GRFC 3/4 Season Update

We’re now 3/4 of the way through this short season, and I have been delinquent in posting. Work, grad school, normal life… all excuses I know. But here’s a quick review of the season to this point:

After the decisiveg performance in the home opener, GRFC has struggled to close games. A 0-0 draw at home against bottom of the table Eagles was a disappointment, especially as GRFC turned in another dominating performance. The next match, a friendly against MPSL club FC Force also ended in a 2-2 draw after GRFC gave up the lead late in the second half. Travelling away the next week to Ann Arbor saw another 0-0 result against a much improved AFCAA side. A convincing 4-1 win at home against Lansing United the day after the AFCAA match was a nice solace, but not particularly meaningful as both clubs primarily played reserves.

Then there was last weeks home foray versus GLPL undefeated league leaders RWB Adria which was nothing short of a disaster. After going up 1-0 early and playing Adria toe-to-toe, GRFC suffered a redcard less than 30 minutes into the match. From the stands it seemed a harsh call, but I’ll give the referee the benefit of the doubt as he was much closer to the play. GRFC managed to play the next 20 minutes very evenly despite being a man down, but Adria found the net in stoppage time of the first half to even the score.

The second half quickly got chippy, and as soon as it was clear the referee wasn’t going to call a thing against Adria they increasingly began to take shots at the GRFC players. This escalated until an Adria player two handed shoved a GRFC player directly in front of the referee which nearly led to a brawl on the field. In the midst of the chaos which happened directly in front of the home stands, an Adria player ran into the fray and kidney punched Kosti Moni from behind. As Kosti was protesting to the referee, he was then shoved again right in front of the referee’s face. Despite this blatant misconduct, the referee only issued a single yellow to Adria for the initial foul.

Taken on its own, I can see not issuing a red for these. But given the red on GRFC in the first half, not issuing a 2nd yellow for the shove – or a red for the other shove – is blatantly inconsistent. Unfortunately, the rest of the match was more of the same including a vicious tackle on Moni in the penalty box which would have been called a PK even under CONCACAF conditions.

Adria sealed the game with a second goal, and scored their third in stoppage time on an open net after GRFC sent everyone (including the goalkeeper) forward on a last stitch corner kick. Giving the finger to the home supporters was icing on the cake for the Adria forward who seemed to be celebrating as if he had dribbled through 5 defenders to score.

All in all I felt GRFC played extremely well given the circumstances, and I’m proud of their performance in spite of the loss. I’m also galled that Adria knocked us out of contention for the league title in such a fashion.

While the league is not even a season old, I hope some of these incidents will be valuable for the off-season planning of season two. Hopefully a referee liaison can be established, as well as a league disciplinary board to deal with blatant and violent misconduct. I might also add that to date there is still no resolution to the Oakland v Adia match that was rained out and which contains title implications for the winner. I was hopeful that the Red Arrow group that seemed to be involved in managing the league would help arbitrate & structure the league, but as far as I can tell (Disclaimer: I am involved in no official capacity with the league or GRFC) Red Arrow doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot.

On a positive note, if the team from Toledo is accepted to the league for next year, it will give us GRFC supporters a team from Ohio to hate on.

 

A Night To Remember

For any of the 2,409 souls that braved the elements to watch GRFC play their inaugural match at Houseman Stadium, it was a night to remember.

The pre-party kicked off at 2pm at Bob’s Sports Bar in partnership with Speak EZ Lounge – two of GRFC’s sponsors – and featured the Grand Army IPA by Vivant as well as local beers from Founders and of course club beer sponsor Heineken. The DJ had the music pumping, and there was an air of high spirits and energy about despite the dampening rain. Approximately 150-200 people made the march to the match from Bob’s with the drum core leading the way. Local passerby, neighbors, and drivers all stopped to waive or honk, and many pulled out their phones to take pictures. I’m told the folks at the stadium could hear the march as soon as we set out, creating a real anticipation as we turned the corner towards the stadium.

With 10 minutes to kick-off, over 800 people had lined up to buy tickets at the gate and the line stretched down and around the block. All told, reported attendance for the match was 2,409 and making the Grand Rapids FC home debut one of the biggest at the division 4/5 level (yes, I know these tiers aren’t official and no I don’t want to debate semantics about what constitutes D4/5).

The energy at the start of the game was palpable, and I had the privilege of helping unveil the Grand Army’s first tifo. A simple effort, but I think a good start for a burgeoning supporter group.

