All Images: Steve Aibel, LittleOrcaSports.com / Pitch Black News
A year ago on Saturday, Spurs Sports and Entertainment was officially awarded a United Soccer League franchise and announced Darren Powell as its first head coach.
There are a few things worth noting about that announcement, to put it in perspective. For one, while there was somewhat of a front office in place, Powell was the club’s first employee geared toward matters on the field (in other words, players and coaches). Second, the club didn’t even have a name yet; it was still referred to as simply “USL San Antonio.”
A year later, quite a lot has changed, for the better.
San Antonio FC’s inaugural season had its ups and downs. On the plus side, they started on the right foot with a 3-0 win away to Seattle Sounders FC 2, made it to the fourth round of the US Open Cup, saw impressive individual and team performances and had a few promising runs of results.
However, their opening game ended up being their best result all season, they went crashing out of the US Open Cup at the hands of the Houston Dynamo by a demoralizing 4-0 scoreline – their worst-ever defeat – and one injury after another disrupted their season and kept them from reaching their full potential.
For a club built entirely from scratch in a couple of months though, they didn’t do badly. Sure, they wanted to do better, make the playoffs, etc, but they can still be proud of what they accomplished, given the circumstances.
And let’s not forget what they did on the field in their first year is by no means what the project is all about. SS&E and SAFC aren’t shy about their ambitions of making it into MLS, and the way they’ve run the club as a whole in the first year shows that’s not just empty rhetoric.
They got off on the right foot in terms of spreading the word about the club and building their brand, with a massively successful car magnet campaign and San Antonio Spurs broadcast tie-ins being particularly noteworthy. The club also established a youth academy even before their inaugural home game. Convincing MLS that San Antonio is the right place for one of their expansion franchises won’t happen overnight, but the signs look promising so far.
Now SAFC has a proper offseason to prepare for 2017 and the new year and season ahead already look promising for SAFC. A year after the franchise’s awarding and Powell’s hiring, there’s now a full coaching staff and 13 players already signed on for the coming season, plus the aforementioned groundwork being laid away from the first team.
Among the 13 players signed on for 2017 are some welcome returnees from the inaugural season. San Antonio native and fan-favorite goalkeeper Matt Cardone, after conjuring some impressive performances and saving four penalty kicks last season, will likely take over as starting goalkeeper on a more permanent basis now that Josh Ford has retired. Joint-top scorers for the team Rafa Castillo and Franck Tayou will return. All-time minutes leader for the club Greg Cochrane is coming back. Michael Reed and Stephen McCarthy, critical parts of SAFC’s spine (and two of the players we felt SAFC needed to work hardest to retain), will once again grace Toyota Field with their presence. Miguel Salazar, Victor Araujo and Cesar Elizondo will also be returning.
“Last year was a little crazy (at the beginning), but credit to (managing director) Tim Holt, coach Darren Powell and the technical staff for putting together a squad as quickly as they did,” Cochrane said in an interview with the club. “Going into year two, we have a philosophy. Coach Darren knows what he wants and the style he wants to play, so I think it will be a lot smoother.”
On top of bringing back some of the standout players from last season though, SAFC has made some impressive additions. Kris Tyrpak was a mainstay in the Swope Park Rangers team which reached the USL final in 2016, and he’ll look to do the same with SAFC in 2017. Cyprian Hedrick joined SAFC after being part of a very stingy and effective Oklahoma City Energy FC defense last year. Ben Newnam, who along with Greg Cochrane and three others was tied for the third-best assists tally for a defender in 2016, is bringing his talents to the Alamo City for the coming season.
And of course rumors and speculation will once again surface about Billy Forbes, a fan favorite in his two years with the San Antonio Scorpions, joining SAFC. Forbes had lunch with Powell and assistant coach Nick Evans on Thursday. For various reasons, SAFC wasn’t the fit for Forbes in 2016, but perhaps the Turks and Caicos midfielder is looking for some stability after his previous two seasons ended with his club folding (Scorpions in 2015, Rayo OKC in 2016). His signing may still be unlikely, but as they say, anything is possible.
Additionally, the US Soccer Federation announced on Friday the USL would be provisionally sanctioned as a second-division league for 2017, alongside the North American Soccer League which will persist despite considerable instability and uncertainty. Though only provisional, the new sanctioning puts SAFC just below their target destination of MLS. Both fans and players had looked at the USL warily simply because of its status as the third division; for 2017 at least, that argument will be put to sleep.
While 2016 was breathless, exciting and had some lasting positives for SAFC, 2017 is already showing lots of promise, and we’re hardly a week in. What a difference a year makes…