Old Guard Shield, Retro Style

Ever since the Old Guard Shield was officially introduced in February, it gave Kickers fans a chance to dream of an unofficial cup competition, something that’s been absent since the days of the James River Cup against Virginia Beach.  The Shield is a great idea, and focusing on the teams that have been around for longer than a high school “relationship” was a natural starting point. The five participating teams have been in a league together for six full seasons now, so I thought, why not check out who would have won in each of the previous seasons.  For each season, I followed the rules as set out, counting only the final regular season home game for each team in the series. I think you’ll see that the results aren’t always what you’d expect.

2011

2011 saw Rochester join the league as the USL/NASL split officially took hold.  It’s also the year that saw LA Blues (now Orange County SC) join on an island by themselves, along with Antigua and three teams on Puerto Rico, none of which made it to June.  Oh, and some team in Orlando started play.

While the American division clubs (Orlando, Wilmington, Richmond, Charleston, and Antigua) bossed the league on the pitch overall, it wasn’t the case in our retroactive Shield standings.  National division champion Rochester dominated the field, racking up 21 of a possible 24 points. Harrisburg would exact their revenge in the playoffs in a wild game that featured 10v9 play for the entire second half, but alas playoffs do not count here.

Rhinos 21 pts, +8 GD
City Islanders 10 pts, 0 GD
Hounds 10 pts, -2 GD
Kickers 10 pts, -2 GD
Battery 7 pts, -4 GD

I gave Pittsburgh the tiebreaker over Richmond since they had the same number of goals scored (8), but Pittsburgh won the head to head aggregate 3-2.

2012

Four of the five Old Guard teams made the playoffs in 2012, but really the season was only redeemable by Orlando getting bounced in the playoffs. There’s no need to go into the details of what happened though.

The Shield race was about as close and competitive as possible this season.  Charleston ultimately would have taken home the title had it existed, edging both Richmond and Harrisburg on the strength of three away wins. It was a weird season, with only the City Islanders getting results in all of their home games.  Everyone else lost at least twice at home in the series.

Battery 15 pts, +5 GD
City Islanders 14 pts, +4 GD
Kickers 14 pts, +3 GD
Rhinos 10 pts, -4 GD
Hounds 3 pts, -8 GD

2013

This was, of course, a great season featuring the Kickers going unbeaten through their first 22 league games. Unbeaten doesn’t mean perfect though, and a number of draws made the table much closer than you might think. Ultimately Richmond came out on top, as they did in the league table. Three other Shield teams also made the playoffs, with Rochester being the notable exception for I believe the first time in their history. Amazingly enough, somehow none of the four played one another in the playoffs, and we’re just going to stop talking about those playoffs now, ok?

Kickers 15 pts, +6 GD
City Islanders 12 pts, +2 GD, 14 GS
Battery 12 pts, +2 GD, 13 GS
Hounds 9 pts, 0 GD
Rhinos 6 pts, -10 GD

2014

2014, the beginning of the true MLS2 era.  It was Sacramento’s entry into the world, and Harrisburg saw themselves make a Cinderella run to the final.  More importantly, the Kickers became the first team to, in theory, defend the Shield as they rattled off another long unbeaten run and completed the first unbeaten Shield season (even Rochester in 2011 dropped one game while running the table otherwise).  Again, let’s remember that the Shield only counts regular season games and that playoffs are dumb.

Kickers 16 pts, +8 GD
Battery 12 pts, -1 GD
Hounds 9 pts, -5 GD
City Islanders 8 pts, -1 GD
Rhinos 7 pts, -1 GD

2015

This was when the USL really exploded, and our Old Guard sides were clustered together in the new Eastern Conference.  It was no matter to Rochester though, as they plowed through the entire league with only a solitary defeat en route to a championship.  But is a league championship really worth winning if you can’t win the Old Guard Shield in the meantime?

Ok, it probably is, but despite not losing in the Shield all year, the Rhinos came up short.  Drawing all your away games is going to make it tough to win a small sided league, and sure enough Charleston was able to surge through and claim the crown. As for the Kickers, well, they made the playoffs at least, and we learned to love Yudai Imura.

Battery 15 pts, +10 GD
Rhinos 14 pts, +6 GD
Hounds 12 pts, 0 GD
Kickers 8 pts, -1 GD
City Islanders 2 pts, -15 GD

2016

It was the year of MLS2 teams, as well as everyone’s annoying new neighbor FC Cincinnati.  The Red Bulls dominated on the field, FCC off the field, and our Old Guard teams just kind of filled into the background.  Charleston knocked off the new kids in the playoffs at least, and Rochester took the eventual champs all the way to penalties before falling short.  The less said about the other three, the better, although the Kickers did win a big game that didn’t count for anything against Swansea.

It was another unexpected result in the Shield race though, as Richmond actually captured their third hypothetical crown. Even though they lost to Charleston in both legs, they ran the table against everyone else, and that was enough to hold off the Battery and Rhinos.  The Pennsylvania clubs didn’t even get a 6-5 thriller to hang their hats on this season unfortunately.  Better luck this year guys (not really though, the league will be tough enough anyway).

Kickers 18 pts, +9 GD
Battery 16 pts, +4 GD, 14 GS
Rhinos 16 pts, +4 GD, 12 GS
City Islanders 5 pts, -7 GD
Hounds 2 pts, -10 GD

Summary

Overall, through 6 retroactive seasons, the Kickers have been the most successful, winning the title 3 times. Charleston has won it twice, and Rochester took the crown once.  Everyone but Richmond has also finished last at least once thus far, and the Kickers have two fourth place finishes, showing that truly anything can happen when five teams old enough to remember Bruce Arena’s first stint as national team manager face off.

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2017 Roster Outlook

 

The season is only a month away, and with the preseason games picking up beginning this week, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the roster as it stands and what changes or additions may still come. There are currently 19 players officially announced, and any additional names are purely speculative on my behalf.

