After dwindling to one Texas team during the 2016 season, the Premier Development League (PDL) made a comeback for the 2017 season when four new Texas clubs began play in the Mid South Division of the Southern Conference. In 2018 a modicum of stability has been established as all these clubs return and two new teams have been added. A very positive development for high-level amateur soccer in the state.
Houston FC is one of these returning second year Texas clubs and, despite a challenging first season, has come back with a renewed focus and the kind of new initiatives one sees from a club that intends to be around for a while.
The PDL, part of the United Soccer League (USL), is one of a handful of leagues that comprise the unofficial fourth-tier of the US Soccer League system. Featuring mostly college and other youth players, who are able to retain their amateur status, the PDL season runs from May to August. There are 6 Texas teams in the PDL Mid South Division, four in south Texas and two in the north. The Division is filled out by defending champion OKC Energy U23. Houston’s AHFC Royals and Corpus Christi FC are the two new Texas teams added this season.
Houston FC was formed in early 2017 when owner Jeff Fetzer, other investors and Head Coach Bruce Talbot came together to fill a gap they saw for local college players who needed a place to play during their summer break. Not an easy task, given the challenges of making a mark in a crowded large-city soccer environment. Establishing a club in a market with multiple other high-level amateur and professional soccer teams like Houston is very different than in a market like, for example, Corpus Christi that doesn’t face this level of competition. From the beginning though, the focus for Houston FC has been all about player development and the club views this as a way to establish a long-term differentiated presence in their complex large community.
“Our main objective is player development” said Fetzer. “If we can start making an impact on the schools that the players will be attending in the future or are currently attending, I think that the attraction (for Houston FC) will come from within the soccer community rather than growing an attraction around a venue or an event.”
Fetzer also rightly points out that despite the size of Houston, the soccer community is smaller than seems possible and completely intertwined. “We just have to focus on doing what is right..treat their players as professionals and have high expectations of what goes on in those summer months.” This he believes will lead to the positive word-of-mouth within the soccer community that will eventually lead to long-term enduring success for Houston FC.
Houston FC Head Coach Bruce Talbot returns for a second season
During its first season, Houston FC finished at the bottom of the Mid South Division with a 2-10-2 record. Despite the challenges faced during the inaugural season, Coach Bruce Talbot saw promise in the club’s 2017 performance.
“[The top finishers in the PDL Mid South] had a lot of experience. Over the course of the season you could see them get better and better and we [shifted focus] to developing younger players and you could see a switch in competitive spirit. We played two Under-16 kids in our last game just to get them experience and we tied 2-2.” Talbot continued, “Overall our games were competitive, and I was not displeased at all with how we played.”
Talbot has had a long career in soccer coaching and training. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, he went to school at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Early in his career Talbot trained under legendary college coaches like UNC’s Anson Dorrance and owes much of his philosophy and approach to youth development to these mentors. Locally, Talbot was involved in training at high-level Texas youth soccer clubs before being selected to lead Houston FC during its first season. In fact, it was at one of these youth clubs that Talbot was introduced to owner Jeff Fetzer, who was also involved at the same club as a parent and volunteer.
Talbot has a core of players rostered at this point but says, due to college schedules, that he will not be able to set his complete initial roster until a few weeks into the season. The roster will mostly consist of players with Houston connections, but the club will be bringing in some from other national schools too. Talbot pointed out one interesting side-benefit of having a mix of non-Houston players…the possible future college opportunities that could come for younger Houston FC players if the out of state player has a good experience during the summer and spreads the word back at their home school. He anticipates that his roster will be younger than last season, will include ten Under-18 players and 12 to 18 returning players from the first year. Some of these will predominately play on the reserve side and Under-23 team they are assembling.
He plans to roster 26 for the PDL team, but also has a unique philosophy that will lead to having 50 or so kids involved with his program this summer. “I don’t want to say no to anybody. If you pass the first week of training and are OK with where your placement is, you are more than welcome to stay.” Many of these players who will not see significant PDL minutes have seen substantial time during the preseason against high level opponents like Corpus Christi FC and NPSL’s Houston Dutch Lions.
