Great Lakes Conference

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AFC Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor are without a doubt a powerhouse club in the Midwest, one that nearly achieved an undefeated regular season withstanding their 2-0 loss to Grand Rapids in the 10th round of play. Their 9-2-1 record and goal count of 31 show they’re not to be messed with, but it’s probably the four goals allowed in 14 games that leaves most adversaries unsure of what they can do against the back-to-back conference champions. Ann Arbor do have one issue, one doubled in 2018. That problem is losing two regional finals in a row, one against conference rivals Detroit City and the other against Duluth FC. The 2018 final loss to Duluth, which occurred in a PK shootout that saw Duluth’s Alberto Ciroi save two penalties, provided a negative ending to an otherwise outstanding season for Ann Arbor.

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AFC Ann Arbor now find themselves in a position somewhat rare in the NPSL, where it is becoming normal to win the conference. That means that the club has no shortage of silverware, but also that it has unsatisfied aims to achieve more, aims fueled even further by the club’s back to back regional final losses.

Ann Arbor received some post-season attention after defender Joseph Okumu, who played for the club, found himself signed by Real Monarchs of the USL Championship where he has since made three appearances. Okumu has also made international appearances with the Kenyan National Team and featured for Free State Stars in the South African first division before arriving in Michigan.

Ann Arbor should be favorites for a playoff spot this season, but unless they shockingly miss that mark, the real question will be if they can finally reach the next level and win the region, earning them an appearance in the national semi-finals. The loss of a key defender from a defense whose impenetrable nature helped get the club as far as they went will also leave questions in the air until we see the new squad get back to work on the pitch.

Grand Rapids FC

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2018 saw Grand Rapids FC improve upon their third-place finish in 2017 and earn the second playoff spot from the Great Lakes Conference after reaching the regional final in 2016, which they lost to the now-defunct AFC Cleveland, who won the league that year.

Their playoff run ended early with a loss to Duluth FC in the first round but their comeback in said match from 2-0 to 2-2 (the match was decided by penalty shootout) did show why the club deserved its playoff spot and teased future success. Grand Rapids did, however, barely reach the playoffs. Having played their final match in the second-to-last week of the conference, Grand Rapids had to watch and see if FC Columbus could beat the Milwaukee Torrent and take their playoff spot. Columbus lost the match 1-0 and allowed Grand Rapids a short burst of postseason glory.

The club’s fifteen goal differential is the lowest of the second-place clubs in the Midwest, as is their count of 29 goals scored. The club was, of course, able to prosper despite this and would go on to win seven of its twelve games.

Grand Rapids will be one of the clubs to watch in 2019 but a huge factor in their next season will be how the clubs around them adjust to 2019. Will Ann Arbor continue to be a dominant club? How will the Founders Cup clubs, Detroit City and the Milwaukee Torrent, compete in the regular season? A strong NPSL season from either could quickly find Grand Rapids back in the middle of the table, far from where their supporters group, the Grand Army, would like them to be.

Another positive season, perhaps with more playoff action, could be what Grand Rapids needs to reintroduce itself in the conversation of great Midwest NPSL clubs, a conversation currently crowded by its rivals in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

FC Columbus

FC Columbus were one win away from earning a spot in the NPSL playoffs when they walked out on to the pitch in Milwaukee the last week of the 2018 regular season. The loss which followed would prevent them from their first ever playoff appearance, having only been officially founded in February of the same year. The young club ended the season with fewer goals conceded and better goal difference than Grand Rapids but was not able to convert this into a playoff appearance against Duluth FC.

With their very-recent founding in mind, FC Columbus have shown they have the potential to compete in an-already tough conference full of some of the NPSL’s most renowned clubs. The club’s biggest hiccup, excluding their loss to the Torrent, came in the form of a highly publicized confrontation with a small group of supporters over what the club considered appropriate for their stadium. We are not mentioning this incident in an effort to take a side but rather to show that the club was able to quite quickly get past it and ignore the social media rumblings that followed. The club’s ability to make things work on and off the pitch so quickly is a rare pairing at this level of the beautiful game.

