As the calendar comes to a close on 2017 and we turn an eye towards 2018, it’s time to revisit those everlasting New Year themes. It’s a time of rebuilding, reflecting on shortcomings, washing the slate clean and starting anew. And when it comes to SAFC football, that means putting an agonizing Western Semifinals Playoff loss behind them for good and getting down to the business of the new season ahead.
It’s another chance to get it right and another opportunity to put a USL Trophy in the case. As we take our first extended examination of the San Antonio FC roster thus far, the overall picture is still fairly murky. Yet mixed with an edge of clarity as 13 of the 23 players on the final 2017 roster have been accounted for during the past several weeks. So far that tally is 11 staying and 2 going. The 11 staying has already surpassed what we saw transitionally last offseason, so perhaps a little more stability is taking hold at SAFC. Let’s take a closer look at these moves to see what it could mean for the team that finished the 2017 regular season second in the USL West.
Looking at the departures, two fan favorites have put San Antonio in their rearview mirror. Midfielder Devin Vega moving on was not so surprising. Perhaps his landing in Phoenix is. Notching only one appearance in SAFC’s final 14 regular season matches, the writing seemed to be on the wall for a long time. We may never know the specific reasons, but he clearly fell out of favor with the coaching staff at some point and was bound to move on this offseason. It’s a disappointing end to his San Antonio career for a player with local ties off the field and so much promise on it; showing several flashes of brilliance while scoring 3 goals and 2 assists in his rookie campaign. Whether he can meet his own lofty expectations at Phoenix may depend on if “The Kid” can learn from whatever it was that derailed his time in San Antonio.
The departure of Billy Forbes was likely a bit more of a shock to the average SAFC follower. A fan favorite dating back to the San Antonio Scorpions NASL Championship days, Forbes seemed genuinely elated to return to the Alamo City after a stint with NASL’s failed Rayo OKC in 2016. Arguably no signing has caused a bigger stir than his, in SAFC’s short history. And he came through in a big way for SAFC, igniting an attack for a squad that found goals difficult to come by in 2016. His 10 league goals and 9 assists easily lead the team in both categories and no one was more dynamic for SAFC throughout the campaign. It’ll be a big loss for SAFC as Forbes joins Vega in Phoenix, and one that they’ll need to fill one way or another in order to reach the same lofty heights as last season. The reaction to the move was more surprising than the move itself. Some took him to task and downplayed his contributions and overall value upon hearing of his departure. Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, indeed.
Many pointed to his mid-season slump of 7 straight games without a goal. While that’s certainly a valid criticism of his overall consistency throughout the season, it’s worth noting that he rebounded to that stretch by adding 3 goals and 4 assists in the final 6 games of the season to help San Antonio secure second place by a narrow 3 point margin. And more importantly – even taking that slump into account – no one else for SAFC came close to matching his productivity, either before, during, or after that stretch. Especially on the assist side, where he had triple the number (or more) of all his teammates. That’s where Forbes’ loss will likely hurt SAFC the most – even when he’s not scoring goals, his whereabouts on the pitch need to be accounted for by the opponent at all times. Removing him and his savvy distribution from the equation is one less impactful player for opposing defenses to worry about.
The SAFC faithful will certainly hope that the re-signing of Mexican sensation Ever Guzman will go a long way towards bridging that gap. A late season addition, it took the Forward six appearances to find his groove, but then he turned it on with authority, notching four goals and an assist in the final three regular season matches. With the departures of Forbes, Ajeakwa, Chin and Hassan over the course of the last several months, he looks the most likely to fill the role of lead striker in 2018, at least for now. Whether that same type of scoring burst can be achieved over the course of a long and grueling USL regular season remains to be seen, but it’ll be exciting to see what he can do with a full off-season with Manager Darren Powell & his staff.
Pairing with him will be Forward Cesar Elizondo, no stranger to San Antonio soccer fans, and one of a small handful of players on the 2018 SAFC roster that have been with the club for all three seasons. The key to Elizondo’s success could simply be – can he stay on the field? Elizondo spent 11 games off the pitch in 2017 battling injury – far too many to be depended on as a reliable player in any offense. When healthy he can be extremely valuable – as demonstrated by his two playoff goals – including the lone goal in SAFC’s swan song match vs OKC Energy at Toyota Field in October. Can he ignite a season long connection with Guzman to lead the offense in 2018? It’ll be one of the biggest questions SAFC hopes to answer with a resounding YES if they want to take the next step. Also in the mix will be Forward Mike Seth. Seth never really got on track with SAFC after arriving in August, but it would be wise not to sleep on the former Goals and Assist leader for the Colorado Switchbacks circa 2016. It will be very interesting to see what case he makes for himself with a full offseason in San Antonio.