Photo credit: Jamie McNinch @ SportsPro Images

Photo credit: Jamie McNinch @ SportsPro Images

Photo credit: Jamie McNinch @ SportsPro Images

As far as the match action, Mlive has a good review here. A hat trick from Domenic Barone and goals from Noble Sullivan and Aldony Mendez gave the crowd a great show, only sullied by a last minute free kick goal by Ann Arbor. All in all GRFC dominated the match, leaving AFCAA very little possession and almost no quality chances. This was a good rebound from the loss at Oakland, who suffered a 4-0 home defeat to RWB Adria earlier in the day Saturday.

GRFC plays this Friday again at Houseman (with pre-game at Bob’s) in what should be much better weather. If you’re in Grand Rapids, you won’t want to miss it.

 

 

 

GLPL Expansion Rumors: Toledo United FC

One of the features of lower division soccer in the US is the endless dialogue surrounding league expansions. As the GLPL has kicked off, there has been significant interest from clubs around the midwest and 2016 is likely to see at least a few club additions. Milwaukee Bavarians have already been confirmed as a 2016 side, and it seems a group from Toledo, OH is looking to add their name to the 2016 table as well.

Toledo United FC, featuring what appears to be a rising phoenix on orange and white colors has announced via Facebook and Twitter that they hope to compete in the Great Lakes Premier League for 2015. According to a whois search, toledounited.com seems to have been purchased and registered by Peter Schinkai, the president of Midwest Entertainment Sports based out of Farmington Hills, MI. It will be interesting to see of MES is the primary investor, or of they intend to have any local Toledo investors as part of their group.

To date, the Great Lakes Premier League has not publicly released any information related to an expansion bid by a group from Toledo.

 

May 23rd, 2015: GRFC 1 Oakland United 2

Hopes were high heading into the inaugural GLPL match against Oakland United. Oakland had previously been dismantled 4-0 by Ann Arbor, and is carrying a much smaller squad than the other GLPL teams.

It’s perhaps good and natural for supporters to be a bit cocky about their club. But it’s dangerous for players to do so – which, talking with GRFC players and staff, is exactly what happened. The first half was sloppy, and the players looked like they walked out and expected to win without any effort. Oakland took advantage of the lackadaisical attitude and scored the opening goal. The goal seemed to wake the boys up a little, and before long we equalized. But just as it seemed GRFC would dictate the rest of the match, Oakland was gifted the go ahead goal by the referee.

When the ball was played, the goal scorer was in a clear offside position, and the linesman had his flag up. The ball deflected off of a GRFC defender and was picked up by the still offside Oakland player who promptly deposited it in the back of the net. The linesman had his flag up for the duration of the play. Unfortunately, the center ref never acknowledged the linesman, and waited until after play had restarted to conference with him. I’m really not sure how this goal was not called back, as the offside offense was that clear. The only thing I can think is that the ref misapplied the offside rule and assumed that because the ball deflected off a defender that this negated the offsides. But, per Fifa Law 11 while the play is technically reset once the deflection occurs, if the offside player has not re-established himself onside before receiving possession of the ball he is still considered offside.

Oakland’s second goal came just minutes after the GRFC equalizer, and the players seemed noticeably deflated going down again so quickly. The goal was unfortunate and shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and poor refereeing is a part of the game. Moving forward I hope this is a good lesson for the team that will teach them to dig deep and fight even when they’re down. And in that sense, it maybe an early season loss is a blessing in disguise to prepare us for Adria, Eagles, and Ann Arbor.

The second half of play was a dramatic improvement over the first and despite no goals to show, it was the kind of performance I expect. Unfortunately, the sloppiness of the first half and some extra help from the referee proved too much to overcome and instead of celebrating our first league win like we anticipated, we were left to ponder the sting of defeat.

 

Great Lakes Premier League Predictions (Part III)

Before the season started, RWB Adria were the clear favorites. After last year’s showings in the US Open and Amatuer Cups, Adria is clearly one of the better USASA amateur clubs  in the country. Now after drubbing Croatian Eagles 4-0, I think Adria has cemented itself as the GLPL team to beat.

Based on the other limited action we’ve seen, I think Grand Rapids FC is the favorite to be runner-up this year. I think AFC Ann Arbor and Croatian Eagles will battle it out for third, and whoever manages to steal points from Grand Rapids and Adria will win this battle – I think Ann Arbor comes out on top. The last two spots will see the Eagles in 4th and Oakland United finish last. At this point, I’ll not be surprised of Oakland ends up on the wrong side of several more 4+ goal margins.