Goalkeepers

There are currently two goalkeepers under contract to the Kickers for the 2017 season, which is a pleasant change from recent years where the team has gone with one senior roster keeper and academy kids and/or loan players to provide depth. After last season and the revolving door of keepers, I’m not terribly surprised at this development.

Marcel DeBellis was the first new player to be announced in late 2016. DeBellis joins after spending the last three years with (now rival) Ottawa Fury. He’s 25 years old, 6’3″, and is looking for his place in the first team after years in reserve. He did get a few appearances last year in the NASL and Canadian Championship (their version of the Open Cup), including a shutout against Edmonton in the cup.

He’ll be joined by Alex Wimmer, who is 26 and has been in lower leagues of Sweden and England the last few years. He’s a massive 6’6″, so no matter who gets the nod in goal, you’d presume that they’ll be good in the air. Preseason should be especially compelling to see how this battle pans out, since there really isn’t much data available to say that one is clearly favored above the other.

Beyond those two, I think it’s always a safe assumption that DC United will want to send a goalkeeper on loan. We’ve seen Andrew Dysktra, Joe Willis, Travis Worra, and Charlie Horton each year of the affiliation experiment, so there’s certainly precedent there. As of right now, the #3 keeper for them appears to be Eric Klenofsky. He’s a rookie from Monmouth (also 6’6″; no average sized keepers this year!) who was apparently one of the highest rated keepers available in this year’s draft. Nothing official has been announced, but doesn’t it just seem inevitable he’ll be here at some point?

With the announcements of DeBellis and Wimmer, it seems to ensure that Ryan Taylor won’t be back this season. There had been talk of him potentially moving on to go back to school during his recovery last fall, so it wasn’t too shocking when the roster began coming together without his name included. Sawyer Gaffney was gone by the end of the year to attend Davidson, and the rest of the loaners shouldn’t be expected back either. Dykstra is now with Kansas City, Horton was cut by DC, Worra looks to be entrenched as their #2, and Matt Turner is back with New England. Mark Nankervis was always just going to be cover and a practice player.

Defenders

Most of 2016’s defense returns for the 2017 season. This was probably the strongest unit from start to finish last year, so maintaining that continuity should provide a nice launching point for the rest of the team. There are a couple of new names we know about already as well, and I expect this group to excel again in 2017.

Starting in the middle, both William Yomby and Conor Shanosky are back. Yomby is a known quantity for Kickers fans as he returns for his ninth season in Richmond. He’s Mr. Dependable on the field, providing leadership and positional sense to go along with a imposing physical presence. The one caveat that has to be thrown out there is that he was carrying an injury through most of the end of the 2016 season, and with him not getting any younger, you wonder if that was the first sign of an iron man slowing down. Shanosky rejoined near the end of the season after almost two years in Louisville. He’s another big guy who can play with the ball at his feet. I can’t imagine that Leigh signed him with any intent other than being a central cog in the team moving forward. He’s also generally good for a goal or two a season, which is a nice bonus.

On the outside, both Braeden Troyer and Alex Lee return. Troyer took over the left back role full time last season and locked it down. The fan’s choice MVP appeared in every game, only missing a few minutes for injury precautions. He’s a great tackler, and with a full season under his belt in that spot, I expect him to add another level to his game. Go ahead and write that name in pen on the lineup card. Lee has been a regular at right back since he got to Richmond in 2013. The Guamanian international generally combines solid defensive work with an ability to get up the touchline and provide support to the attack. I think it’s also fair to say that he’s the fiery enforcer in the back, certainly not one to shy away from confrontation, for better or for worse.  If Alex can stay healthy, which has been his biggest issue dating back to college, he should continue to be a key contributor to this team.

Two additional defenders have been added for the upcoming season so far.  Mallan Roberts joined after spending last season on loan with Ottawa and the three seasons prior in Edmonton.  He’s a 6’2″ center back who has been capped one time thus far for Canada.  He saw his appearances grow in number each year in the NASL, and now at 24 years old he may be entering the prime of his career.  Evan Lee also joined the team this offseason after spending his rookie season with Cincinnati.  Evan was a reserve defender for them last year, and was also named most improved player on their roster.  He’s another big boy, coming in at 6’4″.  Size clearly is not going to be an issue, at least in defense.

While those are the six announced defenders, I wouldn’t be shocked if some midfielders also see time there, especially in the fullback positions. We’ve seen guys like Luke Vercollone slide back at times in the past, so it certainly wouldn’t be out of the ordinary if the Kickers are chasing a goal.  I also expect to see Chris Odom-Atsem in Richmond on loan from DC.  Based on preseason match reports, he looks to be behind a few guys on the depth chart right now, which in turns makes him a prime candidate for time here.  Having seen him extensively in college, I can safely say that he would do well for the Kickers.  He played right back his last two years at Maryland after being a center back his freshman and sophomore seasons.  He’s extremely fast, but also a good positional defender.  I’d think of him as an upgraded Luke Mishu, assuming he adjusts properly to the professional game.

Speaking of Mishu, he retired, so he won’t be back on loan again.  I imagine that if you’re reading this, you’re also aware that Hugh Roberts signed with Bethlehem this offseason. It looks like the team has cover in central defense now, but it’s never a great thing to lose a first team all-league player.  There’s no word yet on Travis Pittman, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he moves on given the depth that’s building up on the backline.  Jalen Robinson could return on loan again, but that’s a little dicier proposition.  We haven’t heard an official retirement announcement from Sascha Gorres either, but given how little he played last year, I wouldn’t be counting on him at this point.  He’s certainly in the “break glass if needed” category though, let’s just hope things don’t come to that this year.

Midfielders

There’s a good amount of depth coming back here, including some key contributors from last season.  The first, and most obvious, name to talk about is Yudai Imura.  Yudai made “the leap” last year, going from a guy who showed flashes among inconsistency his first season to a guy who made things happen and was named second team all-league for his efforts. In general, as Imura went, so went the Kickers. The Japanese fan favorite tends to operate out of the middle of the field, connecting with players and flashing into dangerous positions for goal scoring opportunities.  He was noticeably stronger and more confident in 2016, and let’s hope that continues on into 2017.

