First, whoever represents the Southeast Region in the NPSL’s 2010 National Championship (in Madison, Alabama on July 29-31) will deserve it. Getting there will be a very difficult task. Don’t think that Rocket City United, the host of the National Championships, will have a walk in the park to qualify for the tournament. They won’t, but in my opinion they will be one of the three teams fighting to get to the finals from the Southeast Region. I believe Atlanta FC and Chattanooga FC are the other teams are going to be in direct competition for that spot. This season, you have a Chattanooga FC with one season of experience underneath their belt. Atlanta FC will be looking to regain their fist place form, and Rocket City United will have some new and old faces trying to improve on the success of last season. This will all add up to quite a challenging competition!For those who are not aware, the overall level of play in the Southeast Region is very high and much more sophisticated than most college teams play. Some NPSL teams are better actually coached than a lot of professional teams around country. This is not to say these NPSL teams would have success at those levels, but the fans of the Southeast Region teams will have an opportunity to see some real quality soccer.
Before I analyze each team, I have to admit I not been making a lot of contacts to find out what has been going on with each team. Most of these observations are based on my experience within the region, a few e-mails, and reading all the news via internet like everyone else. The only conscious effort I made was to contact Tulsa University’s Men’s Soccer Head Coach Tom McIntosh for some background on the new Southeast Division club FC Tulsa, the club that will be replacing Saturn FC within the region.
FC TULSA: At this time there are no Tulsa University Men’s Soccer players currently playing for this club, but this could change. It will have to in order for Tulsa FC to have any chance of having any success this season. Let the inaugural season of the Birmingham Pumas be a lesson. A Sunday League Latin team thinking they will be have a walk in the park in this competition will be in for a rude awakening. Personally, unless they make some additional roster moves, this will be a very long season for FC Tulsa. The one factor that might benefit Tulsa is the long drive the opposition will have to make to Tulsa. Let’s hope this club acts professionally. The last thing they want is opposing teams driving long distance to perform in amateurish conditions. Quality, pissed off teams are no fun to play against!
BIRMINGHAM PUMAS FC : Even if I don’t have Pumas as contenders for the Southeast Regional title, they could be the surprise team of the 2010 season. In reality, this is not a bad team at all. They have a nice balance between their Sunday Latin Team and current and past UAB players. This is a team RCU had major success against last season, but other teams in the division did not. Now, with one season of experience behind, I expect the Pumas be an improved squad. They possess an attack that can be very dangerous, but sometimes not savvy. In both games last season RCU pulled the off-sides trap an average of 15 times each match.
CHATTANOOGA FC: I expect this club to be major contender for the regional title this season. They have a majority of last season’s squad returning, with some additional players that will probably upgrade their squad. Defensively, this is a very good team. The ability to collectively press teams up the field is exceptional and their giants in the back won’t lose too many duals in the air. Playing out of their pressure or getting behind them will be key for their opposition’s goal scoring success. This season they should not lose one point at home. Their stadium field is not easy surface for visiting teams to play on, but their biggest home field advantage is their fans. As I recently wrote, everyone should go see a Barca match at Camp Nou once in their life, the same could be said about this club’s home game experience. It is unique, loud, and the supporters are there in numbers. Where else can you watch a match and buy a beer at the same time? Still, to this day, I could not imagine what would of happen to the referee crew for the RCU match, if Chattanooga’s goalkeeper Masters did not stop Freddy Okello’s penalty kick in the last second of last season's match? Saying all of this, the big area the Chattanooga needs to improve on to be a serious contender is their ability to score goals. This might have improved at the end of last season, but it needs to be become more consistent throughout the whole season. In this preview, I am not trying address individual players, but if Omar Cookes just finishes 1/10th of his numerous missed goal-scoring opportunities, Chattanooga will be champions this upcoming season. I still don’t understand why Cookes doesn’t convert to a central defender. He actually could make a living doing it!
ROCKET CITY UNITED: Sometimes changes can be good for a club and sometimes it can work against you. This season RCU has a new Coach, a new home field, and will have new players; players who should not underestimate of level of play in this region. At this level, changes are the norm. It is just part of the environment, but the problem with this region is that there have been probably very few changes within the other clubs in the off season. They have the advantage of playing together for a longer period of time and they will have a good idea where they need to improve their teams. Saying this, Desmond Armstrong’s system of play is very similar to the way RCU played last season. Players from last year’s team should have an easy time adjusting. New players arriving this season will most likely have played under Desmond before and will understand what is expected. The question will be how long will it take for the new and old players to get on the same page? The other big questions are who is going to replace Rafa Barbosa’s ability to score goals and Paul Willouby’s ability to create utter chaos amongst opposition on the flanks? These are big shoes to fill for RCU. Knowing Desmond’s eye for talent, I expect the new players to be talented, but the level of play within the region might take a little time to adjust to. Remember, this season is very short. Starting slow can hurt you at the end. I believe the US Open Cup competition will be very useful for the upcoming season. Let’s also hope that RCU has plenty of players in reserve for this year’s qualification US Open Tournament which plays multiple matches over a very short time period.
I expect the matches in Madison will be well attended, but the one thing that concerns me is that the field is more like an American Football field. Like the opposition, RCU will be learning how to play on it themselves this season. I hope they can get some width on the field, something that is important for RCU. If not, Chattanooga and Atlanta might feel right at home during their visits to Madison.
Even with changes, I expect RCU will be very competitive, successful, and fighting for that top position to represent the Southeast Region in the NPSL Final Four. The competition will be very challenging this season. If they do make it to the finals, it will be an outstanding achievement. But again, IT WILL NOT BE EASY!