So, my predicted table:

  1. RWB Adria
  2. Grand Rapids FC
  3. AFC Ann Arbor
  4. Croatian Eagles
  5. Oakland United

Of course, on field results are only one measure of success at this level of soccer. Organizations need to be able to put down roots in a community and stick around. I see both good and bad on this score for GLPL teams. The good news is that Adria and Croatian Eagles are both legacy sides that will continue to exist almost no matter what happens to the rest of the clubs. The same is true of the Milwaukee Bavarians, joining the league for next season.

Naturally, the three newer clubs pose more worries. Despite a rocky start and some branding mishaps, AFC Ann Arbor have stepped up their marketing the last couple of months leading up to the season. It seems to have paid off, and their home matches have been well attended. If they can keep this up and continue to connect with their community, they’ll easily make it to next season. Grand Rapids FC is in a similar situation. They seem to have strong local support, and home matches are expected to be well attended, though of course this remains to be seen. In my view, the club could be doing more to market itself, though likely finances are restricting how much the club does here. Members funded good part of the first season, so the club will need to work to create value for those members this season of they want to rely on the same model going forward. That said, I think the community that has popped up around GRFC will carry it on to a second season.

That leaves Oakland United. If I’m making a pick for most likely to be one and done, it’s Oakland. Marketing efforts seem to be all but nonexistent, the club played no publicized friendlies prior to its first league match, and if the heavy loss against Ann Arbor is any indication Oakland will be lagging behind on the field as well. I hope the course of the season proves me wrong here, but Oakland so far looks a lot like many other clubs that have folded because they thought marketing was unnecessary.

 

GLPL: The Lay of the Land (Part II)

The US Open Cup provides one of the only competitive outlets for head to head matchups for these amateur leagues. Friendlies also give us a similar competitive window, but these are often used as test matches or tune-ups, and so should carry a lesser weight in any comparison. Nonetheless, I want to take a quick look at how the GLPL is stacking up against competition in other more established leagues. Part III will build on this to make some predictions for the upcoming season.

So far we’ve seen GLPL clubs match up in friendlies against several NPSL clubs as well as a lone friendly with an MPSL club. More of these cross league friendlies will happen throughout the season, so I’ll come back to this analysis at the end of the season. But for now we’ve seen:

AFC Ann Arbor (GLPL) 1 San Marino (MPSL) 2 – An early test-match to be sure, but not a good start for a club or league that wants to be taken more seriously than the more parochial MPSL.

AFC Ann Arbor (GLPL) 0 @ Lansing United (NPSL) 3 – Another friendly, and both the score-line and witness accounts suggest Lansing clearly outclasses Ann Arbor. Even if full squads weren’t playing, teams at this level require significant depth to deal with the work/travel demands put on players, as well two-game weekends, and the inevitable bumps and bruises picked up through a season.

AFC Ann Arbor (GLPL) 3 @ AFC Cleveland 2 (NPSL) – Despite being a better match for Ann Arbor, the win is suspect as the ball was headed in after bouncing back into play off of the American Football upright. Even as a draw, this is a much better result for the GLPL club, though I wouldn’t put too much more stock in it.

Grand Rapids FC (GLPL) 1 @ Lansing United (NPSL) 0 – Another friendly, Lansing fielded a partial reserve side featuring 5 players who would earn starts in the US Open Cup match vs Adria. GRFC started 7 players who are expected to feature on the full game day roster, also getting time in for reserves and substitutes. Having witnessed this match, possession clearly went in favor of Lansing, though GRFC was dangerous on the counter. The match could have easily ended in a draw, or a 0-1 result for Lansing.

Milwaukee Bavarians (GLPL) 2 @ Madison 56ers (NPSL) 3 – Milwaukee won’t officially begin playing in GLPL competition until next season, but as they field a senior USASA side I felt it was helpful in providing further comparison. Milwaukee is a former NPSL club, and this result indicates that they will be a competitive addition to the league next year.

RWB Adria (GLPL) 0 @ Lansing United (NPSL) 0 – Adria qualified for the US Open Cup via USASA channels and was matched up with Lansing United in the first round. The match was very tight, and Lansing took the win in penalty kicks, much like Adria did last year against Detroit City FC (NPSL). So far this is the only match likely to have featured ‘full squads,’ and it puts Adria on very level terms with a side that made it to the NPSL national semifinals last year.

