Minneapolis City SC
City had one of the best seasons one could have imagined in 2018. An undefeated regular season run left them divisional champions with a 10-4-0 record and a devastating 46 goals scored, compared to only 14 conceded. While their season was cut short by a playoff loss to Duluth FC in the regional semi-finals, the Crows have used the post-season to continue their growth off the pitch. The club opened up an impressive shop in Minneapolis, the first from the Midwest-North to do so, which has received positive traffic and even a few guest appearances. City would then announce the creation of a U19 side to complement their already existent U23 side and announced new coach staff along with the appointment of former head coach Adam Pribyl as Athletic Director. The club also announced it would return to its home stadium at Augsburg University after spending a season playing in Osseo, Minnesota. The club’s expansion of operations has left them one of the most active off-season clubs in the Midwest as they head toward a conference defending season in which they will, likely to an unfair level, be compared with their intensely impressive 2018 season.
Minneapolis City finds itself in a position where it has a tangible rivalry with virtually every club that realistically fights for the top two playoff spots in the division, whether that be regional rivalries with VSLT and the Minnesota TwinStars or more far away matches like those with Duluth. This means, as it has in the past, that the club’s biggest games from a table perspective will also be its biggest games at an emotional and community level. This puts the Crows in a unique position, but one they managed to thrive on in 2018. Minneapolis City are without a doubt favorites for one of the division’s two playoff spots and will be without a doubt one of the clubs fighting the good fight to win the title. If they do so, they’d be the first club to win the NPSL Midwest North two years in a row.
All eyes will be on the club’s new head coach, Matt vanBenschoten, and how his latest addition of the Crows’ roster does in their most anticipated season yet.
Duluth FC’s first season under new head coach Joel Person, who replaced the division winning Kyle Bakas, seemed to be going horribly wrong until quite suddenly it wasn’t. Duluth won two games in the first half of its 14-game season and did not win either of its home games in that period, both of which were against two of the best clubs in 2018 (City and VSLT). Everything changed in the second half of the season when Duluth won five games in a row, four of which with clean sheets, and suddenly found themselves in second place. A 4-2 loss to City would prevent the BlueGreens from an ultimate comeback season, but their 1-0 win over Med City the following weekend would be enough to lock in a playoff run for the north-shore club.
That playoff run would prove a magical one for Duluth FC, who would win three straight playoff games against Grand Rapids FC, Minneapolis City, and AFC Ann Arbor and therefore win the Midwest Regional title, becoming the first from the north to do so. The trophy would be Duluth FC’s second in two years in the NPSL and provide them the chance to face Miami FC 2 in the NPSL national semi-finals. Miami FC, a professional club in just about all respects, would win that game 3-0 and end the BlueGreens’ season, but not before they had the chance to make it a memorable one.
One of the oddities that emerged from Duluth in 2018 was that their lead goal scorer would be Ryan Tyrer, a center back. Tyrer scored four regular season goals and two playoff goals. Duluth would end the regular season with 16 different goal scorers.
Duluth’s positive playoffs and Open Cup participation, which saw them play Saint Louis FC of the USL Championship in a 2-0 defeat, will provide any onlooker with reason to list them amongst the favorites for a playoff spot and perhaps the title they failed to defend in 2018.
Minnesota TwinStars FC
Finishing fifth with 21 points, Minnesota TwinStars found themselves in an odd role in 2018 as the team that’s endlessly tough to play but that rarely got the points they needed. The club had the second highest goal count in the conference, 32, and the Golden Boot winner for the Midwest North, Chase Wright. Wright actually tied for second place in the NPSL’s Golden Boot race, losing out to Omar Nuno of Sonoma County Sol FC. Wright scored 14 goals in 13 games in 2018. The issues for the TwinStars arose in the defense, which leaked 25 goals this season, over twice the 12 goals conceded by Med City who sat a spot above them on the table.
The TwinStars are the most historied club in the conference and sit at the top of a academic pyramid that most clubs would only dream of. This hasn’t allowed them to prosper in the NPSL North, with sixth and fifth place finishes in their two years of participation. This hasn’t stopped them from earning good results, including their draws against both Minneapolis City and Duluth FC along with their final week 2-1 victory over Viejos Son Los Trapos.
The TwinStars did receive some negative press this year after a series of strange events revolving around stadium availability left Minneapolis City unable to play them at the TwinStars home tie. While we are not here to provide further insight into the online discussions that followed, it is clear the incident left many unsure of what to think of the club off the pitch.
To say that the TwinStars are likely to finish in the top two would be a reach based on the evidence provided, but a continued presence in the middle of the table and a light chance of challenging for the upper table is not out of the question if the club can continue to find huge sparks of talent in the right moments as they have with Wright. Continuing that and solving a persistent card issue (the TwinStars earned the most red cards in the conference this year), should help the historied club continue to be a relevant name in the north.
Dakota Fusion FC
Looking at the 2018 table, one would probably not guess that the Dakota Fusion missed the 2017 conference title by one point. 2018 would bring a new version of the Fusion, one that simply didn’t seem to pick up any of the points they needed and eventually found themselves finishing sixth with only fifteen points to their name. Adding context to this drop-in position, the Fusion ended the season with the second lowest number of goals (22) and the second highest amount of goals conceded (48).
