference in Alaska, and he thought my team would be a good fit. With the help of Alaska Rush… we were able to enter Arctic Rush into the UPSL for this first season.” Naylor, a former player for Alaska Rush himself, was also a three-year varsity soccer player at South Anchorage High School—he echoes the sentiment that this is a needed step for developing players in Alaska. In a league interview he said, “For a long time US soccer players had to choose between soccer and staying home, and more often than not, home ends up winning… you’re just so far from family and there’s something about being here, and I know there’s a lot of players still here that just going to school and not playing… this will bring those guys back out of the woods, especially now that there’s something to play for.”
On February 4th, 2019, the league announced Cook Inlet SC would be joining the UPSL’s Last Frontier Conference as well. Founded in 1982, CISC’s academy teams have competed in, and won, over a hundred soccer tournaments from around the United States. They have produced over 60 Alaska State Championship teams and boast full-service professional staff and technical instructors. They are one of the most historic clubs in Alaska and according to Club Executive Director, Brand Horton, “We’re definitely the club that has set the pace for what a soccer club can be in Alaska, and we recognize that there’s a gap for the players in college who want to come back.” So, in addition to the already existing one-on-one training that college players can receive there, Cook Inlet SC has just started up its “Premier” squad to offer competitive soccer at a high-level for these athletes to keep their fitness and maintain technical and tactical sharpness in their collegiate offseason.
“Currently we are not looking to travel but eventually, and hopefully, with some sponsorship, we will in the near future,” said Tim Valesko, Director of Coaching, when asked about Cook Inlet SC Premier’s potential participation in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. We may not see their talented side in the lower 48 in the Cup, but we can keep a lookout for them in the college ranks. Lorenzo Froehle, an alum of their academy, plays his soccer at Manhattan College and for USL L2 side AC Connecticut, while Kelly Cobb, who played at Duke University, also played for the Women’s U20s who won the World Cup. While there is a whole list of players from CISC who decided to leave their home to find success in soccer, the club’s sentiments echo those of their Anchorage neighbors when it comes to providing opportunity to stay local. “Most of our players have stayed in the lower 48 state and played Pro Development near the colleges, but now we’re giving them the opportunity to com home, be around their friends and family, get some high-quality training… and play in a competitive environment.”
- Joshua Duder
The UPSL’s Last Frontier Conference season has just begun, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or just check out their websites for more information (below). Keep an eye on https://www.protagonistsoccer.com/ for upcoming player profiles, club spotlights, and match results.