The most intriguing story of the offseason so far could very well be in goal, where last year’s opening day starter and third year SAFC player Matt Cardone returns to the team. Also returning is the electrifying Diego Restrepo. After Cardone went down injured in game five of the season, all Restrepo did was lead the way to 12 clean sheets. And oh yes, he was also named the 2017 USL Goalkeeper of the year in November. Not bad for a guy who was close to calling it a soccer career last offseason. Does Cardone get his starting job back by default? Will there be an open competition for GK-1? The educated guess is the job is Restrepo’s to lose after such a monumental season and Cardone will find himself returning to the backup role. If it goes that way, it’s got to be a little ironic for Cardone, after he rose to stardom when Josh Ford went down in the 2016 season. It goes around, comes around, when it comes to the injury bug in professional sports. Ultimately, however it plays out, it’s a great problem for Powell to have. If there’s one thing you can count on in 2018 based on SAFC’s history, it will be that both keepers will be needed to win games at some point.
Sticking on the defensive side of the ball are two more players returning to SAFC for their third seasons, Greg Cochrane and Stephen McCarthy. Greg Cochrane has been so dependable in his two seasons in San Antonio, he is almost taken for granted at this point. Cochrane led the club in USL minutes and appearances in 2017 and, rather remarkably, has played in 96 percent of the club’s all-time minutes. That dependability helped SAFC to a plus 21 goal differential in 2017. Joining him is Stephen McCarthy, who appeared to be on the outside looking in for playing time at the start of the 2017 season. Then Cyprian Hedrick went down in the opening half of the opening match, and the rest was history for McCarthy, who filled in admirably and finished another solid season with 25 league appearances. He also went on to score one of the most memorable goals of SAFC’s 2017 season. A dramatic stoppage time winner from his headband, on the road at Real Monarchs in a match SAFC had to have as they continued their chase for the top seed.
Speaking of Hedrick, he returns to SAFC for a second season. For Hedrick, it’s likely hard for him to call 2017 anything other than a disappointment. After a strong showing in pre-season, the former OKC Energy man was injured at RGV in game one and wouldn’t be seen again until late June, finishing what looked to be a promising season with only 14 appearances. Cap that off with a playoff loss at home to his former team and you can bet that Hedrick has a lot he wants to prove for SAFC in 2018. Rounding out the defensive returnees thus far is SAFC everyman Ryan Roushandel, also back for season number three. Roushandel came out of nowhere to become a steady late season presence for SAFC over their final 10 games of the season. Including notching a gigantic goal vs Portland – with an ensuing celebration of epic proportions that his Academy players and SAFC fans will remember for a long time. He followed that up with an assist on Elizondo’s playoff goal vs OKC. Roushadel has the lunch-pail, hard-hat, do-anything kind of work ethic that has proven to be very valuable. That’s the kind of versatile player that can pay off big dividends for a team when it’s crunch time. And it’s no doubt why he’s returning for another season.
Also announced as returnee’s in 2018 are Midfielders Maxi Rodriguez and Connor Presley. Local boy Rodriguez had a productive season with 16 league appearances, frequently as a substitute. Presley managed one assist in six appearances as a late comer. Both are young players who will no doubt do all they can to take the next step in their professional development.
It’s worth pointing out that so far no new faces have appeared on the SAFC roster. But with many positions still to be determined, it’s a safe assumption that we’ll be seeing a few before all is said and done. Also in the balance are the SAFC futures of several other key contributors – most notably standout Defender Sebastian Ibeagha and Midfielder Kris Tyrpak, who finished second on the team in goals scored. Does the ageless Rafa Castillo give it one more season? What about captain Michael Reed? Pecka? Newnam? It’s probably a safe bet not all of those names will call San Antonio home by pre-season.
All of that and more is still to be decided in the coming weeks. What is certain is that a strong core is already in place to hopefully see the Silver and Black build on their recent success in the New Year. So, pop that champagne, put on those goofy oversized 2018 glasses, throw a streamer or two, and make a resolution to be at Toyota Field this Summer. The season will be cranking up again in no time. For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.