The Ghanaian duo of Samuel Asante and Fred Owusu Sekyere are also returning.  Both of these guys look fairly harmless on first glance, mostly due to their, uh, vertical handicaps (seriously, photos with these guys by some of the monster defenders will be humorous), but take them lightly at your own risk.  These two get stuck in like no one else, and have ball skills to go with their tenacity.  Asante ended up playing on the right wing near the end of the season as well, but both can fill the defensive midfield spot without much trouble.

If I had to guess, I’d guess that Sunny Jane is going to be given the responsibility to make things happen in the attack this year.  After starting his first season a little slow, he began cementing himself in the lineup midway through the year and was a key part of the midseason winning streak.  If you look at his highlights from last season, you’ll notice that he’s not afraid to run at defenders, which helped open up space for his teammates, and when that didnt happen, he would simply let loose on goal with a deadly left foot. The next step is to become a 90 minute player each week.

I talked earlier about Imura making “the leap” last season.  This season’s top candidate for that role is Luiz Fernando.  Prior to leaving for family reasons last season, it was clear that he possessed the technical skill to excel, but his physicality and decision making wasn’t all the way there yet.  He doesn’t turn 20 until midway through the season, so there’s certainly ample room for growth (speaking of which, Wikipedia claims he’s 6’3″. While that would be great, I doubt he hit a growth spurt of over half a foot in the last six months).  He was starting to put it all together before he left, even scoring and adding an assist against Montreal in his final game.

The last of the returning midfielders is Jackson Eskay.  Eskay was a rookie last year who was finishing up his degree at William and Mary through the first part of the year, and began to contribute more significantly once he finished up with school.  His signature moment was naturally the winner against eventual champions Red Bull II in second half stoppage time. Eskay provides some size in the midfield (as big as the defenders are, the midfielders are equally small), and being able to be locked in from day one can only help him moving forward this season.

Two professional midfielders and one academy midfielder have been added to the roster as well.  Patrick McCann has spent most of the past four seasons in Ireland playing for a few different teams.  The 26 year old appears to be more of a linking player than an outright attacking or defensive midfielder.  Finnlay Wyatt is a rookie from Longwood who also played for the Kickers academy team while attending Midlothian High School.  He was a first team All-Big South performer his senior year, scoring five and assisting six in the fall. Simon Fitch returns for his second season on an academy contract. He didn’t appear in a match last season, and it would be a surprise if he makes a major impact before heading to George Washington at the end of the summer.

Last season Chris Durkin played in defense for the Kickers when on loan, but it sounds like DC sees him as a midfielder long term.  Ben Olsen is on record saying that he’ll be appearing in Richmond this year, so putting two and two together tells me that he’ll appear in the midfield this season when he’s not on U-17 qualifying and (hopefully) World Cup duty. Presumably when he’s available, he’ll slide into a defensive midfielder role.

Even though a lot of guys are back, there are also plenty that we won’t be seeing again this year.  Topping that list is Brian Ownby, who signed with Louisville. It’s a blow to the team, as he was an aggressive winger. However, he seemed to fall out of favor as the season progressed. It’s never fun to see a native Richmonder playing for a rival though.  Scot Thomsen signed midway through the season and made an instant impact on the left side of the field.  He’ll be playing for Orlando B in 2017.  Miguel Aguilar was a regular on loan last season, but he’s with LA now.  Romulo Peretta, the other Brazilian teenager, apparently has signed with a Flamengo B team or youth team, and will also not return for a second season. Nothing has been announced that I’ve seen regarding Lucas Paulini, Michael Callahan, or Nathan Shiffman.  Callahan is an assistant coach, so I’d bet he’s available as needed but will contribute similarly to how Gorres has in recent years.  Shiffman only appeared once last year, and looks to be focused on his businesses.  Paulini was troubled by injuries the second half of last year, and that may be holding up his career.

Forwards 

There’s, um, not much to talk about here.  Anthony Grant is the only known returning striker from last year.  Grant connected well with his teammates, but at times struggled finding the net himself.  He ultimately had three in league play, coming on stronger later in the year.  He’s quick, and surprisingly strong with his back to goal, but there has to be more production this year.

The other known striker on this year’s team is a new signing, Oliver Minatel.  The Brazilian played for Puerto Rico FC last season, and previously played for Ottawa (noticing a pipeline yet?).  He’s 24 years old, and led Ottawa in scoring in 2014.  Presumably Oliver will be counted on to be a top contributor, and there are some YouTube clips out there of him that shows him to be a player who can find space in the penalty area and who can thread a pass to a teammate.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see Luiz Fernando, Sunny Jane, or Jackson Eskay also play as a forward at times. You’d think/hope that there’s more help coming as well, whether through loans or late signings.

Part of the dearth of options comes from the retirement of Matthew Delicate.  Even though he missed most of last season, and probably wouldn’t have been a lock starter at this point in his career, he certainly wouldn’t have been a bad option to have off the bench, which is nothing to scoff at when building a roster.  There’s also no word on Jason Yeisley. He signed a “multi-year” contract after the 2014 season, which we can now assume to have been a two year deal.  He was also named among other older players as having his career winding down in an article after the playoff defeat last season. While he had a disappointing 2016, having an additional option up top would be nice at this point.

Summary

The defense appears to be the strength of the team once again heading into 2017. It’s a veteran group that has played together, buoyed by a couple of new signings to keep things fresh.  There’s reason for optimism within the midfield group as well, with the potential for some excitement if the second year players take a leap forward. Goalkeeper depth is a luxury that hasn’t been present in years, but both players are unproven at this point.  Forward is looking like the early pain point, but there’s still time to see what comes from preseason and another set of tryouts.

More than anything else though, the best news is that Kickers soccer is back and the long arduous offseason is behind us.