Croatian Eagles (GLPL) @ Madison 56ers (NPSL) – Update to come pending match results.

Take these with a couple grains of salt, but here’s how the GLPL looks so far compared to other leagues:

0-1 vs. MPSL

2-3 vs. NPSL

 

GLPL: The Lay of the Land (Part I)

With the first round of the 102nd US Open Cup tournament behind us, I’m wanted to take a brief look at the Great Lakes Premier League and try to contextualize it next to more well known amateur leagues like the NPSL and PDL.

                                  *****

The Great Lakes Premier League was formed primarily out of the front offices of three new clubs: Grand Rapids FC, AFC Ann Arbor, and Oakland United FC. They quickly added legacy clubs RWB Adria of Chicago and the Croatian Eagles (Milwaukee suburbs). The league was founded when Grand Rapids was denied entry to the NPSL, a sign that lead the Ann Arbor and Oakland groups to abandon NPSL hopes as well. This has also lead to references of the GLPL being an NPSL reject league, which while bearing some amount of truth, is more rhetorical posturing than helpful description. In reality, the NPSL has seemed to pivot models to focus on already established clubs, often with strong youth development pyramids below them. This will likely strengthen the overall stability of the NPSL, and will help to weed out the Eau Claire’s and BCS Clashes that the NPSL has struggled to rid itself of. This also means that even well established clubs like FC Buffalo may not have qualified for entry if current standards were in force in years prior. But, as private entities, leagues like the PDL and NPSL are welcome to structure their leagues and expansion as they see fit. And I certainly applaud any move to work towards league stability.

All this means, for me, is that there are gaps in the infrastructure of amatuer soccer  – and the GLPL is not the first to realize this or propose an alternative. Similar leagues exist in the Texas Premier Soccer League, Champions Soccer League USA (Florida), United Premier Soccer League (California), and the Evergreen Premier League (Washington). These leagues tend to develop more regionally, and carry much lower entry and league fee’s than either the NPSL or PDL. The downside is that in the past they have tended to be much less professionalized and regulated. The EPLWA (Evergreen Premier League Washington) however has challenged this however by launching a highly professionalized product with a select group of clubs, despite higher demand.

When the GLPL was being formed, the aim was to adopt the EPLWA model in many ways, and members of the EPLWA were consulted to aid in this. Additionally, a management company was brought on board specifically to run league operations so that no individual club staff or office would be overcome trying to run both a club and league simultaneously. While in many ways starting clubs and leagues is a tenuous and risky proposition as evidenced by the number of carcasses of bygone clubs and leagues scattering American soccer history, I’m optimistic that the GLPL is taking the appropriate steps to become a quality and long lasting fixture in the Midwest amateur soccer landscape. In spite of this, one question that arises is why the new MI based GLPL clubs didn’t seek to first join the existing (Michigan Premier Soccer League) MPSL prior to launching a separate league. The MPSL would have offered even more regional play than the GLPL, keeping travel costs lower while also mitigating the need for creating a new league. Currently most MPSL clubs are from the Eastern side of the state, so this question is especially pertinent to the Oakland and Ann Arbor Clubs. From a purely speculative standpoint, I think the GLPL clubs are hoping to raise the bar a bit from the MPSL, both in terms of level of play and in terms of ‘professionalization’ of the league as a whole and individual clubs. This makes sense, at least in theory, as MPSL offers very little league support or media coverage. While early indications seem promising, it remains to be seen if the GLPL will turn out to be just such an alternative.

 

Recap: GRFC 1 vs Lansing United 0 (Friendly)

Grand Rapids FC made the hour drive out to East Lansing on Saturday evening for a friendly against NPSL Midwest region winners Lansing United. I caravaned out with the Grand Army and we met up at Jimmy’s Pub for some pre-game fun and a scarf exchange with the Sons of Ransom. Overall atmosphere of the game was pretty good from my experience of amateur soccer, with an announced crowd of a little over 700. The GRFC away support was strong, with at least 150+ in the stands. Hat tip to the Sons of Ransom who pumped out a steady stream of noise for the duration of the match. Grand Army had a vocal showing as well, though somewhat less organized – still, not a bad first showing for the supporter group, and I expect coordination to improve with practice. The goal celebration was on point, and produced copious amounts of smoke, much to the chagrin (and vocal displeasure) of the Lansing fans seated downwind.