As is very much the case for Grand Rapids, Columbus’ season will be greatly affected by forces around them. One of these forces is whether other big conference clubs like Detroit City will step up in 2019 and challenge for playoff spots again. Another question mark comes in the form of the ever-changing attitudes and stability of their near neighbor, the Columbus Crew. The state of the MLS club will of course affect how FCCLB does in regard to filling the stands. With that in mind, keep an eye on FC Columbus in 2019, we may very well see them in the playoffs this year.

Detroit City FC

Detroit City’s 2018 season was a hugely memorable one for both the club and the NPSL as a whole, but one whose best moments arguably took place outside of league play and often despite the negative results in said league play. Detroit played three hugely discussed international friendlies in 2018 against St. Pauli (2. Bundesliga), Necaxa (Liga MX), and Frosinone Calcio (promoted from Serie B to Serie A prior to friendly). Despite losing all three matches, the friendlies brought the club new waves of attention and helped earn further respect from soccer communities state-side and abroad. If the story ended there it’d be easy to say it was one of the best NPSL seasons a club could ever have, but it didn’t quite end.

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Detroit finished second in 2017 and reached the national semi-finals, a strong season by any measure. 2018, however, brought a tougher time for the club. Detroit finished fourth in their conference with a 5-3-4 record and 18 points, eleven points away from Ann Arbor in first place. The season was a far from the picture painted by the clubs big named friendlies and overall reputation for huge crowds, which they continued to have despite the losses and draws, great atmosphere, and great play.

Detroit City will face two major needs for upgrading from 2018. One will be the fact that their previous season didn’t live up to expectations, a straight forward desire for redemption you’ll find in any major NPSL after a less-than-satisfactory year. The other reason is a little something we like to call the NPSL Founders Cup, a gateway to an eventual NPSL professional soccer league. Detroit City are set to participate in both, meaning the club with an already professional feeling network will now need to insure there are constant professional performances on the pitch. I see Detroit doing well in both competitions as their poor league performance is likely due to the density of games they had to play once the friendlies were added, not as a reflection of them being bad at playing soccer.

The incoming pressure of truly professional soccer and the continued support of the Northern Guard could be exactly what the club needs to push themselves to new heights.

Kalamazoo FC

Kalamazoo FC’s season started quite well, stringing together a win and two draws, one against Ann Arbor. However, the midseason brought stronger challenges and the club eventually found itself in its final position, fifth place. The club has finished in fifth or lower for all of its three NPSL seasons. That didn’t stop the club from ending 2018 with a string of good results, including an away draw and home victory over Detroit City, who finished three points ahead of Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo don’t receive the same attention as many of their conference-mates, but that doesn’t mean they lack something to play for. The club has a social media following as strong as many major NPSL club can ask for and a sizable supporters group known as “The Fleet FC Kzoo” or just “The Fleet”.

The club itself is a major proponent of the fact that it does its own thing and holds its pride close regardless of the media focus on others in the conference. Their badge itself reads “My town. My team.” This also touches on the smaller footprint of Kalamazoo in comparison to the likes of Ann Arbor, Detroit, or even Lansing, who had a NPSL then PDL team until recently. That comparison may affect the opportunities available to each club but certainly hasn’t stopped the club from making its mark in the NPSL.

While a title race may seem slightly out of reach given past performances, it wouldn’t outrageous to see Kalamazoo take advantage of a big club having a slow season, as Detroit did in 2018, and leap into the upper half of the table. Again, this is a conference slowly filling with professional outfits and the nature of how those clubs treat the NPSL proper could hugely change the look of this conference, one of the few in the nation that holds two NPSL professional clubs.

FC Indiana

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FC Indiana find themselves as one of the most struggling clubs in the NPSL when it comes to what happens on the pitch. The club finished seventh without a single point and only four goals to their name. That in itself may not seem so horrible when you consider the records of LC Aris or Greater Binghamton FC, but FC Indiana hold the unfortunate record of most goals conceded in the 2018 regular season, that number being 75. Losing 11-0 and 8-0 to Detroit despite the club’s struggles that summer. The club had one reasonably close fixture, a 2-3 loss to the Milwaukee Torrent.