The On the Field Winners

As the season has gone along, the Kickers have used a quite a few players. 30, to be exact.  It’s a number that’s a little skewed because of all the keeper issues, but that’s still a not insignificant amount with eleven games still to play.  Given all these moving pieces, I’ve naturally been thinking about what the ideal group would be.  The problem is, what does ideal actually mean in soccer?

I decided to take a look at this using a metric from other sports, and specifically hockey: plus/minus.  I wanted to see who tended to be on the field when things were going well, and if that matched non-scientific observations.  To do this, I simply went through the logs for each game, and charted out the goal differential per player for each league game so far. I also looked at this from a per game basis to see if that told a different story than the raw number.

Plus/Minus Through 19 Games

Hugh Roberts, +8
Yudai Imura, +7
Samuel Asante, +7
Braeden Troyer, +7
Anthony Grant, +6
Sunny Jane, +6
Luiz Fernando, +6
Alex Lee, +6
William Yomby, +5
Lucas Paulini, +5
Luke Mishu, +5
Michael Callahan, +4
Brian Ownby, +4
Matt Turner, +4
Chris Durkin, +3
Ryan Taylor, +2
Jason Yeisley, +2
Travis Worra, +2
Fred Owusu Sekyere, +1
Nathan Shiffman, +1
Sascha Gorres, +1
Charlie Horton, +1
Matthew Delicate, 0
Roumlo Peretta, 0
Paul Clowes, 0
Jackson Eskay, 0
Miguel Aguilar, 0
Sawyer Gaffney, -1
Jalen Robinson, -1
Travis Pittman, -3

Now, quite obviously the last three games have significantly impacted these numbers, and those who started those games are almost all boosted straight to the top of this list. If Leigh were to roll out with those top ten plus a keeper, I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.  I was a little surprised that no one had a higher individual plus/minus rating than the team’s +8.  I figured someone might have missed the Charleston game or not featured as much during the losing streak, but it appears that may not have been the case. That said, the more someone plays, the more opportunities they get to build this stat.  Knowing that, I also looked at this stat on a per appearance basis

Plus/Minus Per Appearance Through 19 Games

Chris Durkin, 3
Travis Worra, 2
Luke Mishu, 1
Nathan Shiffman, 1
Matt Turner, .8
Samuel Asante, .467
Anthony Grant, .429
Sunny Jane, .429
Alex Lee, .429
Hugh Roberts, .421
Yudai Imura, .412
Ryan Taylor, .4
Braeden Troyer, .369
Luiz Fernando, .316
Lucas Paulini, .313
William Yomby, .294
Michael Callahan, .286
Brian Ownby, .222
Sascha Gorres, .142
Jason Yeisley, .125
Charlie Horton, .125
Fred Owusu Sekyere, .059
Matthew Delicate, 0
Romulo Peretta, 0
Paul Clowes, 0
Jackson Eskay, 0
Miguel Aguilar, 0
Travis Pittman, -.333
Jalen Robinson, -.5
Sawyer Gaffney, -1

The issue with this measurement is immediately clear. If you’ve played in fewer games, one good (or bad) game drastically warps your average. Looking at that list, it takes until the sixth name listed to find a player who has appeared in more than half the games.  Furthermore, there is not a differentiation between starting and coming on as a reserve.  Late game subs will often get a score of 0 for a game, which while not affecting the raw score, does impact this average.

Even with some of these measurement issues, there are still a few takeaways to be had in my opinion.  Even though he hasn’t scored as many as he would like, things tend to happen when Anthony Grant is playing.  Likewise, Luiz Fernando had a much higher score than I would have guessed, and a good number of his appearances have been as a sub too.  Finally, Alex Lee is ranked high in this metric, and he didn’t get much benefit from the recent hot streak (only a +1 from a possible +8). I suspected that we played better with him on the field, and this seems to back it up.

I was also a little surprised that Owusu was noticeably lower than his peers. This may just be a case of tough fortune. I certainly do not think it’s a reflection of how he’s performed this season.

I’ll keep an eye on this moving forward to see if anything normalizes as the season continues. It’s not a perfect stat, but it could be telling in conjunction with some other metrics.

One Night in Pittsburgh

On a whim, I decided to head up to Pittsburgh on Thursday.  Needless to say, it was a much longer trip than I ever imagined. Still, getting another three points was worth the 13+ hour journey.

On the field, while it helps to have played one of the weaker teams in the league, the Kickers looked strong for a second straight match.  I’ll talk about it in more detail in a future post, but the offense looks far more fluid and productive with Sunny Jane on the field.  He’s creating space and chances for his teammates, and of course he’s chipped in with goals the last two games.  More than anything else, he’s been willing to run at defenders. Adding this extra dimension in the middle of the field opens up the defense and forces them to make a decision.  Defenders will know that Sunny wants to run at them, which should begin opening space for Anthony Grant, Luiz Fernando, and others to also get good looks.  It’s no secret the offense was bogged down for most of the season, but this development might be the solution to the struggles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, there are no such troubles.  Even with the revolving door of goalkeepers, the defense remains rock solid.  Hugh Roberts and William Yomby have held down the central defense all season, and Braeden Troyer has made the left back spot his own.  Alex Lee, Luke Mishu, and Travis Pittman have split time at right back, with each offering different strengths.  Overall, this group has kept the Kickers afloat with the fifth fewest goals allowed in the league despite having played more games than those teams ahead of them.

Off the field, I would easily recommend a trip to Highmark Stadium.  It’s pretty easy to get to, just off of the interstate in downtown Pittsburgh. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly seen the backdrop of the city on the broadcasts.  It’s more stunning in person, and the mountain immediately behind the stadium is equally awe inspiring as well. Parking isn’t too bad at the stadium. There are multiple lots available, as well as garages if you choose to go in that direction.  Hotels and shops (I assume restaurants too, but it was almost midnight by the time the game was over, so I was just looking to get back to DC at that point) line the streets by the stadium, which can make for a quality day out.

