One More Page to Turn in Year One
In September of last year, we sat down with Braden Mast, Director of Operations for the newly formed Northern Ohio Soccer League. The prospects of the new regional league forming in Ohio were excited for everyone in involved. At the time, when we asked Braden about his reasoning for starting a new league, his answer was simple and without nuance - “There’s no big soccer leagues around us and soccer isn’t big in our area, so I thought it would be cool if we started a league and get some teams in the surrounding area involved.” And with three teams on board, the league turned to Twitter to try and find their next three clubs to reach the target of six for year one.
At first it was rough sledding, a team dropped out of their original three and from afar, it was hard to not be concerned for the fledgling league’s future. But instead of giving up, the NOSL began gathering clubs over the following months and, by the time of the season’s kick-off, had six clubs in the fold and were able to put together a first season schedule. When you ask Braden about this, he emphasizes flexibility. “I’ve learned that being flexible is a must when starting up and running a league. Everything is not always going to go the way you expect it to so you just have to adjust and make things work however you can. I’ve also learned that it’s worth it to grind and do the hard things to make it easier for the teams so their overall experience is better.”
But the start of the season didn’t mean that everything would be smooth sailing. “We have had several challenges pop up this season, some were expected and some were not. We expected rescheduling due to rainouts and cancellations. We had a few obscure cases where our rules didn’t cover a certain incident or scenario and we hadn’t talked about it, so we had to react quickly and come up with the best solution possible.” Flexibility is a theme that pops up in Braden’s conversation about year one, over and over again. Doing things for the first time put the league leadership up against a steep learning curve. And when the season started, it was only after one week that another challenge was presented - “Carnation City FC dropped out of the league after just one week.I think we handled the situation professionally and came up with the best solution to keep the league running smoothly.” So with five teams remaining, the league continued on with their season.
And for a tiny regional league in their first season of operations, the season was a resounding success. Mast points out the strength of the league is their parity, “it’s not a lopsided table where one team dominated every other team and there was a clear difference. The table was evenly spread out and it was nice to see all the teams beat each other up.” When the season ended, with 6 matches in the books for each team, the league kicked off their first round of playoffs.
Inter Ohio FC came into the playoffs as the #1 seed and a 6-1-0 record. They faced #4 seed Amish Country United (2-2-4), probably the most well-known club in this league currently. The matchup was seen as a likely win for the #1, as they had defeated ACU twice in the regular season, handily. However, Amish Country United pulled the upset earlier this week with a 2-0 win over the #1, booking a trip to the first final in NOSL history. The ACU roster features a serious pair of attacking midfielders: Brandon Mount (7 goals, 3 assists) and Sam Paul (7 goals, 7 assists) and should present a big challenge for their opponent in the final.
The other side of the final would come from the matchup of #2 seed FC Accipiter (4-2-2) and #3 seed Stark County United (3-1-3). That match was a blowout, with FCA scoring 6 in a shutout semifinal victory. FCA are led by forward Micah Boggs (5 goals, 3 assists) and star high school goalkeeper Logan Smith (clean sheet, 40 saves).
Because the size of the league is so small, the two clubs in the final have met twice already in the regular season. In their first matchup of the season, Accipiter defeated ACU 3-0. In the return fixture, ACU led 2-0 before breaking down defensively and allowing an Accipiter comeback, resulting in a 4-4 draw. It will be interesting to see which of these clubs steps up and takes home the first ever NOSL Championship. The final is Saturday, July 13 at Wooster High School. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 PM. With some smaller leagues, drawing fans is a struggle, but the ACU-Inter semifinal had an attendance near the 200 mark. That sort of fan support in a first year is something to build on. For fans not in Ohio, Amish Country United plan to stream the game through their MyCujoo channel.
For Mast, the Championship this weekend is the cap of an amazing first season full of lessons learned and challenges overcome. If his theme for season one was flexibility, his goal for season two is organization. “Looking forward to next season, we want to be much more organized and ready to go. Having a league meeting will be crucial to have everyone on the same page, we are going to have all player registrations and team fees paid before the season to avoid conflict and hassle, and we will be looking into the possibility of promotion/relegation depending on how many teams we pick up.” And as the first season was successful, the league is already in talks with seven prospective expansion sides, with two already “locked in.” The league isn’t yet ready to announce these sides, but according to Mast, “I will say that the league will cover a much larger area next summer and will include some very high quality talent and could feature several well-known teams.”
The long-term goal of the NOSL is promotion relegation with two divisions. But that’s just part of the overall plan. “The league has received a lot of interest in starting a women’s version of the NOSL and that is something we are seriously considering. We hope to devise a plan to have a four team women’s competition in place for the summer of 2020. Another thing we are looking at for the future is creating a youth NOSL for under 18’s and under 14’s so we can help develop middle school and high school players in an organized and competitive environment. It is our hope that teams in our men’s league will consider starting a women’s side and a youth academy to build soccer in the area and make the NOSL the strongest it can be.”
Every league requires a vision and someone to push that vision to completion. The work Braden Mast has done has laid a foundation for amateur Ohio soccer to grow from in the future and he’s not done. “I’m going to go all in on this. I’m passionate about soccer in northern Ohio and I want to do anything I can to grow it. I want to make the NOSL into the biggest thing it can be and provide a league for development for players, entertainment for the community, and something everyone can get behind.”
- Dan Vaughn