Searching for Success or Building A Home – Different Clubs, Different Styles, Same City

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Rochester, Minnesota, like many cities and towns that call lower league soccer home, is a small market for any sport, especially the likes of the beautiful game. Despite this, Med City, who play in the NPSL, have managed to create a strong and reliable relationship their hometown. The club has finished fourth out of eight in its two seasons as part of the NPSL North and has gained a reputation as one of the key clubs in the conference despite never making the playoffs. In many ways, being able to beat Med City has consistently been the key to post-season and title success for the conference. With this in mind, the club may soon find itself competing for its slice of the Rochester sports market.

In early October, the UPSL announced that a new club would be joining its Midwest-North ranks known as Rochester FC. As the name suggests, they would be located in the same city as Med City and announced that they would play in Rochester Regional Stadium, the same home as Med City. While speaking to Med City the topic of stadium sharing came up but no comment was made. Needless to say this will be an interesting aspect of the two clubs’ relationship.

Rochester FC Tryouts

Rochester FC Tryouts

The interesting relationship between the two clubs doesn’t end at stadiums however, as Rochester FC made it clear in their early media appearances that the club aimed to do something they felt Med City didn’t do, a fact perhaps most notably shown by the fact that RFC was co-founded by a former Med City player, Midhat Mujic. That aim is to provide opportunities for local players. In an interview with Pat Ruff of the Post Bulletin, a Rochester-based newspaper, Mujic stated that “There is a team in town (Med City FC), but for us it is not a Rochester team… Our goal is to bring exposure to our (Rochester-area) kids.” This comment touches on the fact that Med City, as is becoming more common amongst some NPSL clubs, has been focusing more and more on scouting colleges and other sources of talent nationwide. Med City owner Frank Spaeth noted in the same article that the practice of finding out of state talent was simply done to improve the club’s ability to compete and provide a strong level of play for its audience.

While this discussion of local talent may at first seem like one club not appreciating Minnesotan collegiate soccer or Rochester in some way, a brief look into the local post-secondary environment quickly reveals a problem for clubs seeking to rely solely or even largely on local talent. Of the various major post-secondary schools in Rochester, only Rochester Community and Technical College has an athletic program, one which does not have a men’s soccer program. The University of Minnesota Rochester’s athletics stops at the intramural level, while the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science has no athletics to speak of. In total, and perhaps because of the area’s medicine-specific academic environment, Rochester has virtually no collegiate soccer footprint. Other nearby cities provide almost as little for Rochester, with the Minnesota State University Mankato having no men’s soccer program either and the Twin Cities, who hold quite a few well-viewed men’s soccer programs, being home to three NPSL clubs, two UPSL clubs, and many MASL clubs who use college players. Needless to say, any Rochester club seeking to farm talent out of local institution would actually find more sources amongst the older age range of high school students than they would in colleges.

With an important distinction between the two clubs becoming clear, Protagonist Soccer chose to speak with both clubs in search of further understanding of how both see the issue and how both found themselves on either side of a debate that says a lot about sport in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Rochester Football Club has made it clear from the start that youth opportunities are a key pathway for their “local first” goals. Speaking with the club, it became clear that youth development may indeed provide the club with the solution to issues mentioned earlier in this article. “The goal of our club is to develop local talent in the area and bring them up into first team players while providing exposure to college teams and other professional teams. For our club, the youth play a very important part and they are the key to having a strong team for the future.” The UPSL provides a youth academy league for clubs to participate in but Rochester FC will not be taking part in this league for its first season. “This year we will not be playing in the UPSL youth academy, this will be a tournament team with friendly games against other strong youth academies and clubs. Our goal is to give the youth an experience that other clubs don't provide.” The club is not ruling out eventual involvement in the USPL Youth program, but made it clear they would not be involved in any way this coming year.

Rochester FC, while passionate about their new project, did show that they understand Med City’s interests in pushing for a more competitive edge. “If we didn't think there was enough talent in the area then we wouldn't have formed this team. We understand Med City's approach and we understand they want to be competitive.” With that in mind, however, the club did state that they feel that Med City’s solution to finding that competitive edge is not in their plans and not something they feel would make sense to begin with. “We are looking at this in a way that would benefit our local area youth athletes. We don't see a point in bringing players who are at the average skill level and are from other countries when we may have the same skilled level players in town who would benefit more.”

In the course of the creation of this article, Rochester FC announced the signings of four players shortly after their first open tryouts. All four players, Mooday Wah, Kevin Ortiz, Kadar Mohamed, and Ajak Bul, are from Rochester or the nearby city of Austin, Minnesota.

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No discussion of two clubs would be complete however without the voices of both clubs. With that in mind we spoke with Med City owner, Frank Spaeth. Spaeth started off by laying out the basic connections the club has to local talent and local needs. “The past two seasons, area players have made up around 40% of our roster, with players from 11 different countries on the team each season. We feel like it has been a good mix… Over the past two seasons, the team has done more than 240 hours of community service throughout Rochester each summer.”

Spaeth also acknowledged that Rochester provides obstacles when it comes to sourcing talent. “I do think there are aspects of the Rochester area that make it harder for us to rely only on area players. We don’t have any colleges or universities with men’s soccer programs in town that we can pull from, so we can’t do like Duluth FC has done in grabbing players with local college connections, even if they are from across the country and around the world. There have been very few male players who have played as youth in the area who have gone on to play at a super high level collegiately or at a professional level.”

Despite the obstacles, Spaeth was quick to note that the pool has managed to help get Med City far in a conference that has quickly become one of the NPSL’s toughest all the while ranking below the resources available to its other clubs. “Our pool of talent doesn’t compare to the teams in the Twin Cities or even other larger markets like Fargo and Sioux Falls. It is important for us to explore all player options. The conference has also quickly gained a reputation as one of the strongest in the league. In 2018, Minneapolis City completed an undefeated regular season only to be upset by Duluth FC in the playoffs. Duluth FC went on to win the Midwest Region championship... If not for an incredible goalkeeping performance against us by the Duluth FC keeper in the last game of the season, we would have beat Duluth FC and they wouldn’t even have made the playoffs.”

Spaeth ended our discussion with a clear statement of purpose, one that combines local and far away talent. “Our goal remains the same as it was in the beginning. To be Rochester’s best, highest-level soccer team and to have a team capable of pushing for conference titles and playoff appearances every season. We feel like if we get all the players, both local and international, who have expressed interest in coming back for 2019, to return and fill the open spots with new players who improve the roster, we will undoubtedly do that.”

In the end both teams have big years ahead of them, years that could help prove their approaches to the game as effective or otherwise. The score lines won’t be the only numbers that matter as both will compete in a tight market of soccer fans. Perhaps those off the pitch numbers will best show which approach can prevail. The rest will be left for time to tell.

As a final note, Rochester FC mentioned toward the end of our discussion that a branch had been offered to their neighbors to build a positive relationship. “We offered Med City a scrimmage if they were interested so we can show them that there is talent in Rochester, but we haven't heard back from them.” That offer has still gone unanswered as of the writing of this article, though any change to that will be added to this article.

- Dominic Bisogno