Now, if power remained on throughout the game, I might have been able to take advantage of the bar built into the admin building on the west side of the stadium.  It looked impressive though.  There’s also a team shop right next to it, making for a nice fan experience as you enter the park. Concessions were fairly run of the mill, but there is a decent beer selection, so no complaints on my end.  The stands themselves are fine, your typical bucket seating on metal bleachers.  You are very close to the field at Highmark, so it’s tough to identify a bad seat on the two sides of the stadium with established stands. I’ll always recommend any road trip since they are loads of fun, but Pittsburgh in particular should go near the top of your list for future seasons.

Now, onto a non-league game against Swansea.  Hopefully it’s a good crowd and players who need some minutes can get playing time to establish themselves to the coaching staff.  More than anything though, I hope that no one gets hurt heading into the stretch run.

Our New Best Friends

So, it’s been a little while since the last post.  Well, I guess I could say that I’m trying to keep pace with the Kickers attack, but that would just be mean. More accurately, I’ve just been running all over the place and haven’t had a chance to really sit down and come up with ideas of what I want to write about. Fear not though, I’m here, and I have something to say!

Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of months in Kickersville.  The team has picked up a whopping one win in the last two months, and as a result has slid out of the playoff positions.  Nope, not ideal.  Now that we’re a little past the halfway point in the season, it’s time to keep one eye on the scoreboard too. Like it or not, reality says that our fate will be partly in the hands of others just as much anyone else’s.  It would be great if the Kickers caught fire and won out (and would be equally devastating if they lost out), rendering everything else inconsequential, but that’s just not happening.

So let’s look at the table, and find out who all of our new second and third favorite teams are.  Warning: this may be painful.

Tier 1:

The top of the table has Louisville and Red Bulls leading the way, with New York trailing by 6 points but also holding two games in hand.  Cincinnati and Charleston are right behind, with 31 and 30 points respectively.  Simply put, we’re probably not catching any of these teams.  I keep trying to convince myself that Charleston is in range, but reality is setting in.  Figuring that we’re not going to make up the gap on these teams, it’s time to start rooting for them to keep taking points off of everyone else.  If one starts to falter, they could fall back to the pack, but for the sake of chasing a playoff spot, it’s now in the Kickers best interests for these four teams to get all the wins that they can (minus the games against Richmond obviously).

Tier 3:

Yes, I skipped two. We’ll come back to that.

On the opposite end of the table, we have four teams that realistically aren’t making the playoffs. Harrisburg and Toronto have the most points of the bunch, but they’ve also played more games that anyone else in the east.  Pittsburgh and Montreal are in a race to the bottom.  Any points that these teams take the rest of the way, and especially against the Tier 2 teams, is a bonus.  Rooting for them to win may be a ritual in frustration, but even draws can deny two points from a playoff competitor. Again, a team could catch fire and get into the race, but I’d be really surprised if that happened and won’t worry about that unless it happens.

Tier 2:

This is where the crazy happens. There’s currently six teams within seven points, and four of those teams will make the playoffs.  Charlotte is the top of the group as of right now, with Rochester right behind with a game in hand. Orlando has jumped up into a playoff spot, currently with 22 points, but with two more games played than the Rhinos.  Wilmington is now ahead of the Kickers on goal difference by one goal, and Bethlehem has 18 after only 15 games.

Translation: it’s tight, and things can and will change week to week.  The short version says to root against these five teams at any opportunity.  Ultimately the Kickers have to finish above two of these teams.  Obviously finishing higher up the table would be best, but we’re at the point of taking eighth and running right now, so first things first.

The schedule is pretty balanced for the Kickers the rest of the way.  They play 5 times against Tier 1, 5 times against Tier 2, and 4 times against Tier 3.  Interestingly enough, the next three are against Tier 3 teams, so if there’s a time to get healthy in the standings, it’s now. Along the way, start rooting for those top teams too or against the direct competition, whichever you can stomach better.  Either way, there’s no shame in getting by with a little help from your friends.

Delicate’s Top 10

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Ever since the good news came out over the weekend that Deli’s surgery to remove the cancerous mass on his kidney was successful, I’ve been thinking about his impact on the Kickers and how to showcase what he’s meant to the club.  He’s been associated with the team since 2003 when he played for the Future, the Kickers former PDL team, and led the team to the playoffs. So when we think about Deli, what do we immediately think about? Goals.  He’s scored 94 times for the Kickers since 2004 (I don’t particularly care about those three years he spent in Rochester, but he did score another 19 there according to the always reliable Wikipedia), and I’ve compiled my choice for his top 10 goals with the pro team. I’d include video of each, but a) some of the old games don’t have video available and b) I can’t seem to get YouTube embedded on here without paying for it, so you can use your imagination or look them up yourself.

So, in chronological order, here are Deli’s Top 10 goals:

May 31, 2004, Kickers 4, Virginia Beach 2

Back in the A-League days, the Kickers and the Virginia Beach Mariners competed for the James River Cup, often in doubleheader weekends.  Richmond typically won these battles, and this game was no different. This was the fourth and final match between the teams this season, with the Kickers going 3-0-1.  Deli scored twice on this day, with his first being the featured goal on the list.  The Mariners were ahead 1-0 at halftime before Richmond scored three goals in less than 10 minutes to open the second half. Deli’s goal gave the Kickers a 2-1 lead.  He was able to receive a pass at the top of the penalty area from Tony Williams and beat the goalkeeper with a low shot into the bottom right corner.  Deli would add an assist to his tally before also scoring the fourth and final goal of the day for the Kickers as they wrapped up another successful season against their rivals.

July 30, 2004, Kickers 3, Puerto Rico 2

The Kickers were a very solid team in 2004, and Deli’s rookie season was going pretty well. He scored seven goals this season, and his final one came in this game.  While the Kickers were a solid team, the Islanders were not. However, Puerto Rico found themselves ahead 2-1 in the 89th minute and looked poised to take all three points from City Stadium. At that point Rob Ukrop entered the game.  Within a minute, Deli had equalized.  Ukrop sent a hopeful cross in from the right side, and Deli was able to power home a header past the goalkeeper at the far post to seemingly salvage a point.  He would go on to get the assist on Ukrop’s winner as well, but that’s a story for another time.

