Competition for lower league eyes is a common topic of conversation in the front offices of clubs in smaller markets. While the city of Rochester is one of Minnesota’s largest, it also falls into the category of a small market when compared to the juggernaut that is the Twin Cities.
That’s why, when Rochester FC announced they would join the UPSL as 2018 turned to 2019, many’s immediate response was to question how well the club would be able to coexist with Med City, a cornerstone of Minnesota’s presence in the NPSL since 2017.
Rochester FC have done their part on the pitch to cement a place in the city’s local sports discussions. The club first played in the UPSL in 2019, taking part in the Midwest-West. They held a 7-1-2 WDL record, earning 21 points and finishing second, just behind Vlora.
With the 2020 season canceled, RFC would return to the pitch in 2021 to a new look Midwest-West, now featuring powerhouse sides like Minneapolis City 2 and the Minnesota Brooklyn Knights. They would go 2-1-5, earning just 7 points and finishing seventh out of nine places.
Club co-founder and player Midhat Mujic says that 2021 was a strange learning experience for all, and that it presented challenges within the squad that Rochester FC will have to learn from.
“It was difficult to recoup players and hold tryouts because of the limitations that were set… Through the season, I think financially we took a hit because of the guidelines and people not coming to games, which set us back a bit. We had an okay season. Player-wise we weren’t as ready as we thought. Our first season we had good players that were fit and that helped us a lot during games, pushing through the ninety minutes and taking wins… A lot of the guys on the team were high school players and local college players, some of which may have not had a season. We lost and drew a few games we should have drawn or won because we couldn’t finish.”
With 2021 in the past now, however, Mujic says the club understands what it needs to do to improve and that the focus is on having a great 2022.
“We did what we could last season, and at a certain point you just have to move on and get better.”
While Rochester may not have a reputation as a soccer city, the bar has still been set high by Med City, who have been a power in the NPSL North for years, always close to a trophy while playing high profile sides. The club qualified for the 2020 U.S. Open Cup but missed out due to the tournament’s cancellation. They then took part in the 2021 NISA Independent Cup, which saw them play Union Dubuque F.C., the Milwaukee Torrent, and professional side Chicago House AC.
Mujic, who previously played for Med City, says that the key to Rochester FC finding its own space in the city and in Minnesotan soccer is the club’s continued dedication to focusing on local talent, inspired by the international methods.
“We’re kind of unique in that, you know, not a lot of NPSL or UPSL teams have youth teams… Our vision, when we started the club, was to have youth teams around the club and that was based on our coach and co-owner playing in Germany professionally. [We take inspiration from] the German style of player development and youth system, bringing players up and guiding them to the first team.”
That owner is Muharem Dedic. The Bosnian-born player represented SSV Buer 07/28, SC Hassel, and Schalke 04’s reserves across several years in the mid-to-late 1990’s, in addition to playing for clubs in Bosnia and the United States.
The club’s local pool is largely composed of Rochester, Byron, Northfield, Winona, and Austin. Mujic expands that Rochester Football Club hopes to be a part of its players’ lives and development from a young age, interacting long before a UPSL debut eventually arrives. The club has both boys and girls youth teams, in addition to holding free annual camps for athletes between 8 and 18 years old.
“As players grow from ten years old and get up to seventeen, eighteen years of age, [we want them] to be able to play for our first team. The goal is to help get them college recruitments and get that next level of play. If they’re good enough, we want to push them along as far as we can… We’re hoping that by incorporating youth teams, that people will come out and support our team and our youth and our players especially if many of us are local.”
The RFC co-founder adds that the 2022 roster will continue the trend, featuring a range of local talent from the high school and college levels.
“We’ve got nineteen local players… we’ve got four high school players, seniors, and then the rest are college players… We also have six international players that play for a nearby college.”
Mujic adds that, as a former local player for the Rochester area, the change to the soccer environment in southern Minnesota means more.
“If I look back at when I was in high school in 2009, there was nothing like this for our players… [the change in] five years is just amazing. We’re creating opportunities for local kids to be able to continue playing after high school.”
Mujic also noted that high profile clubs in the area that focus on local talent, like Minneapolis City, provide a strong beacon for others, showing that the model can work.
“[Minneapolis City] have done an amazing job to get to where they are… They started midtable, [but] their system and the passion that board has for soccer is what got them here. If [Dan Hoedeman] didn’t have the passion that he has, would that club be at where it is now? Probably not.”
On the note of recruiting local players alongside international players, Mujic added that there’s a way to do both that will benefit everyone, while remaining focused on developing the local scene.
“With us and when we recruit players… we’re not just going to take any local player. When we recruit players, they can, in our opinion, easily compete with any other team in our league and division. Our goal with bringing a few of these college players who are internationals is, can we use these players and help their college careers grow, but also can they help our youth players grow… they’re going to pick up some of that experience from these players, whether it’s the attitude or the hustle, the grind, the physical and mental games. That’s what we want.”
The UPSL’s Minnesota presence has gotten stronger every year, with 2021 representing an especially strong year as more clubs joined and Minneapolis City 2 made a playoff run. Mujic says it’s all welcomed for Rochester FC, who can only benefit from the improvement.
“When we have good teams around us, it’s improving us, it’s helping our players. If we go out there and we play a team that hasn’t won a game in five years, is that helping us develop? Probably not. When you have strong opposition it’s just pushing you harder and I’m glad that our division is growing and that teams are getting better… If you look at a lot of the UPSL teams in our division, they do recruit local and they do focus on a local aspect, and that’s telling us something. That’s telling us, hey look at all these Minnesotan players that are really, really good.”
There’s still unforeseen territory for Rochester FC to navigate as the 2022 season approaches, and the league is likely to challenge the club unlike ever before, but if the club can stick to their philosophy, a moral victory seems assured.
Small market sports, particularly in a city with such a minimal presence in college sports and none in professional sports, will also be a difficult landscape. According to Midhat Mujic, it’s one the city of Rochester can figure out for themselves, perhaps finding a sporting identity that can carry its teams to new heights along the way.