Christmas may be long in our rearview mirror but there’s a song with a familiar refrain that’s a bit perfect when it comes to describing the 2018 San Antonio FC roster. It’s beginning to look a lot like …..2017!
The second wave of player announcements dominated the San Antonio FC offseason news throughout the month of January. As we explore part 2 of 2 in our 2018 roster overview, we’ll take a closer look at these new player announcements. And just in time for the kickoff of Training Camp 2018, which got underway this week. The moves so far have resulted in 17 returning players. A much higher retention percentage than what we saw going from year one to year two. With so many returnees to a team that finished second in the USL West in 2017, plus a few notably key additions, San Antonio FC looks poised to be another gigantic threat for top team in the West.
The signings ramped back up in early January and kicking things off – before the excitement arrived, it was another tough goodbye for SAFC fans.
- Oh Captain, My Captain
On the departure side, SAFC said goodbye to journeyman and Captain, Midfielder Michael Reed, as his rights were transferred to Nashville in exchange for an undisclosed financial consideration. A big local favorite known off the field for his goofy post game selfies with fans, Reed appeared in 45 matches in all competitions with SAFC. He scored five goals and four assists during his two years in San Antonio. Moving into his 30’s, it’s fair to say that SAFC was willing to trade a veteran player in favor of an injection of youth. But it will be tough to match his 2017 contributions, which include completing the most passes by a SAFC midfielder and leading all SAFC midfielders in interceptions. Reed will reunite with four former teammates out East, and also his former Manager Gary Smith, who served in the same role while Reed was with the Atlanta Silverbacks in NASL.
- Happy Returns
Midfielder Rafa Castillo kicked off the New Year as the first announced signing of 2018 on January 2nd. Castillo joins Cochrane, McCarthy, Roushandel, Cardone, Elizondo, and spoiler alert – Lee Johnston – as SAFC players to feature in all three seasons of the club’s young existence. A dependable journeyman with deep SA soccer ties, and certainly the most memorable goal in San Antonio soccer history (that of the legendary bicycle kick Championship winning goal in the 2014 NASL Soccer Bowl at Toyota Field while with the SA Scorpions) Rafa is back to prove that Manu Ginobili isn’t the only successful San Antonio athlete that can defy his age. Castillo will turn 38 in June. And he’s likely not here just to put on the shirt. He wants to contribute, and contribute he has. Castillo is third all-time in SAFC minutes played, and that’s while missing a whopping 11 matches last season after his nose was broken during a road match in Reno. Castillo is also second in team history in goals scored with nine, scoring 4 in the 2017 campaign. He’s also far and away the team’s best Penalty taker. For a team that has never won a PK shootout – they were 0-3 in all competitions last season, including heartbreakers to end their runs in both the US Open Cup and the USL Playoffs – it’s a skill that has to be seen as very valuable.
Brazilian Midfielder Pecka was next to return. Arguably the most under-appreciated player on the SAFC roster, he does his job and does it very well, but without the fanfare of the stat sheet. At least, when it comes to goals and assists. He’s not the player that’s going to light up either category. But what he does as the man in the middle, distributing out of the back, is just as vital to SAFC’s overall success as any goal or assist. While more casual fans may not appreciate or notice what he brings game in and game out – if you took him off the pitch, they would surely see the difference he makes in the flow of the action. Pecka comes in to 2018 with a whopping 87% passing accuracy in his first season with SAFC. What Pecka brings to the table is precise ball control. It’s definitely the little things, especially in midfield play, that can make all the difference for any team. Pecka’s 2017 performance is a shining example of what that type of player should look like on the field and he’s a big retainer for the 2018 season assuming he can maintain his high level of play.
- New Faces
San Antonio FC added midfielder Jose Escalante on loan from Honduran first-division team Club Deportivo Olimpia. SAFC are all too familiar with Escalante who has been a thorn in SAFC’s side while with RGV. Escalante has been pretty busy of late, spending time in the last 2 seasons with both the Dynamo in MLS, appearing six times, and also with SAFC’s Texas rivals in the valley. In 21 games with RGV last year, Escalante had four goals and one assist. Many SAFC fans probably saw at least one of the goals, as it came vs SAFC in a late season match at Toyota Field. As with many loans, it may just turn out to be a one year move, but the thought of a Guzman/Escalante pairing on the attack this season is absolutely salivating. Escalante brings exactly the type of dynamic potential that they’ll need to replace lost production with Forbes moving on this offseason. But it might take a ball or two in the back of the net for some fans to forget that he has been a heated Texas rival for two seasons.