Almost every conference in the NPSL has a club that struggles to get more than a few points, one of the more common patterns across all the regions of the league. FC Indiana, whose previous NPSL records are similar to 2018’s, find themselves deep in that struggle. It is worth mentioning that the club has a strong structure to build upon, having found success in both the WPSL with its women’s side and in the PASL with its indoor men’s soccer side. The club have won the WPSL twice and won the Women’s Cup twice.

To put it simply, the club needs to score more but perhaps more so needs to reinforce its defense. The work ahead is both intense and straight forward for the club if it hopes to earn more points and lower its goal differential this season. With the entire conference seeming to be on the move toward more professionalism and better play, Indiana certainly need to be mindful if they want to keep up.

Every year is another chance to change your path, we’ll have to wait and see if FC Indiana find themselves on that road in 2019.

Michigan Stars FC

Image from a Dec 9 friendly, courtesy of  Michigan Stars FC .

Image from a Dec 9 friendly, courtesy of Michigan Stars FC.

The Michigan Stars are an interesting case for this preview. They did not play in 2018 after going into a year hiatus in order to rebuild. They did so after playing five consecutive seasons in the NPSL, during which they failed to qualify for playoffs or take part in the U.S. Open Cup. The club’s history actually dates back far before the NPSL, as they were founded in 1982 as the Windsor FC Spartans and then as FC Sparta Michigan. The club and the NPSL site itself all indicate that the club is set to maintain its place in the NPSL and return this year. Protagonist contacted the club and confirmed that they are taking part in the 2019 NPSL season. However, the club will be returning to a conference that has changed dramatically since their last involvement.

Detroit City was not hosting major European clubs in 2017, AFC Ann Arbor weren’t back to back regional final partakers in 2017, and FC Columbus didn’t even exist in 2017. If the signs are to be believed and the Michigan Stars, who posted tryout notices in November and stated “we will resume practice and training on January 7th, 2019 at Total Soccer, Washington” on December 28th, will need to step up their game to compete with the ever growing and ever improving conference around them.

The addition of Michigan Stars would also return the conference to eight members and prompt the return of a fourteen-game season for the Great Lakes conference, which instead played twelve in 2018.

With that in mind, the chaotic growth of the conference could provide the Stars with a unique chance to impress and rocket to the top half of the table. Only time will tell. In the end it’s hard to know where the Stars will land this season, which perhaps gives them a power and freedom no other Great Lakes club has.

Toledo Villa FC

With the Milwaukee Torrent taking the regular season off, space opened up in the Great Lakes for a new club to take on one of the NPSL’s top conferences. Toledo Villa are that club. Based out of Toledo, Ohio, the club will join the NPSL this year as an expansion club from the UPSL, where they had a hugely successful 2018. The club finished 2018 at the top of their conference with a 6-3-1 record, having conquered the likes of Oakland County and Carpathia FC along the way. They will be an unknown element in the NPSL in just about every way, but they bring an entertaining new face to a conference full of interesting clubs.

As with many of the other Great Lakes clubs that struggle to pass the middle of the table, Toledo’s fate will also rely on how the big names, your Detroit’s, Ann Arbor’s, and Grand Rapids’, perform this season. Big years for those three will mean less points to work with for the likes of Toledo. Struggles like those Detroit had last year would provide Toledo with a chance at creating a decent record.

The club has a massive leap ahead of them, going from a UPSL conference lacking the league’s top dogs to one of the NPSL’s toughest regions, full of top-level Michigan clubs. How Toledo Villa deal with that mountain climb will be a big telling of their character on and off the pitch but will also throw a wrench into what we know about the conference. Even if Toledo struggle to get past a few wins and draws, they’ll be changing the geography of the conference in a major way and leave all its clubs with a brand-new challenge.

Photos courtesy of club social media and Protagonist Soccer, unless otherwise mentioned. Custom art designed by Laura Mills. Previews written by Dominic Bisogno with input from David Baker, Joshua Duder and Dan Vaughn.