Coach Talbot and his staff on sidelines during 2017 PDL action
Talbot also discussed the short period of time he has these players and the values he hopes to impart, much of which was instilled in him by his mentors many years ago. “The first and foremost thing our ownership and myself agree on is that we have to have impeccable citizenship. It’s easy to put together all the best players, but in such a short period of time I just want to make sure they have a positive experience, but also that they go away teaching my younger players how to behave when things don’t go your way.” Talbot continued, “The values we teach at our training are trust, discipline, commitment and a love of soccer. It might be corny, but I believe in that and I will not negotiate those values.”
The club will likely need to embody these values to navigate the challenging 2018 schedule. A slate of matches that already comes fast and furious during a compressed spring/summer season, will be complicated by a stretch of five away games to finish the season, coming immediately after a six-game midseason homestand.
Off the field Houston FC is pleased to have an off-season to better organize business, player recruiting, and technical operations that were virtually impossible to complete in the first season. The club announced that they would be joining the PDL just three months before the 2017 season started, allowing only time to accomplish basic internal tasks like hiring technical staff, establishing a roster and finding a place to play.
“Our intention [in the first year] was really focused all around the players. Are we developing good players and are we returning players to their colleges better than when we received them” said Fetzer. ” [Because of the short lead time] we didn’t engage as much with the community as we did with the soccer world, such as working with coaches and their players.”
Houston FC players celebrate a goal against FC Cleburne during 2017 PDL season
One key step forward in 2018 will be to play all home games at a single location, instead of splitting them between two venues (most of the matches at Rice University) as happened last year. Sorrels Field at Houston Baptist University (HBU), also home to the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Huskies, will serve as Houston FC’s new home this year. The stadium seats 500 and has a natural grass field. Houston Baptist’s campus is located on the southwest side of the City, roughly equidistant between Downtown Houston and Sugar Land, a rapidly growing suburb in adjacent Fort Bend County which currently doesn’t have a high-level amateur team. The club believes that this stable location will open a different area for the team to establish a new base of supporters.
“I believe HBU will be more successful for us, especially in some of the outlying communities that don’t want to fight rush hour traffic getting to the Medical Center area [where the Rice University stadium is located].” said Fetzer.
The club took a bit of an unconventional approach last season by building from the top of the pyramid down, unlike cross-town rivals AHFC Royals who are building their first PDL season off a platform provided by a long and successful youth program. Houston FC had a relationship with another local youth soccer program last year, but have recently announced a major initiative to establish their own two-tiered youth development program to allow the club to implement its philosophies at all age levels and provide a source of future players for the PDL club.
Fetzer described their new youth development initiative as “highly developmental and not looking to put together a trophy seeking group of teams.” The focus will be on players who aspire to play in college or beyond. The club will enter its teams into an inner-city soccer league on the near north side of Houston, where their U23 team has already been playing.
Further details on this initiative can be found in this link:
There have been many positive steps in a short period of time from a club with a long- term vision. The focus right now, however, is on the PDL season that begins on May 11th when they host Corpus Christi FC at Sorrels Field. Coach Talbot talked about his pragmatic goals for Houston FC’s second season.
” I would love to be more competitive in every game, I want our training to be more competitive, innovative and enjoyable for our players, to [create] a more professional environment-especially for the guys coming back from college. We would love to make the playoffs, finish in the top half, but we want people to respect us for the culture they see our guys are creating.” He continued, “We want to learn from our mistakes so that next year we are a little better than we were before.”
An enduring philosophy like this seems to separate Houston FC from an unfortunate stream of Texas high-level amateur soccer clubs in the past that didn’t establish a solid base and burned out quickly. This second year PDL team has big plans to reach the next level and there is no reason to expect that Houston FC, who seem to have their feet firmly planted on the ground, can’t achieve these dreams.
Images courtesy of Houston FC