Their year began with an exciting U.S. Open Cup match against Duluth FC which ended 3-3, after which Duluth won in a PK shootout. That performance left many assuming the club would have a similar season, only for that to be the opposite of what actually occurred.
The question of where the Dakota Fusion will find themselves in 2019 is a big one, one that’s truly difficult to answer. The fact is that this is a club with the organization and players to finish in the top four or three, the reality is that this is a club that barely managed to put together back-to-back wins. A striking reality is uncovered when you view the Fusion’s last three matches, games that were essentially only valuable emotionally as the table had long left their reach. They proceeded to lose 5-2 to Sioux Falls, the second-to-worst club point-wise in 2018, 11-0 to Med City, and 8-0 to Minneapolis City. Only one of the clubs they played in that period had any table-based goal to play for.
The Dakota Fusion have the talent to be a danger and should not be taken lightly, but the fact is deep change will be necessary for the club to compete beyond a certain point and return to its 2017 antics of top-of-the-table results and playoff runs.
Med City FC
Med City came into last season after a 2017 that mirrored VSLT’s 2018 in many respects. The Rochester-based club found themselves top of the table and likely conference champions well into the season before suddenly losing hold and falling to fourth place. Their potential “revenge” season started off rocky, with them reaching the mid-season point with a 3-2-2 record. The second half of the season would conclude the same way and Med City would end 2018 with a 6-4-4 record, fourth place, and a total of 22 points. Despite the ups and downs of their season, Med City actually came close to earning a playoff spot as their final match against Duluth FC, won by Duluth, would have seen them tie Duluth on points and win the tie-breaker based on their record versus Duluth if they’d won. It was not in the cards for the otherwise high scoring club, who would be shut out 1-0 that night.
One of Med City’s best players is Claudio Repetto. Earning a strong range of goals and assists in his two NPSL seasons, the Italian is widely considered one of the top players in the conference despite his club’s lack of playoff appearances.
Despite the cycling of talent and the immersion of a UPSL club in their already limited market in Rochester, Med City can never be ignored as a deadly opponent and bookkeepers should be mindful of the club’s ever-present goal of finally grabbing the conference title, one that they may just achieve in 2019 if they can put together the right squad. You’d struggle to find any aware fan of an NPSL North club that didn’t see a match, home or away, against Med City as a major challenge for their club. There’s no sign that that will be changing soon.
Sioux Falls Thunder FC
When you watch the Sioux Falls Thunder play, especially in possession, you think you must be watching a midtable club with faint playoff hopes. When you check their full season of results online, you assume you must’ve looked up the wrong club. The Thunder, who ended the year seventh with 13 points, lost nine games in 2018. Four of those games were lost by one goal. Combine that with the fact that the Thunder had a better goal rate, goals conceded, and goal difference than the Fusion, who finished one spot above them, and it all starts to become quite clear that this may be a club that is better than their table position.
With that in mind, Sioux Falls didn’t have what it needed to reach the upper half and for that work is needed. That doesn’t mean they weren’t tough to play. The club opened the season, looking to be a good side, with a 2-2 draw against the eventual champions, Minneapolis City, and followed that match with a strong 6-1 win over La Crosse Aris. The magic didn’t last though, and the club would go on to lose nine straight games, a run that consists of all their losses in 2018. The squad rediscovered their form toward the end and managed to string together three good wins against the Fusion, VSLT, and La Crosse Aris. That return to form wouldn’t be enough to lift them above seventh place, where they finished the previous season, but it did remind people that the bright moments the Thunder had in their losses could bread a better result with time.
Changes and better fortune could easily lead the Thunder to a midtable finish, though more than that will require a special level of progress for the club which manages to play well but rarely earn anything for it. It would be genuinely surprising if the Thunder finish seventh again. If they do, it will certainly be with more than thirteen points under their belt.
LC Aris FC
La Crosse Aris have a history of not getting points, it’s a fact the club has never tried to shy away from. They finished last in 2017 with one point after drawing Sioux Falls. They would finish 2018 in the same place with the same single point, but this time with a new energy surrounding the club that leaves many feeling 2019 could be a very different year for La Crosse. A big part of this comes from where they got that one point, that being in their home game against Minneapolis City, the conference champions. The 0-0 draw, one earned through a dense and well-managed defensive performance, provided a major question mark in City’s title race and provided room for the likes of Duluth and VSLT to attempt a last-minute grab for the conference. This did not play out in their favor, but the fact is that a 0-0 draw in La Crosse had ever voice in the NPSL North talking for over a week. It was the game everyone wanted to better understand.
La Crosse’s second half of the season was actually full of performances that raised eyebrows as to whether the club may actually be drastically improving. They held Duluth FC goalless for a full half in Duluth before leaking four in the second half. The club nearly earned draws in its 1-2 losses to Sioux Falls and Med City and had the Dakota Fusion locked in a goalless draw until a burst of three goals final thirty minutes of play
It is safe to say La Crosse Aris are far from playoff contention as things stand, but as with Sioux Falls, it is safe to say there’s far more there than 2018’s table reflects. Depending on how the other lower half clubs adjust for 2019, we could very well see Aris grab a couple draws and perhaps even a win or two. The most exciting factor in all this for those not directly supporting the club is that they’ve shown those future results could be title-deciding ones
Photos courtesy of club social media and Protagonist Soccer. Custom art designed by Laura Mills. Previews written by Dominic Bisogno with input from David Baker, Joshua Duder and Dan Vaughn.