More of the Same but Completely Different – NPSL North 2022 Predictions

The NPSL North is always a bizarre mixture of the unexpected and predictable. Countless twists will occur, and yet when the final results are in, it goes about how you expected it all to. This conundrum isn’t a great friend to someone trying to write a prediction article for the conference, but as someone who’s covered it and worked within it for years, I feel able to take a shot at it.

Let’s address the 800 pound gorilla dressed as a crow dressed as a cat in the room; I predict that Minneapolis City won’t win the conference this year, I also predict they won’t be in the playoffs. We all know that’s going to be an opinion that brings on mixed reactions. I hope that you take a minute to see why I think that’ll be the case, and then feel free to let me know what you think about it. Let’s do this.

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1st – Duluth FC

I know. I know. This is the part where some folks go, “Okay Bisogno, you’ve had enough”, however, my reasons for putting Duluth first here are based on real factors I’m seeing in the offseason, not me having worked with the club in the past. Here’s how it’s fallen into place.

Duluth’s best years were clearly 2017 and 2018, with drop offs in silverware and playoff exposure coming in 2019 and 2021. One of the biggest clear problems with those second two years was the lack of continuity in the side, something other sides, especially Minneapolis City, had in droves. This time, Duluth is bringing back almost the entire defensive core that helped get them into the playoffs last year. That’s Jake Starling, Scott Wilson, Martin Grzywa, and goalkeeper Brendan Dally. Right away, that’s a tool that might help the side avoid some of the tough starts to the season they’ve had in past years.

Duluth is also reintroducing a key injection of locality, bringing in a range of local, by birth or by education, players who can greatly increase the options Sean Morgan, who showed in his debut year that he’s a very capable head coach, has to change a match. Add some very astute signings from the crowd that scouted and recruited other top notch NPSL Norther’s like Sidney Warden and James Westfield and I think we may see the BlueGreens lift their first trophy in four years. University of Jamestown pairing Aaron Pike and Diego Valle are early names to watch.

2021 captain and 2022 Duluth FC returnee Jake Starling takes to the field. Courtesy of Harrison Law and Duluth FC.

A strong start from this roster that’ll start the year better prepared than in the past could mean strong results in their first two matches, away to Joy and at home to Minneapolis City. Win those games, and a title shot seems extremely tangible.

2nd – Med City FC

The Mayhem are almost guaranteed a competitive season and finish every year, even if it hasn’t come with the title successes of other clubs. Med City have brought back a range of veteran talent, even including Andrew Wilkinson, who played for the club in 2018 and 2019 but left to then play USL League Two side Kaw Valley.

I’m also convinced the Chitulangoma brothers, one of which I’ve written about previously, are going to play an interesting role in this side. The brothers are joined by other Mayo High School talents as well, including goalkeeper Jack Hobday, who is a St. Olaf’s commit. Med City need to take advantage of the promising youth talent being raised in their high schools, especially Mayo, right now. If they do that right it could help them cross that final bridge.

Med City line up ahead of a 1-0 road victory over Joy Athletic in 2021. Courtesy of Med City.

Med City’s start to the year will likely also be a big help to a roster full of veteran and new talents. They La Crosse and Sioux Falls at home in weeks one and two, before traveling to the Dakota Fusion. Med City may well start the year three for three. That’s the kind of momentum that can help a good side succeed.

3rd – Joy Athletic

My prediction for Joy finishing third, having finished fourth last year with a considerable gap between Med City and themselves, is heavily impacted by my prediction for Minneapolis City this season. That all said, here’s why I think Joy will do well.

This side will be keeping the vast majority of its best players from last season, including Browne, Caputo, Mann, and Corona-Duran. They may have last Emmanuel Iwe, a big loss for sure, but they’ll be playing this year with a group of players with NPSL experience, something they didn’t have before, reinforced by a roster full of connections via St. Cloud State and St. Thomas’ ever improving men’s soccer programs.

There are those that criticize the team, or Joy to the People’s, dedication to a playing and learning philosophy, but Joy showed last year that a group of JOTP kids with essentially no NPSL experience, aided by a few veterans, could be extremely competitive. This year, they aren’t just raw, untested kids, they’re a roster of proven NPSL North killers. Everyone should be nervous about playing Joy Athletic.

Returning striker Whitney Browne represents Joy Athletic against Minneapolis, scoring in a 3-2 win. Courtesy of Whitney Browne.