September 23, 2005, Kickers 3, Rochester 1

Both Delicate and the Kickers had limped into the playoffs this season, with the striker not finding the scoresheet in league play since May.  However, they advanced via penalties over Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs (0-0 and 0-0, exciting stuff!) and faced Rochester in the semifinals.  The playoffs were two legged affairs in those days, and the Kickers hosted the first leg. Despite his struggles through the summer, Leigh picked Deli to start the game, and was that ever a good decision.  In the 13th minute, Deli played a long ball down the right touchline for McColm Cephas to run onto.  The speedy Liberian outpaced the defense and gathered the ball just as it approached the endline. After taking a touch, he sent a cross toward the penalty spot, where Deli rose above a defender to power home a header for the 1-0 lead.  He would also tap home the third goal later in the game to send the Kickers to New York with a two goal edge in the series.

September 25, 2005, Kickers 1, Rochester 1

Two days later, Deli put the stake in the heart of the Rhinos.  Despite their best efforts, the Rhinos couldn’t score in the first half and had only 45 minutes left to find two goals to send the series to extra time.  About five minutes into the second half, Chris Carrieri broke up the left flank on a counter attack and slid the ball across the field to a wide open Delicate.  He easily slid the ball underneath the keeper and put the Kickers up three goals on aggregate. Some late nonsense gave the Rhinos an equalizer from the penalty spot, but Deli nearly single-handedly put the Kickers into the final at Seattle the next week and closed down Frontier Field, Rochester’s home for their dominant years.

August 22, 2009, Kickers 1, Harrisburg 0

After three years in the wilderness that is Rochester, Deli returned to the Kickers in 2009 and was immediately back to his scoring ways.  He tallied 14 times that year, none more meaningful than in the playoffs against the City Islanders.  The Kickers were hosting this semifinal, and the game went into extra time.  It looked like this would come down to penalties, but the Kickers won a corner in the 120th minute.  After the ball bounced around in the box a few times, Deli managed to find the ball at his feet only a few yards from goal, and he powered it into the net to send the Kickers into the final. It wasn’t the prettiest goal he ever scored, but last minute goals that win playoff games seem like a pretty big deal to me.

June 15, 2010, Kickers 1, Crystal Palace Baltimore 0

This was a first round Open Cup game that, and stop me if this sounds familiar, ended 0-0 after regulation.  Once again, it seemed as though penalties were looming until that man Matthew Delicate came to the rescue.  In the 119th minute, Deli was able to get on the end of a cross and head home from six yards out to defeat the second division squad and send the Kickers into a match against Real Maryland.

June 28, 2011, Kickers 2, Columbus 1

Everyone has heard the stories of the Kickers beating Sporting Kansas City in the Open Cup quarterfinals, but it’s easy to forget that they had to beat the Crew in Columbus first to get to that round. The Kickers went ahead early, but Columbus equalized by halftime.  The Kickers had the upper hand in the second half after a Crew player was sent off but couldn’t break through the defense.  Finally, in the 85th minute Deli scored the winner off a diving header from an Edson Elcock long ball to send Richmond into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.

August 14, 2013, Kickers 2, Orlando 0

This game clinched the regular season championship for the Kickers and capped off a late season comeback for Deli.  After not factoring into most of the early part of the season due to injury, Deli came on strong and finished with six goals in a month, the last of which was the most impressive.  Orlando had been a juggernaut since joining USL in 2011, but Deli’s two goals on the day knocked them off their perch. His second of the evening was especially noteworthy.  Brian Ownby worked his way down the left flank and sent a low cross toward the penalty spot.  Deli met the ball with his run and finished above the goalkeeper with the outside of his right foot to put the Kickers up 2 inside of half an hour.

July 12, 2014, Kickers 2, Sacramento 1

Most of the goals on this list have been headers or poacher’s goals from short distances.  This goal is certainly the exception to the rule. Almost immediately after Sacramento scored, Deli came into the game to seek an equalizer.  Spoiler alert: he got it. Jason Yeisley flicked along a long ball near midfield, and Deli, who would probably tell you he is not the fleetest of foot, got in behind the defense.  He let the ball run along and struck the ball past the keeper with his first touch of the game.  Honestly, his second goal to win the game probably could have and should have made the list, but I wanted to mix it up a little bit.

September 13, 2014, Kickers 2, Charleston 1

The Kickers were up against their oldest rival in the first round of the playoffs, the first time the two teams had met in the postseason since the USL2 Final in 2010.  Deli had finished up the season with 14 regular season goals and was up for league MVP honors.  Unfortunately, he was also dealing with an injury that kept him on the bench for this one.  However, if this list has taught us anything, it’s that Matthew Delicate has a penchant for dramatic late goals.  Regulation ended 1-1, and once again it appeared as though penalties were in the Kickers future. Deli subbed into the match in the 116th minute, presumably to take a penalty.  The Kickers had a throw deep in the Charleston half at that point, and promptly sent a cross into the box.  The Charleston keeper punched the cross away, but Juan Arbalaez sent the ball immediately back to the far post, where Deli contorted his body to head home with, once again, his first touch of the game.  It was enough to send the Kickers into the semifinals no matter how much the Battery protested and claimed offside (he wasn’t offside).

So that’s the list. Amazingly enough, even though he’s scored 14 times against Pittsburgh, not a one made my cut.  There are 84 goals not listed on here, I’d love to hear which ones you think should be in the top ten instead, or why you like a specific one I picked out. Goals are fun, let’s talk about them. And let’s hope there’s an update to this post in the future when Deli comes back and gets to 100 in his Kickers career!

Escape from Cincinnati

So on my travels, I decided to take a roundabout way to my destination and drop in to Cincinnati for the Kickers away game last night.  Funny how that timing happened to work out.  If you’re reading this, you almost certainly already know that the game ended 1-1, so I’m not going to write a traditional recap.  Also because I’ve found that writing in that style isn’t exactly the most fun for me, so I’m going to write about what I want and how I want.  Crazy concept, right?