Lansing started off the match by dictating possession and game pace. Lansing #10 in particular made a few dangerous forays down the sideline and seemed create a mismatch in terms of speed with our right back. Things settled down as they game progressed, and defensive help from the GRFC midfield helped to tighten things up defensively. Lansing had a dangerous run into the GRFC box midway through the first half, and it was only the heroics of Proper Soda Man of the Match Beau Prey with 3 saves in a row that kept the game level. Lansing tested GRFC several more times through the course of the night and earned numerous corner kicks but were unable to create anything more dangerous.

GRFC’s shape in the first half alternated between 4 and 3 in the defense, but despite overloading the midfield at times, we struggled to win the possession battle. Still, we saw some moments of promise going forward and Barone’s goal in the 70th minute was one example. GRFC had one more prime scoring opportunity late in the match, but a poor touch ruined what should have been a 1 v 1 with the Lansing keeper. The final score was Grand Rapids FC 1 Lansing United 0.

All in all I felt it was a good test match for GRFC against a solid Lansing lineup. Lansing used the match to see some new players, and their final roster will likely look a bit different on Wednesday against fellow Great Lakes Premier League side RWB Adria of Chicago. From what I saw Lansing is set for another strong NPSL season.

The Great Lakes Premier League had several other clubs in action over the weekend as Ann Arbor FC topped NPSL side AFC Cleveland 3-2 in a friendly and RWB Adria opened GLPL play with a 4-0 win over the Croatian Eagles. In my estimation, Adria is the pre-season favorite to win the GLPL as they are perennially one of the best amateur adult clubs in the country. Our Blues are off to a good start, but we should expect the competition to only get stiffer from here out.

 

 

GRFC vs. Aquinas College (Scrimmage)

GRFC played a second pre-season tune-up Friday afternoon vs local NAIA school Aquinas College. The match was held at the MVP Sports training complex, and in spite of a 3PM match time an estimated 500 fans crowded the sidelines (See MLive report).

Despite numerous goal scoring opportunities, the boys in blue only managed to finish twice thanks to a brace by Domenic Barone. Though overmatched, Aquinas did find themselves unlucky on one or two quality chances and were unable to break the clean sheet shared by Beau Prey and Jesse Guevara.

Interestingly, Coach Moni deployed a 3-5-2 formation to start the scrimmage – similar to one of the formations we saw during the GVSU scrimmage. Personally, I like the 3-5-2 for GRFC especially with the speed on our wings and the potential of strong link-up play from the back up through the middle with the Barone’s, Deakin, and Sullivan forming the spine. Neither Deakin or Sullivan featured on Friday, as Deakin coaches at Aquinas and Sullivan picked up an injury earlier in the week during training. Still, I think GRFC should have ended with a 4 goal margin of victory to demonstrate that they can compete at a similar level as other GLPL clubs like RW Adria. Coach Moni seems to agree, as MLive quoted him as not being satisfied with the result.

Despite its potential, it will be interesting to see how the formation holds up against competition of a higher caliber. I am reasonably confident that the midfield can retain possession and be dangerous going forward. My biggest questions relate to how the backline will deal with more potent attacks. The upcoming friendly at Lansing United will be a good test, and I imagine will give us the first look at what will be the starting XI.

 

GRFC Inaugural Scrimmage vs. GVSU Club Team

GRFC visited local the Grand Valley State University men’s club soccer team for their on-field debut which was held on the GVSU training field in front of a crowd of around 300.

It was pretty obvious from the first whistle that GVSU was outmatched, and Zukic tallied the first GRFC goal in the 9th minute. GRFC owned most of the possession, and aside from 3 or 4 attacking forays late in the second half, the defense was really never tested.

The match was a great opportunity to see the depth of the squad and Coach Moni took advantage of the scrimmage atmosphere to insert several line changes.

The final score was GRFC 8 – 0 GVSU. This is a good result, but also an expected one. The next scrimmage (May 1, 3PM @ MVP Fieldhouse) against Aquinas College (NAIA) should pose a better test, though I still think a several goal margin of victory should still be expected.

Takeaways:

Proper Soda Man of the Match: Noble Sullivan. U of M alum Sullivan notched two goals and if last night was any indication, he is destined to be a fan favorite.

A crowd of 300 is a great showing for a first year club scrimmage, especially considering the venue. There is still a lot of work to be done with regards to marketing the club, but I’m taking this as a positive first showing.