Entering into its fourth season, and only the NASL’s fifth, San Antonio Scorpions FC is settling in as a league powerhouse. While turnover after a successful run typically spells disaster, the San Antonio Scorpions are still considered strong favorites for the 2015 League Championship. It’s been a slow offseason but San Antonio focused on reinforcing key values to their philosophy and replenishing depth around their star pieces. And while the Scorpions roster appears ready to seize glory once again, they’ll need to build chemistry and success early on in order to take down a beast that is looking to take back its prize.
The Other Big Dogs
The Scorpions were tabbed as favorable contenders for the 2014 League Championship, behind the recently MLS-promoted Minnesota United. And, to no surprise, the biggest obstacle in San Antonio’s path to a repeat performance is none other than rival Minnesota United FC. Minnesota won the 2014 Spring Season and finished second behind San Antonio in the Fall, thus giving them the Woosnam Cup. United re-signed their star scorer in Christian Ramirez, the winner of 2014 NASL Golden Boot, and still feature the same depth that allowed the club to truck through their NASL opponents. Daniel Mendes, who scored 9 goals for United while on loan from his Swedish pro club, was made a permanent addition this offseason. The club also still features midfielders Miguel Ibarra and Kevin Venegas, who along with Ramirez, tallied 5 assists each last season. Minnesota’s back four is still anchored by Tiago Calvano and Justin Davis, both members of the NASL’s Best XI team in 2014. Ibarra and, of course, Ramirez were also named to the Best XI squad. If San Antonio wants to house back-to-back League Championships at Toyota Field, they’ll will most likely have to run through Minnesota to do so.
The only other real challenge to both San Antonio and United are the New York Cosmos who, as is seemingly the custom of every NYC-based sports team, made a splash through a series of high-profile signings. New York signed former Real Madrid sensation Raúl and landed highly-coveted U.S. prospect striker Haji Wright. Midfielders Leo Fernandes (loan), Adam Moffat, and former-Scorpion Walter Restrepo are new additions and will help solidify a midfield that created numerous issues for the New York attack (which was basically just Mads Stokkelien). The bright lights burn with the Cosmos new stars but placing the offensive burden upon a teenager and an old war horse is a risky move. No doubt Wright stands to strikingly benefit from the 37-year old Raúl’s presence but the Cosmos still sits behind the more cohesively built squad of Minnesota. Considering that San Antonio has had some vital changes, Cosmos could be rightfully favored ahead of San Antonio.
Thunder and Lightning
San Antonio re-signed midfielder Rafael Castillo to a two-year agreement this winter. Castillo was acquired between the Spring and Fall 2014 NASL seasons and became the power that pushed San Antonio over the top. Despite playing only for the Fall season, the Colombian National Team veteran led the club in goals scored and was named to the NASL’s Best XI team. Castillo also scored one of the two goals against Fort Lauderdale that gave San Antonio their first league championship. The second goal came off a long Castillo assist only a few minutes later. Even with 35 looming this June, Castillo is a dynamic attacker with a seemingly never-ending motor. For the club that emphasizes quickness and aggression, retaining the 5’6” dynamo that will likely be a top-three league scorer this year was critical.
Billy Forbes had a breakout season in his rookie campaign for the Scorpions in 2014. While also tallying four goals, Forbes led the league with seven assists. Having already centering himself as the heart of the Scorpions’ attack last year, Forbes is expected to shoulder more responsibility in the team’s offense. Along with his diverse passing ability, Forbes is an incredibly quick athlete with a still-blossoming attacking skillset. At 24 and with experience on the national scene for Turks and Caicos Islands, Billy could be a difficult asset to hold on to in the near future.
Restocking the Defense
While speed and aggression on offense are key components in the framework installed by Scorpions Manager Alen Marcina, a stalwart defense is equally as important. Leading in to the 2014 season, Marcina consistently emphasized a need for defensive improvement. The Scorpions implemented veteran defenders Adrian Cann, Julius James, and Jonathan Borrajo. Other veteran defense assets were brought in last season in midfielder Richard Menjivar and veteran keeper Josh Saunders, who was brought in on a Fall Season loan from L.A. Galaxy. Greg Janicki, Borrajo, and Cann are gone and Saunders loan tenure is now over but James (re-signed in January) and Menjivar still remain as vital defensive pieces. Long-time Scorpion (relative to the team) Stephen De Roux still remains as a key first-teamer in San Antonio’s backline.
