2020: Five Burning Pre-Season Questions

With the new U.S. Open Cup schedule, Minneapolis City’s season starts in less than a month. As we look forward to the first kickoff of 2020, here are five burning questions about the year ahead.

5. How long do the Crows stay in the NPSL?

A lot of big name clubs left the league: Detroit City, Chattanooga, Asheville City, AFC Ann Arbor, Miami FC, and the New York Cosmos. That decisively changes the appeal of the league, especially in the Midwest. 

When you add those losses to the shrinking North Conference and, unless there is smart expansion next season, City are left in a diminished league in a diminished conference and must surely be wondering if they have outgrown the NPSL.

That may be alarmist. Clubs like Little Rock Rangers, Tulsa Athletic, and Kingston Stockade have high profiles for this level, draw well, and would be tasty playoffs opponents. Further, the North Conference would get interesting again with some expansion. Des Moines Wanderers looked really good when they visited Minneapolis, Nebraska Bugeaters are a perfect fit for the NPSL, Dynamo St. Cloud keep growing, and a well-run team in St. Paul, Woodbury, or Stillwater seems like a no-brainer.

At the same time, City has never seemed entirely comfortable in the league. The Crows joined the NPSL along with the old American Premier League (APL) teams. While you would think that a club with the profile, operational excellence, and on-field product of City would be involved in the league hierarchy, you would be wrong. Those positions have gone to members of TwinStars, Duluth, and, now, Med City. The APL mafia shutting them out? Or City looking ahead to something bigger? After all, it wasn’t long ago that they tweeted out a poll that asked what league they should be in.

The NPSL finished last in that poll, after “I don’t care what league they are in, I’ll follow anyway.”

4. What should we expect from a new-look NPSL North?

Three big changes mean one major implication: it’s going to be harder than ever to win the NPSL North Conference.

The Minnesota TwinStars were always eager to play spoiler, upping their game especially against Minneapolis City and Duluth, but were unable to trouble the top of the table. Sioux Falls Thunder, for their part, were seen by the title challengers as an easy three points. They have been replaced with the Milwaukee Torrent, last seen playing in the professional Member’s Cup competition, and representing a big upgrade in quality. Don’t be fooled by their finishes in past NPSL summer seasons in the Great Lakes Conference. The level there was extremely high.

So, Minneapolis City lost two clubs that gave them 12 points last season and added one battle-hardened one with professional ambitions.

While Dakota Fusion and La Crosse Aris remain in the conference, everyone else will expect to beat them handily. Fewer, more competitive teams mean big results will be required to win a trophy this season. It will be more competitive than ever.

3. Can the Crows continue to grow their fanbase?

The transparency from the club is a breath of fresh air in a league where most don’t release anything about their financials, paid attendance, or ownership situation. That, and especially the yearly financial review articles, make it possible to chart growth over the years.

The growth has been impressive. Yet, it feels important to say that the growth has come from a modest starting point and while last season’s crowds were friendly, fun, and larger than ever, they aren’t consistently over 1,000/game yet, let alone like the playoff game in Detroit.

Historically in American soccer, it’s the momentum that is hard to sustain. Look at Houston Dynamo, whose new-stadium bounce wore off in five short years, let alone lower division teams like Med City that announced 1,200 at their home opener in 2017 and found themselves in 2019, undefeated and chasing a trophy, playing a must-win home game in great summer weather in front of maybe 100. Novelty is a powerful thing.

Med City hosts the Minnesota TwinStars in June 2019

So can the Crows, in an over-saturated pro sports market, with Minnesota United humming on-field and in a still new stadium, keep growing in year five? Can they keep growing at the incredible pace they have done for these past years? Their history suggests that they will, and they must feel like they are on the cusp of achieving critical mass.

2. Will the U.S. Open Cup be helpful or hurtful?

In past years, the first round of the U.S. Open Cup was played during one of the first two weeks of May. The positive for NPSL teams was that they had at least some of their college players available, but the negative was having to deal with a big midweek game (or two) right at the beginning of the league season.

This year, the first round of the tournament starts the last week of March. While Minneapolis City won’t have their college players, they will get an earlier start to their season. There are a number of reasons that might not be as helpful as it seems at first.

It could mean for a really disjointed pre-season. Even with a win in Chicago, the second round is the first week of April and, while a Cupset in Madison would be incredible, the most likely outcome is that City have to do an Open Cup pre-season and then another pre-season in April for NPSL. Add to that the second issue, that the college players will be coming back after the Open Cup and need to be integrated, and it really is two different pre-seasons with two different, though overlapping, player pools. There isn’t a coach in the land who would call this ideal.

On the other hand, the earlier start could result in a galvanized team, already match fit, and ready to go. With the shorter season this year early points matter more than ever. Time will tell if the Open Cup jaunt helps the Crows get them.

1. How much consistency is too much? 

The past two years saw the Crows win the conference with a game to spare, forging an exciting, attacking team of local players along the way. The results proved out the idea that City had plenty of young talent, and keeping the core together allowed the team to grow as a unit. The Crows reaped the benefits of continuity.

The same isn’t going to be true this time around. Subtract the meaningless game against Med City at the end of the season and the Crows have lost one competitive conference game in two years. Just three competitive NPSL games in total when you add in playoffs. That is a remarkable consistency, but eventually a dip becomes inevitable.

Or does it? The challenge for the Crows is rejuvenation without upsetting the delicate balance of the team, and the relationships forged in past seasons.

Some senior players have moved on: Martin Browne, Ben Wexler, Whitney Browne, and Trey Benhart are stalwarts who don’t appear to be on the roster any longer. Reinforcements will be needed. That makes it an interesting title challenge. Can Matt vanBenschoten bring in new talent, integrate players who will push the core guys and make a difference in their own right without destroying the chemistry?

This is especially meaningful in the context of the player set. Do players like Max Stiegwardt, Kevin Hoof, and Will Kidd have the same hunger, fitness, and discipline now that they’re graduated from college? Do players who have been with the club so long they feel like part of the furniture like Matt Elder, Aarson Olson, and Charlie Adams have another year in them? There is no reason to assume that they don’t, but even at the highest level of the game timing player turnover and reinventing a team is a tough task. Just ask Pep Guardiola.

The addition of the U23/MC2 team has given the Crows a conveyor belt of talent. We saw that last season with Eli Goldman and Noah Senn stepping in at the end of the year to make important contributions. Last year, the U23 team had Gustavus Adolphus All-American forwards Matt Gibbons and Cole Schwartz, Wake Forest midfielder Jake Swallen, and Northern Illinois goalkeeper Martin Sanchez. Can these or other young guns step up and build the next great Minneapolis City team, and can they do it seamlessly? The title may well hinge on the answer to this question.

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