San Antonio FC also added some Texas flair to the lineup, announcing the signing of 19 year old Forward Alex Bruce. Hailing from England originally, Bruce has spent a lot of time in the Lone Star State recently. He attended Tompkins High School in Katy, Texas, where he racked up an impressive haul of 22 goals and 12 assists as a Senior. Later, he joined Texans SC Houston soccer club where he added another 17 goals. He also brings some Championship pedigree with him, as Texans SC went on to capture the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Championship. Bruce also brings big size to the position, coming in at a listing of six feet, two inches. That makes him the tallest Forward on the roster. With size like that, it would be expected that he could be an attractive target on set pieces, in particular. Perhaps most importantly, he won’t need to familiarize himself with the training grounds and the staff here in San Antonio, as he previously trained with SAFC during the 2017 season. Bruce clearly has the raw talent to succeed at the USL level – time will tell if he can put it together and make a significant contribution to San Antonio FC’s 2018 season as he steps into the Professional ranks.
- More Happy Returns
Next up was the announcement of a continued loan for Midfielder Omar Gordon to SAFC from his home club of Montego Bay United in Jamaica. Gordon was a very solid late season addition to San Antonio last season. Like Pecka, his play wasn’t hugely noticeable on the stat sheet – he scored one goal and had two assists (and one more assist in the playoffs) – but most notable were the chances he helped to create. He managed 23 shots in his 11 appearances, which was good for fourth on the club for the season. Not bad for a player who didn’t see action for two thirds of the season.
After making 128 appearances over five years with Montego Bay United, Gordon has turned into a bit of a journeyman. And he’s seen some top notch action in the last few seasons, in the process. He won a Championship with Montego Bay United and appeared in CONCACAF Champions League as a result. Then In 2016 he was loaned to Indy Eleven – then of the NASL – where he appeared in the League Final that season. USA fans might recall he was also on the Jamaican National team that faced the Yanks in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final in 2017. And now most recently, two straight seasons on loan to San Antonio. Obviously that’s the kind of big game pedigree that can only be experienced, and not taught. And one that could prove very valuable for the Silver and Black in 2018. Gordon, along with Guzman, will be two players who will be worth watching for the same reasons – both were very effective in their short stays in 2017. SAFC fans will be hoping that both can keep up their level of play over the course of the grueling seven month USL season.
You could hear the collective exclamation of joy around the Alamo City when Texas native and former MLS man, Midfielder Kris Tyrpak was announced as a returnee. It can’t be understated how important it was to retain one of the biggest offensive producers for SAFC in 2017. Tyrpak finished second in goals and tied for second in assists last season. Losing the top two scorers in one offseason would have been a pretty big blow to SAFC despite the fact that they’ve reloaded at the Forward position (the 2017 leader in both offensive categories, Billy Forbes, moved on to Phoenix Rising FC earlier in the offseason). Building on that yearlong experience, expectations will only rise for the player responsible for what was the best technically sound goal of the season – his first with SAFC, no less. A cross field screamer of a volley from just outside the box at Toyota Field vs Colorado back in April 2017. And Tyrpak proved he could score in many different ways throughout the year– with his feet, with his head and heck, even on his back, in what was another memorable goal from the 2017 season. With his trademark headband in tow, no doubt, San Antonio fans can brace themselves for more exciting Tyrpak moments in the near future.
- The Last Trio
The final three player announcements came in very quick succession last Friday. Among that group were two more returnees. As previously mentioned, Lee Johnston returns for his third season as the club’s third GK. Johnston has only made three appearances for the club, most memorably earning a road draw at Sacramento last season. But the coaching staff will no doubt be thrilled to have not only his valuable depth, but also a positon that is 100% unchanged from last season, as now all three keepers have been re-announced. Stability is a hard thing to come by in USL soccer, but the SAFC GK team is defying those odds and it will certainly be a position of strength again this season.
Also returning is Defender/Midfielder Mark O’Ojong. Acquired last season from Seattle Sounders 2 after being a steady presence in their lineup throughout 2016, it sure seemed like there were long term plans for him and San Antonio FC at the time of the move. O’Ojong put in 9 starts, plus the two Playoff matches, but you get the feeling he could really take a jump this year with a full offseason in San Antonio.
Manager Darren Powell spelled it our pretty plainly at the announcement saying of O’Ojong: “He had an immediate impact upon his arrival to the team last season, and showed well as a fullback towards the end of the year.”
It’s the kind of confidence that has allowed SAFC to keep a player like O’Ojong and one that may result in SAFC moving on from Ben Newnam. There’s no denying O’Ojong has the talent for big things and he has even been recognized for it. He was named the 12th best player in the USL under the age of 20 as part of the league’s “20 Under 20” list last year. If he can live up to that potential and more, it should be another strong defensive year in the Alamo City for him and the unit as a whole.
