San Antonio FC, who begin their fourth season in the United Soccer League (USL) Championship in a few weeks, hosted their annual media day at Toyota Field yesterday. A few notes and observations from the event:
The Stadium and Pitch Look Ready to Start the Season
It will be interesting to see how the field holds up when the typical summer turf challenges present themselves. New USL expansion side and local rival Austin Bold have made it a point to emphasize how much attention they will pay to the quality of the playing field at Circuit of the Americas. Comparisons between how the two stadiums manage their turf this summer will be inevitable.
Head Coach Darren Powell is Now One of the Longest Tenured Coaches in the USL
Darren Powell (pictured above) returns to guide the club again for the fourth consecutive season. This makes him one of the longest serving USL coaches at the same club entering the 2019 season. Highlights from his comments:
- SAFC added players that fit the game model they intend to implement and “add a little bit more as well”. He is pleased with what he has seen so far, but the roster is not finalized and the club could make more additions before the season begins
- Without going into details for competitive reasons, he promised changes in the way the coaching staff wants the team to play on both sides of the ball. He also discussed the steps his entire staff will take, including new assistant coach Alen Marcina, the rest of the first team staff and the Academy coaches (who will be involved on a day-to-day basis) to implement this system throughout the season.
- Answering a question about the fan base, Powell specifically identified what makes them, in his mind, the “best fans in the USL.” “[The fans] come here and are so engaged, not only in the first team, the match and the spontaneous action, but they are engaged in the club and this community.” He pointed to SAFC’s philosophy of community involvement, the increasing maturity of the local Academy and the passionate fan base as the core of the club’s sense of community. He added that the players see this and try to represent the fans, club and the city to the best of their ability at all times.
- Powell also spoke about the current local players on the club (Matt Cardone and Ethan Bryant) and the role they and other local players play in connecting the club to the community.
- He then spoke at length about how the USL has changed since 2016, when he took the helm at SAFC in their expansion season. He mentioned the calculated growth of the league, pointing out from his own personal perspective, that he learns more about how to travel and how to prepare for the league’s teams every year. The growth means he can’t be complacent, however, and is therefore challenged every year. “The hard piece of [the league’s growth] is that there is so many new teams, so they don’t necessarily have tradition or a set way of playing, so the league doesn’t get any easier each year.”
- Coach Powell then continued to discuss the evolution of the league by pointing to the better quality of players in the league every year. “You see the quality of players going to MLS and quality of players going through the U.S. youth systems, so now there are a lot of good players.” He continued, “The players who may have been playing in MLS are now playing in USL and now there is a lot of players coming through and [the players] opportunities are [coming] more and more through the USL.” He specifically pointed to the number of young players coming through MLS 2 and USL independent club Academies and believes that the new flow of young players coming through, combined with the rapid growth of USL, is challenging for the teams to adapt each year, but exciting for fans to watch.
- He finished by making another pitch for the Texas based USL club organizations and fans to create a “Texas Cup” trophy for the four USL teams competing in 2019, believing this competition will bring “extra meaning” for both players and fans during intra-Texas derby games over the course of the USL season.
Homegrown Product Ethan Bryant is Ready to Take the Next Step in 2019
Ethan Bryant was the first product of the San Antonio FC Academy to join the first team in 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, he played meaningful minutes last year, including against FC Dallas in the US Open Cup. Despite his youth, he sees himself as playing a role in helping the new arrivals acclimate to the club. Personally he is focused on continuous improvement after his first year adjustment to the professional game and is confident in his ability to grow “So now I need to never drop off, keep going and keep getting better. The game is only going to get faster and stronger, so I am going to be ready for it.” He stated that he didn’t get much game action in the preseason last year, but this year he has more trust from the coaching staff and believes the preseason has been going well. He added “I want to be an impact player and want to be the guy who is making a difference on the field.”
The Newest Former RGV FC Player is Ready to Turn the Page and Contribute to SAFC
Kai Greene, an outside defender, is the latest player to leave Houston Dynamo, and their affiliate-Rio Grande Valley FC, to join SAFC. The club has needs at right outside back since last year’s starter Darnell King has now moved on to join Nashville SC. Greene, who was a regular for three seasons in the Valley, looks like the best player to step in and fill this role. He stated that he hopes to contribute to the club and “add my little spice to it and everything will come together.” Some of the spice Greene will bring is his pace and we should see him play a key role in the attack this year. He is ready to move on from the past and is not focused on any potential rivalries with his old club “I do appreciate my time down in RGV, but it is time to flip the page and turn my focus towards San Antonio.”
Two New International Defenders Look to Play a Role in a Reworked Backline
Amer Didic and Johnny Fenwick arrive with different nationalities and experience levels. Didic, a Canadian who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, arrives as a three year USL veteran from Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate-Swope Park Rangers. Fenwick, an England-native who most recently attended High Point University in North Carolina, is beginning his professional career in the United States.
Didic talked about the adjustment he is making in joining SAFC, since his entire professional career has been part of the integrated game model implemented by Sporting KC, but he is excited about what he is seeing with the club in preseason. “It’s always challenging for a player coming from different teams, especially for me in my case being [at Swope Park] for three years, but I think you will be really surprised at what we are going for [here] in terms of our style of play of playing with the ball and having that purpose with the ball to be able to drive and penetrate in between the midfield and in between their back line.” He is also happy with how the newly constituted backline has jelled so far and pointed out that the SAFC defensive system, will produce what he described as “a really, really solid back line with the guys we have.”
Fenwick, after a successful college career, talked about how he trialed at multiple USL clubs, but liked what he saw at SAFC. “I came for a three-day trial and was really impressed with the place.” He continued, “I liked the way they were trying to play and the club felt right for me and thankfully they offered me a deal and I am very happy to be here.” Fenwick came to the United States almost four years ago to attend High Point. He grew up in Newcastle in the North East part of England, played at Newcastle’s United’s academy and later joined Sheffield Wednesday when he was 16. He commented on how welcome everybody has been at the club since arriving in San Antonio, but specifically called out his immediate relationship with forward Alex Bruce, who is originally from a community 20 minutes away from where Fenwick grew up in England.
When queried, Fenwick also talked about the growing number of players coming to the U.S. from England to attend college. As someone who has experienced development systems in England and the environment in the U.S., he has a distinct perspective on the U.S. soccer development system and believes we are on the right track. “I think the U.S. are on the right track. You are still in the early stages. It is still a pretty new sport, but it is definitely growing rapidly.” He then talked about the difference in the sporting cultures in the two countries and advised patience. He believes in 10-15 years “you should see some talent come out of the U.S. for sure.”
San Antonio FC opens the season on Saturday March 9th at Toyota Field against one of the finalists in last years USL Championship match, Phoenix Rising FC.