On a Rainy Night in Ann Arbor
What happened last night in Ann Arbor is confusing, but I’ll parse out what I can. The information primarily comes from an Ann Arbor press statement and an interview with Rochester Lancers owner, Sam Fantauzzo, which was conducted by Jarret Maki and posted onto his youtube channel. Jarret isn’t connected with any news organization but claims (on the call with Fantauzzo) to be a writer for the Kalamazoo Daily Beat. That publication does not exist, and according to Jarret, “I just kinda came up with that, I had never intended to make this into any massive thing or anything I truthfully only called him so I could get SOME idea of what was going on.” When I asked him how he got the contact information of an NPSL owner, he pointed out it was posted on the press release released by the team that evening. So while Jarret isn’t an official reporter, he is definitely interested in the NPSL playoffs and the match results. It should be also noted that Jarret is the originator of the “Hell Yeah Brother, NPSL Pro” meme that most fans love and share in Founders Cup circles.
According to Fantauzzo, the NPSL had a special agreement with Ann Arbor to allow them “to play regular season games at a field with no lights.” Fantauzzo was concerned about driving 8 hours to a match that was starting at 7p, so the league promised to shift the start time to 6:30p and had an alternate indoor facility to play in, if the lighting became an issue. “So we get there it’s raining, so our coach and GM went to their coach and said ‘let’s go play at that indoor place like we were told’ and they said ‘let’s leave it up to the referees, blah, blah, blah.’” So the match was delayed several times because of weather and at half it was already obvious that darkness would be an issue. Because it’s a playoff match, a winner has to be decided.
Again, according to Fantauzzo, the NPSL has rules for this sort of result, either the score at the time counts as the final or the match goes to PKs. Because the score was tied, going by the score wasn’t possible. So at halftime Rochester wanted to go to penalties and according to Fantauzzo, Ann Arbor refused because, “you’ll beat us in penalty kicks.” So they played another 15-20 minutes before the match was called at the 69th minute. Again, Rochester insisted the match should be determined by penalty kicks, but this time at the indoor facility. And Ann Arbor again refused. Rochester asked for a coin flip, Ann Arbor refused. So Rochester got their bus and headed home. I contacted the Rochester organization and they confirmed that it was Sam Fantauzzo on the recording, but “he did not know he was being recorded.”
The press release from Ann Arbor paints a different story. It directly contradicts the claim that the NPSL requires lights - “the NPSL doesn’t require lights as minimum standard, AFC Ann Arbor went out of their way to create a contingency plan to play the match at Total Sports Wixom if any weather issues came about.” I spoke with another league official who, off the record, confirmed that lighting is not a minimum standard for playoff matches. The press release also directly contradicts Fantauzzo’s claim that Ann Arbor refused to transition to the alternate facility. “AFC Ann Arbor Chairman, Bilal Saeed, spoke directly with Rochester Lancers GM Marc Mandell, who confirmed that Lancers head coach refused to go to another facility after the match was already underway...Rochester claiming that they didn’t refuse to play at the indoor facility is a bold lie.” Saeed continued “I apologize to our fans and especially the players, that the match will be decided by a coin flip.”
Whether the match is actually decided by a coin flip remains to be seen. Both organizations have been contacted and both are pretty tight-lipped. I did speak with someone in the Rochester office who was reluctant to go on record, but did mention Sam Fantauzzo was on the phone working with Ann Arbor and the NPSL to come to an amicable outcome. In fact, the point that the two clubs were working together to come up with a solution was repeatedly emphasized by the employee. I reached out to my contact with Ann Arbor and was told they would reach out to me later today, with the implication that they were working on the situation and would have an update. Once they reach out to me, I’ll add that portion to this article. The league also told me they would have something this afternoon.
The first couple of months that Protagonist Soccer existed, we had a big story on our hands. During the UPSL playoffs that season, there were a host of issues that arose, including clubs protesting league decisions, complaints about league officials and their rulings, highly opinionated tweets about officiating during playoff matches, etc. It was a mess. In the rush to cash in on the type of interest the story was generating, we passed the story to one of our writers and asked him to look into some of the claims against the league. He did his job and turned in an article that was well-researched, sourced, and full of FACTS. And I, the editor, and another of the founders of the site looked over the article and decided to kill it.
When we founded Protagonist Soccer, our goal was to bring light to the lower tier game. We wanted to emphasize growth, positivity and a nurturing approach to the sports we love. Placing a critical eye on the leagues that govern so many of the lower league clubs is a necessary evil sometimes. The leagues have to be held to higher standards if they are ever to achieve greatness. When our reporter wrote that article about the UPSL, his intentions were clear, he wanted accountability from a league that was doing unprofessional things. Whether I killed that article for the right reasons or not (I believe I did), I never questioned the intentions of the author of the article or my own.
We live in a soccer landscape that is easily mocked and criticized by trolls. Trolls want to see perfection but are unwilling to do the work required to get there. Trolls will point fingers and laugh while ignoring the difficult paths many have travelled to get there. Trolls will point to Ann Arbor playing without lights and mock instead of accepting that the league allowed it. Trolls will point to Rochester not being able to stay an extra night and jeer, ignoring the financial difficulty the team would have to face. Trolls will mock the NPSL as bush league because this sort of thing happened, but won’t attempt to grasp the difficulties of marshaling 91 competing clubs into a functional league.
So what happened on a rainy night in Ann Arbor? Some bad weather, some missteps by the league and the clubs, a tough timeline to deal with, and an outcome that no one is happy with.
It seems clear that the NPSL should require lighting at future facilities, because the sun eventually sets, no matter where you are in the country. And deciding a match with a coin toss is not a good thing, for any league, anywhere, ever. So let’s change these rules for the betterment of the entire league moving forward.
But instead of trolling this situation, let’s try to work towards the common good. Everyone in the NPSL is losing money. Everyone. Everyone writing about the NPSL is losing money. Everyone. Every supporters group is losing money. Everyone. So let’s lay aside our differences and work together to better the situation instead of making it worse. I founded Protagonist Soccer to bring coverage to the game, every day I strive to do that. Every day my writers strive to do that. If we only blow up the opposition, if we only talk about clubs when they make mistakes, if we only criticize leagues choosing against our side, we will down at this level and never build that American soccer pyramid we all deserve.
Editor note: In a statement via Ann Arbor social media, it was announced that “Ann Arbor will meet Rochester in Erie, PA tomorrow night at 8:30PM at Gannon University to resume the match from the 69th minute. If extra time is needed, (2) ten minute halves will be played before going to penalties.” The NPSL front office also made an announcement with basically the same information.
- Dan Vaughn