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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.