Nana Attakora is an intriguing addition to the scorpions due to his physical attributes – young (25), athletic, strong, fast, and 6’1”. However, Nana has also suffered through numerous injuries in his short career. The Ontario-born defender missed most of 2013 with a concussion and then most last year with injuries to his knee, foot, thigh, and head (concussion). Not all athletes are cursed through life with injuries and the hope for San Antonio (and Nana) is that Attakora can move beyond these vexes. Attakora has experience in multiple pro-leagues, including the MLS, and has national experience with nine caps for the Canadian Men’s team. Nana’s skillset, size, and athleticism also places him at various positions so, while the threat of re-injury looms, it’s a gamble San Antonio is willing to take.
Zourab Tsiskaridze, a defensive veteran of the NASL and multiple pro-leagues around the world, was signed during the winter to help solidify the back-center of the field. Tsiskaridze is more comfortable as a wrecking ball defensive midfielder but can also sit back on the line. While defense is his bread and butter, Zourab is also more than capable of getting the ball up to his forwards or taking matters into his own hands. Chances are he’ll become a fan favorite before most of them learn how to pronounce his name.
Colombia Scorpions FC
Two of the more unknown signings to the club are the young countrymen of Rafael Castillo, center back Eduar Zea and winger Cristian Palomeque. Both Zea and Palomeque are fast and young (Cristian turns 21 on April 2nd) and playing for their first professional clubs outside of Colombia. Palomeque joins the team on a season-long loan and has seen quick success in his young club career. Not surprising for a Marcina team, Palomeque is a speedy presence on the outside with a still-budding technical skillset. Expect Palomeque to be charged with taking on the challenge of lessening the burden of scoring from San Antonio’s midfield. Cristian’s best days are well beyond his tenure with San Antonio, which is a shame considering the team factors he’ll to be a major contributor. Zea has experience at the top division in Colombia and will likely be thrown right into the fire considering the recent defensive departures from the club.
Between the Posts
A transaction that took many San Antonio fans by surprise was the loan acquisition of Sporting Kansas City’s young keeper, Jon Kempin. Kempin, 21, is one of the handful of names in the mix to eventually succeed Tim Howard as keeper for the U.S. National Team. Kempin is on loan for this season in an effort to maintain the keeper’s club and national team career development. The Kansas City native already has a handful of MLS starts to his name due to team-injury needs but Kempin has proved himself to be a steady talent with all the desired tools of a starting keeper. Barely old enough to drink, the Sporting KC prospect is an already noted student of the game with dreams focused on the international stage. It has been stressed that the focuses for Kempin during his Texas field trip are game experience, physical development, and leadership. With a squad laden with club and national veterans, Kempin is in a perfect spot to further his development.
San Antonio also re-signed a blast-from-the-not-so-distant-past, Daryl Sattler. Sattler (34) was the Scorpions starting keeper in their inaugural 2012 season and the only player left from that squad. Sattler played for rival Minnesota United FC in 2013 but his season was cut short due to a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery. Sattler signed on with San Antonio last Fall as a backup keeper. Until the news of the Jon Kempin transaction broke, most figured Sattler as the Scorpions starting keeper. With a young prospect manning the most pressure-packed position in the game, having a seasoned veteran and former NASL Golden Glove Award winner (2012 with 13 League play shutouts and a 0.79 Goals Against Average in 24 games) is an excellent security blanket.
San Antonio retained key figures at various lines and bolstered an already impressive attacking unit while keeping the roster an impressive blend of youth and experience. Questions and concerns persist on the turnover within a young defense and whether or not the recently acquired assets can provide a repeat of the 2014 performance. The 2015 squad is fast, aggressive, physical, and built to mirror the grind-it-out work ethic of their manager but the team’s forwards need to make impact this season. Cesar Elizondo scored 5 goals for San Antonio last season but he and the newcomers of Cummings and Palomeque will need to help take the burden off Forbes and Castillo in goal production.
As exciting as this roster is shaping up to be, the continuity issue in the back alone could create for a frustrating spring. The other issue, of course, are juggernauts of the north that will surely be waiting there in the end. Should the Scorpions meet Minnesota United in the playoffs, it will be an incredibly difficult challenge. Keep in mind that Minnesota United won two of three 2014 matches and by an aggregate of 4-1. And this is a United squad that has gotten better as it prepares for greener pitches.