The FC Cincinnati setup is night and day on so many levels from what we experience in Richmond.  Some of it is better, some of it is worse.  First of all, parking.  UC is a downtown campus. Imagine if City Stadium was nestled into the middle or at least on the edge of VCU.  Yeah, it was a mess.  I didn’t realize it as I was approaching the stadium, mostly because I was trying to follow the GPS and not end up hopelessly lost.  In retrospect, pretty much every shoulder for a good half a mile being packed tight should have tipped me off.  So rather than go on a wild goose hunt, it was a parking garage for me.  Maybe there were other options, and better options, but setting up shop on level 5 across the street from the athletic complex for $10 seemed like a good enough choice at that point. Our gravel lots aren’t sexy, but you can’t beat the convenience factor, and you definitely can’t beat that wonderful price of free.

They sell beer.  They have vendors selling beer.  They have at least twenty different spots to buy beer.  This is good.  The selection, for the most part, is not.  Now, I am a self-admitted beer snob, but I saw one Sweetwater kiosk, and one Mad Tree station.  I got a Mad Tree IPA, and it was quite good. I’d recommend it if you like hoppy beers.  Everything else in the stadium was Bud/Bud Light/Miller Lite or Corona brand.  Here’s the thing though, everything was priced the same at $8.  A) Why would you ever pay $8 for a Bud Light and B) Why would you ever pay $8 for a Bud Light when you can get a much better beer for the same price?  It’s not like we didn’t have an hour delay to walk around the stadium to find the good stuff!

FC Cincinnati has figured out a way to tap into the bro culture in town.  There were plenty of families there too, but I saw a considerable number, even for the 11k+ crowd, of 20somethings coming out to the game as step one of their night out.  I’m sure the location helps their cause, and I certainly heard plenty of comments about going to the bars as I was hiking back to the car, but credit to them for making their games the cool thing to do. Of course that demographic is every sales manager’s white whale, and the Kickers have done a great job increasing attendance and enhancing the atmosphere the last couple years, but this is the next frontier in moving forward.

As for the game, I thought the team played pretty well given Sunny and Asante being unavailable.  The goal they scored was unfortunate, but that’s gotta be one of the easier to fix you can have.  I seriously doubt that Charlie spills another cross like that, it just sucks that the Cincinnati player was right there on his own. What was encouraging though was the support his teammates gave him. At and after halftime, almost every single guy went up to him and gave him a pat on the back or a hug, clearly not worried about the mistake. That’s the kind of resolve that’s good to see, because it wouldn’t be hard at all to just internally think that you have to cover your keeper even more after that happened.

Yudai is fine. I was a little worried that he got hurt again when he came off so quickly in the second half, but he said he was ok.  It was also fun to see how well he connected with the Troyer family after the game.  It’s almost like he is an adopted son to them. Again, that’s the kind of stuff you like to see from your club.

Oh yeah, Hugh Roberts scored a great goal at the final opportunity to get the tie.  That was good.  I’d expect to see him on the USL Team of the Week, in part because he had a great game outside of one loose touch early on, and also because a defender scoring merits almost automatic inclusion to the USL staff who selects the team.  Ownby should on merit be there too, since I thought he was the best player on the field, but he won’t be because he didn’t score. It’s stupid, but I guess USL can’t be bothered to actually watch and analyze their games. Looking at boxscores is much simpler.

Pittsburgh is next week, and it’s the doubleheader with the US/Paraguay game.  In a cruel twist of fate, I have a wedding to go to in Pittsburgh that day.   Not cool.  Folks, don’t let you or your loved ones schedule life events during soccer season. That’s what the offseason is for. And yes, I am a little bit bitter, thanks for asking!

3 Points Needed

We’re 10 games into the season now, and the Kickers are remarkably unremarkable 4-3-3.  Right now that’s good enough to be sixth place, although Rochester is right behind them with two games in hand.  Here’s the thing though, I don’t think anyone out there thinks that sixth is or should be the goal.  It would get the team into the playoffs, but it would almost certainly mean having to win four straight road games to bring home the championship.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this team isn’t exactly a road powerhouse, so that path seems a bit suboptimal.

Enter FC Montreal.  This is a team that is worse than the Kickers on the road.  The Kickers have picked up 2 points away from home. Montreal has 0. In fact, they have 0 points at home too.  They are a smooth 0-8 with 3 goals scored so far.  Simply put, this has to be a win. Drawing Louisville at home last week was fine, but playoff caliber teams take three points from teams like this and don’t look back.

However, it hasn’t always been that simple.  Montreal was pretty bad last year too, especially in the first half of the year when the teams played their two games.  The Kickers won 1-0 on a Matt Delicate goal in Montreal, but settled for a 0-0 tie at home.  That game was noteworthy because it was the game when Brian Ownby got injured and was lost for the season. In retrospect, that was the turning point in the season, and the team never again really looked like a threat to contend.

The defense will be without Alex Lee this weekend, as he is suspended following his red card last week.  Both Travis Pittman and Jalen Robinson have filled in there this year, so there shouldn’t be too much disruption because of this change. Who starts will be mostly dependent on if Robinson is sent on loan or not. Otherwise, expect Charlie Horton to man the nets again, with the usual suspects of Roberts, Yomby, and Troyer in front of him.

I’d like to see something changed up in the midfield and attack, but I’m not sure what exactly. Clearly the existing plans haven’t been working, so why not mix it up some and give a different look a try?  While a 1-0 win would give the team the needed points, the fanbase is itching for a more formidable attacking stance, and this is the opponent to potentially provide the solution. If it means Fernando or Yeisely come off the bench, so be it.

I fully expect the Kickers to win this game and strengthen their position in the table ahead of a busy travel week to Florida and Ohio. Let’s see those flashes from the first 45 of the season and reignite the excitement around this team.

