Heartland Conference

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Demize NPSL

Originally established in 2003, Demize NPSL has made it a habit of finishing just out of the playoff picture the last three years. But with season results of two, three, and three wins, that might be expected. The club has shown signs of life, however, as they’ve improve their goal differential to a -6 from an abysmal  -29 in 2016. What is needed is more depth and stability in the club’s roster. The club has struggled to find even footing without them. Simply finishing out of the bottom of the conference and making it into the conference playoffs would be a massive improvement for this side.

And the foundation to get to that goal is already beginning to take shape. Over half the players from last year are back for this season, including team co-captain Jaxn Rogers, an All-Conference selection last season. Joining Jaxn is returning co-captain Kyler Moore, who recently signed a professional contract to play in Australia, and Joao Machado, an attacking mid with all the skills necessary to be an offensive threat. If the club can add talent around these key players, hope springs eternal in Missouri!

FC Wichita

Stryker Soccer Stadium to reopen this season. Image courtesy of  FC Wichita .

Stryker Soccer Stadium to reopen this season. Image courtesy of FC Wichita.

FC Wichita won the Heartland conference in 2018, narrowly beating out Little Rock Rangers by a single point. Unlike their second place competitor, Wichita had an impressive goal differential of +13, showing that when they won, they won by wider margins. The season began with a run of 7 straight wins before two losses by single goals to finish the season. The regular season conference title was a repeat performance for the Kansas club and set them up for a deep run in the playoffs. Sadly that was not to be. Little Rock Rangers got their revenge in the conference playoffs, beating FC Wichita on penalties, denying the double. For this season, club owner Blake Shumaker highlights their record of success, while focusing on pushing further - “Every year we set out to win the heartland conference regular season and gain hosting rights through the post season. Our goal is to get into the National Semi-Final.” The club has focused on the development of their players and it shows in their track record of players moving on to professional leagues. In the last four years, the club has had 30 players transition into professional leagues. The 2019 version of the club feature a large majority of returning players, which should translate into another great run by the club. The team will also return to Stryker Soccer Stadium this season after a year-long hiatus, while the stadium was remodeled and expanded.

Little Rock Rangers

You’d have to look at a lot of crests to find a better one than Little Rock Rangers signature roundel. The professionalism behind that logo is reflected by the club’s excellence on the field. Lead by founding President Jonathan Wardlaw, the Rangers finish in 2018 a surprise success last year. The club finished the regular season 7-3-0, just a single point from winning their conference. In the conference playoffs, their success would continue. Little Rock beat Tulsa Athletic and then the regular season champion, FC Wichita, without conceding a goal. With a Conference Championship in its back pocket, Rangers headed into the National Playoffs and took their first match against Laredo Heat SC. The run ended in the Regional Finals against eventual national champion, Miami FC. All that success last season certainly makes 2019 a year to look forward to for Rangers. The club plays their home matches in War Memorial Stadium, where their supporters groups, the Red Watch and the Red Order, have created a legitimate home field advantage. Last year, Little Rock only lost a single home match. This year’s roster will be almost unchanged, only losing a couple of players to higher leagues. Of primary importance, Captain Nick Doyle will return for his fourth season with the club, providing the backbone of their defensive backline.

Little Rock Rangers had much to celebrate in 2018. Image courtesy of  Little Rock Rangers FB .

Little Rock Rangers had much to celebrate in 2018. Image courtesy of Little Rock Rangers FB.

Rangers has built a great squad and managed to keep it together. Combined with a solid backbone of die-hard supporters, Little Rock should be expected to finish in the national playoff picture this season.

Ozark FC

Formed in 2017, Ozark FC has had little box score success in its short history. After a two win first year, their sophomore run ended with only a single point. But the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. Last year, weeks before the season kicked off, new ownership took over the club led by Todd Carrigan and Oddvar Naustvik. Armed with little more than “a name, a logo, and an NPSL game schedule” it was a steep learning curve for the club and its new coach, Scott Marksberry. That learning curve was travelled without much offense, ending the season with four goals in ten matches. But the lessons learned were as much off the field as on it. The team lined up important sponsorships (primarily kit sponsor, Simmons Foods) and began building connections within the local community. The club even purposely played matches at multiple home venues in order to find the right part of town to put down roots.

This year the goals are to continue strengthening those community ties, elevate the standard of play, and develop a fan-friendly home match experience. The roster will remain relatively stable, with local product, Jose “Lalo” Castro returning for his second season with the club. He’ll be joined by two former PDL players, Hazeley Pyle and Giovani Bejarano, with Championship experience. With a bolstered roster, focused front office leadership, and lessons learned from a challenging season last year, Ozark FC sees this season as a chance to set themselves apart from the rest of the Heartland Conference.

St Louis Club Atletico

While three teams seem to own this conference, there is a fourth playoff spot and St. Louis Club Atletico won that spot in 2018. Finishing just two points back from Tulsa, Atletico was just a single win from being equal with the third place finisher. The conference playoffs was a quick exit for the young club, losing to Wichita 4-0 in the opening match. Without a doubt, the club views their inaugural season as a success. What remains to be seen is if the club can build off its strong showing in 2018.

The club is owned and coached by members of the Garza family and is an extension of a club from South America (Bolivia). The Bluebirds made it a point to start mostly young, untested talent in their first year with the hope of developing a platform for young players from St. Louis. That mission will continue this year with the hope of moving further into conference standings. The club estimates that only 25% of the club roster will be returning for 2019, and that fact might make moving up in the standings difficult. Key returning players are Wil Linder and Eric Lopez, but last year’s team captain Josh Ward suffered a knee injury during the off-season and is doubtful for the 2019. Should he make a return, it would certainly boost the team’s morale and chances of success.

What is certainly clear about Club Atletico is that they have the desire to climb into the top three of the conference. What is unclear, however, is if they have the talent to overcome the front-runners. With only one season under their belts, that task may prove to be impossible.

Tulsa Athletic

Joe Garcia, “the pocket god.” Image courtesy of  Tulsa Athletic Twitter .

Joe Garcia, “the pocket god.” Image courtesy of Tulsa Athletic Twitter.

This conference is dominated by three clubs - Little Rock, FC Wichita, and Tulsa Athletic. Both FC Wichita and Tulsa Athletic entered the NPSL in 2013. Tulsa’s success has been from day one in the league, having never finished lower than third in their conference over their first six years of existence. Owned by Sonny Dalesandro and Dr. Thomas Kern, the club takes that history of success seriously. Last season the club finishing third in the Heartland Conference, but Dalesandro focuses on the fact that the club only won six, yet led in nine of the club’s ten matches. That fact was described as “disappointing” by the club owner.

The 2019 NPSL season will see Athletic return to Veterans Park with a roster packed with players returning from last year. Joe Garcia, a two-time D2 All American, and Gustavo Vargas, who was third in the conference in goals, return to the roster for 2019. With a track record of excellence, Tulsa should be expected to return to their conference playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Whether they can re-establish dominance over their conference foe, Little Rock Rangers, will be an interesting storyline to follow as the season progresses. They have a load of talent, it’s a matter of putting it all together and winning in the playoffs. Honestly, there’s a lot to love about this club from Oklahoma, but certainly a highlight that should be noted is their “undying love of unicorns, beer, and victory.”

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