Last, but certainly not least, San Antonio FC made a bit of a rare splashy signing, finally drawing in on their NYCFC connection. Fans will recall that SAFC began an affiliation with NYCFC in 2017, but after a year of no player movement in either direction, it doesn’t appear that trend will be a lasting one. It came as a bit of a surprise when SAFC added Midfielder Mikey Lopez, also last Friday. Lopez is a former MLS First Round Draft Pick (2013) who hails from Mission, Texas. Lopez comes off of 27 MLS’ appearances with NYCFC over the last two seasons. He’s also spent time in USL, with the US U-20’s, and is a NCAA National Champion with the UNC Tarheels (2011). And if a few days as a SAFC player is any indication – he could challenge for the most active social media player on the squad, which could make things entertaining for the fans. Lopez amounts as a bit of a marquee signing and his excitement of being back in Texas was evident in the days surrounding his announcement. He definitely has the feel of a being an early fan favorite, but ultimately it will come down to his play on the field. If he can live up to the hype of being a big time prospect with high level playing experience, the fans will no doubt hold him up long term.
- Who’s Left?
Speaking of NYCFC connections, that brings us to Defender Sebastien Ibeagha. No doubt the biggest name still unaccounted for to SAFC. And for very good reason. Arguably the team MVP of the 2017 season, Ibeagha was the winner of the USL Defender of the Year award, and by a wide margin, claiming more than half of the total votes. The mystery of his whereabouts was finally put to rest when it was revealed that he was a trialist with MLS club NYCFC. Unlike the Lopez signing, this news came with much less surprise. It had been widely speculated that Ibeagha was someone who could be strongly looked at by MLS teams as the top SAFC contender to possibly make the jump to the league. And flowing from SAFC to NYCFC seems to be a pretty natural destination. As a trialist, his place is anything but a given, so we could still see Ibeagha make a return to SAFC this season. And quite frankly, even if he makes the final NYCFC roster, who is to say he couldn’t spend time in San Antonio on loan? At this stage, however, it would behoove the organization to plan as if he won’t be back.
That leaves only three 2017 SAFC players unaccounted for as the offseason begins to wind down and pre-season draws closer. SAFC Managing Director Tim Holt confirmed that all current signings had been announced this past Sunday night while being a guest speaker at the Crocketteers AGM. With that being the case, barring any major changes, we will likely waive goodbye to Midfielder Victor Araujo and Defenders Andrew Moullin and Ben Newnam. Local favorite Araujo never really got on track consistently in 2017, post-injury, although he did manage to make 10 appearances in all competitions last season. But with so much quality competition at the position, he looks to finally be the odd man out. Moullin only made two appearances and was really a part time player at best.
Newnam is the big one in this group. As far as perception goes, Newnam seemed to be on the outside looking in with the coaching staff ever since he picked up a red card for an ill-advised kick to the head in a late September match vs RGV. Whether sheer coincidence or due to other considerations, he only appeared with the team one more time after his suspension; as a sub in the season finale. He did not feature in the playoffs. A bit odd for a player who made 23 starts during the regular season and one who was quite consistent at that. Whether any of that played a role in what looks to be his likely departure, we may not know. But he was a big upgrade at the position last season and Newnam moving on, if that’s how it plays out, has to been seen as a blow to the overall product on the field.
- How It Looks Overall
The team looks pretty set at GK, MID, and F, for now. But teams can never have too much depth, so expect SAFC to add a few more names before the start of the season. Almost definitely one more Defender, at least. The same can be said for versatile Midfielders, especially in Powell’s defense first game plan – you can never have enough. So another add there wouldn’t be unexpected. The team has been working out some trialists of their own. Perhaps some names could come from those groups. In any case, as the organization definitely proved last year, if the players on the roster aren’t making the grade, you can expect SAFC to continually evaluate talent and take the necessary steps with midseason moves to improve the team. It’s never a finished product under Darren Powell.
On paper, even without any more additions, this has the look of a team that could certainly take it all the way to USL Cup. And fans have to like the overall shift in philosophy. After 2016, this was a team that had been hastily put together that needed improvements in several areas. After 2017, it’s clear that San Antonio FC established a core group of players that they were very pleased with. This year it seemed to be about retaining that core and adding a few key pieces that could help this team take the next steps. It sure looks like they’ve been able to accomplish that. Get ready for what is surely going to be a mighty exciting season of San Antonio FC football.
With that, it’s time for the “way too early” opening day starting 11. Here’s how I see them lining up in Sacramento on March 17th if the lineup was set today. We’ll go with a 4-4-2 for simplicity sake.
D: Cochrane McCarthy Hedrick O’Ojong
M: Escalante Lopez Pecka Tyrpak
F: Elizondo Guzman
BN: Gordon, Rodriguez, Cardone, Castillo, Bruce, Seth, Roushandel
Agree or disagree? Be sure to comment below or on Twitter and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear your impressions of the overall roster as well – so be sure to sound off with your thoughts on the lineup so far and join the conversation.