Open Cup Review and Louisville Preview

So Wednesday night was fun.  Although I don’t think anyone really thought that the Kickers would get upset (like, say, a team from South Carolina who got lucky through nothing they did), the game was effectively over within about 90 seconds when Sunny Jane scored on a free kick.  Right from the opening whistle, the Kickers dominated the game and showed the difference between professionals and amateurs.  After 90 minutes of one way traffic with very few exceptions, Richmond ultimately won 4-0 and probably could have doubled that was some cleaner finishing. In addition to Jane’s opener, Hugh Roberts, Anthony Grant, and Luiz Fernando got on the scoresheet, each tallying for the first time in 2016.

Leigh was able to play a primarily reserve team to save some legs and also let other guys get some minutes.  Charlie Horton was in goal, but really didn’t have to do much other than receive a few backpasses.  He looked the part though, so there’s that.  Typical starters Yomby and Roberts did start in central defense, which hopefully gave them a little more time to get accustomed to Horton and vice versa.  Sascha Gorres and Travis Pittman manned the outside back positions, and may as well have been midfielders with how far they were able to push forward.  Owusu and Paulini cleaned up almost everything that found its way into the middle of the field and never allowed Aroma’s to even think about getting something started.  Romulo, Jane, and Jackson Eskay filled the attacking midfield positions, and Anthony Grant was the front runner.  The hope is that these guys built some confidence from the game and will be able to contribute if and when they are called upon, possibly as soon as Saturday.

With the win, the Kickers advanced to the third round of the Open Cup, and will travel to Fort Lauderdale on June 1st to play the Strikers, a NASL team.  Should they advance, it’s an always mouth-watering matchup against DC United, this time somewhere in the DMV rather than at City Stadium.

Before any of that happens though, there’s the matter of taking care of business in the league. League leaders Louisville come to town on Saturday with momentum and some familiar faces. They were also in action midweek, facing the NPSL’s Detroit City. This was not the walkover that the Kickers experienced. Louisville needed extra time and penalties, including a late penalty in the second extra to equalize, to advance, and utilized a significant number of first choice players to do so.  While they are professionals, it does raise the question of if Louisville will be fielding their strongest squad possible Saturday.

Louisville does bring two former Kickers with them to City Stadium.  Conor Shanosky has been a steady presence on defense for them the last two seasons, and has contributed a couple of goals lately as well.  He’ll inevitably be banging bodies with Jason Yeisley. If the referee this weekend calls a tight game, Shanosky might be in some trouble since he has a tendency to play defense with his hands quite a bit, usually giving away at least a couple fouls anyway per game that way.  George Davis IV joined Louisville this offseason, and after struggling for minutes most of the year, he has begun getting more time recently and scored his first goal for the club last weekend.  If he’s on the field, look for Alex Lee to be the primary defender assigned to him.

Overall, Louisville has shown they can win by outscoring their opponents or by shutting them down.  After a flurry of high scoring affairs, lately they’ve been showcasing their defensive prowess, shutting out their last two league opponents.  Greg Ranjitsingh started the season on the bench, but after coming in following a red card a few weeks ago, he’s taken hold of the starting spot and doesn’t look like he wants to give it up.  In attack, Chandler Hoffman is the key man to watch.  The striker has scored seven goals already this season and constantly looks to find an inch of space to exploit in the penalty area.

Without much question, this will be the Kickers toughest test thus far in 2016.  The team has been strong at home this year, and there is optimism coming from the locker room that the performances on the field are approaching what the players expect.  Chance creation will be a difference making factor in this one, and if Yudai Imura and Brian Ownby can work together to find a few opportunities for the team, another positive result at home is completely reasonable.

Open Cup Preview

Later this afternoon, the Kickers will finally begin their Open Cup run, hosting Aroma’s Cafe of Charlottesville at City Stadium.  The Kickers will enter as heavy favorites being a professional team against an amateur squad.

The Kickers have a long history of success in the Open Cup, clearly topped by winning the tournament in 1995.  Beyond lifting the trophy, the Kickers have advanced to the quarterfinal round of the tournament on four other occasions, most recently in 2011 when they advanced all the way to the semifinals before falling 2-1 to the Chicago Fire.  Along the way the Kickers have knocked off five MLS teams, including back to back away wins in that 2011 run.  On the flip side of the coin, Richmond has only once in their history fallen to lower tier opposition, dropping a 1-0 result in 2006 to the Carolina Dynamo of the PDL.

Aroma’s is making their Open Cup debut this year, and won last week against the Richmond Strikers 2-1 in extra time to advance.  There isn’t a ton of information out there about the club, but they promote themselves as being very diverse and featuring many former college players, as you would expect from a team still standing at this stage of the competition.  One name that we do know is Jake van Yahres, who played at VCU and scored the winner last week.

Expect the Kickers to play a primarily reserve squad tonight.  Charlie Horton will make his Kickers debut in goal on loan from DC United, and will presumably be our keeper for the foreseeable future.  Unless he’s hurt, Yomby will play in central defense after sitting out in New York, with Sascha Gorres and Travis Pittman joining him back there.  I’d guess Alex Lee would be the other defender, but I’m not as sure about that one.  In the midfield, look for Owusu to provide leadership.  Romulo will certainly start this one, and I’d be surprised if Nate Shiffman doesn’t play a big role too.  Lucas Paulini seems like a logical pick to start with Owusu, but again, that one could go any number of ways.  Up front, I think we see Anthony Grant and Jackson Eskay.  There’s a big game on Saturday, so I imagine the coaching staff would rather rest most key players, and especially those that played extensive minutes last week.  Guys like Ownby, Yeisley, and Imura will surely be on the bench just in case things aren’t going to plans though.

All in all, this is a game the Kickers should win without too much trouble.  If this were a gambling site, I’d probably set the line at Kickers -3.5, and I’d be worried that I set it too low and I’d get hammered by people taking the home team.

No stream tonight by the way, so you’ll have to find your way out to City Stadium to see the game, or just read here after to find out what happened.  You should read here anyway though, even if you do go to the game.