In terms of a higher finish, Joy’s defense was too unpredictable last year to jump to title winning conclusions. Add the fact that there’ll be a physical lacking in their side compared to some of other sides, if for no other reason than age and body types, and I just don’t think they’ll quite have enough for those top two spots.

4th – Minneapolis City SC

Minneapolis City have won the last three editions of the NPSL Midwest – North conference and they’ll always have a foot in the door for any predictions on who’ll win it. Here’s the thing. The Murder are in the process of one of the most ambitious, exciting projects in the NPSL North we’ve ever seen. Their plan to create a pool, aided by their Futures program, that can essentially play in USL League Two, the NPSL, and the UPSL is extremely interesting. I think that if done well and with consistent buy in, it could be a spark of organizational genius in five years.

But, I don’t think it’s going to start like that. I think that, like most rebuilds or major organizational changes, especially ones that directly affect the squad, we might see City struggle in 2022, particularly outside of the league they’ve made clear is at the frontfoot of this reorganization, USL League Two. I think in the end, the NPSL squad simply won’t be getting what it needs to compete with the Duluth’s, Med City’s, and Joy’s of the world, who are putting their entire energy into this one conference.

I do not expect Minneapolis City to be bad this season, I believe the North is going to be very competitive and that they and Joy may collectively fall behind Med City by a mere three or four points, but I do think that year one of this project will involve some serious growing pains. When your first four games are on the road, including to Med City and Duluth, that could mean early losses that damage a real shot at the title.

Aidan O’Driscoll plays for Minneapolis City against the Des Moines Menace in the 2022 US Open Cup. Courtesy of Minneapolis City.

If I end up wrong and they win the whole thing, it’ll be a phenomenal achievement. I just think that that may be asking too much of a process I expect may take years to perfect.

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5th – Dakota Fusion

I should begin this section by noting that I believe that the Fusion and TwinStars will have very similar point tallies, perhaps even tying. With that in mind, I feel the Fusion will have a strong season, but perhaps not one that will look as impressive on the table.

The Dakota Fusion, as of the writing of this article, have signed seven D1 players and six D2 players. That’s a fantastic injection of quality that we simply haven’t seen for the Fusion in recent years. Not only though, are they bringing in a huge amount of new, promising players, there are clear lines being drawn that would help a side get past the initial issues of putting together a new group.

These solutions include large amounts of players coming from the same colleges (ie Siena College, Presbyterian, Davis and Elkins) and the fact that many of the foreign players come from similar backgrounds, eight from Japan and five from Germany for example, something that can help smooth rough edges.

The Dakota Fusion celebrate a 4-0 win over La Crosse Aris late in the 2021 season. Courtesy of the Dakota Fusion.

I think one of the main reasons it’s hard to rank the Fusion high despite how good their squad looks on paper, aside from the fact that we simply don’t know how most of these players will fair in the NPSL North, is that they also have a head coach making his debut in said position. Samuel Winning knows the NPSL North, he’s played in it and been an assistant coach in it, but he’s yet to have to lead a team in it. He’ll be pitted against a cast of very experienced leaders and I just don’t think year one will be him at his best. There’ll be some growing pains, but no reason to not invest in the Fusion’s project.

6th – Minnesota TwinStars

I should begin this section by noting that I believe that the TwinStars and Fusion will have very similar point tallies, perhaps even tying. With that in mind, I think the TwinStars will have a have strong moments, even matches and results, but struggle to translate it into a strong finish.

One area the TwinStars have gotten right at least at times has been interesting player recruitment. They’ve picked up 2021’s Mr. Soccer MN, Sidike Jabateh, not to mention 2018 Mr. Soccer MN Tayeb Benjaafar. Both young talents are sure to be players to watch this season, especially with Jabateh’s recent unbelievable runs of form for the Park Center Pirates. Lower league veterans like Granite City’s Ousman Ceesay and Duluth FC’s Ivan Adika, who played for the TwinStars in 2019 as well, also bring a ton of experience into a side we can expect to be pretty young.

Kapaw Htoo playing for the TwinStars against La Crosse Aris in 2019. Courtesy of the Minnesota TwinStars.

All of that, however, does not equal being better than the top Duluth, Med City, Minneapolis City sides of the recent years. It’s rare an NPSL North team is able to rely on such fresh talent as Jabateh to dictate a high table finish, and the team appears to not be drawing talent from local high level colleges the way Joy or Minneapolis City have. The level of this conference is increasing every year, and the TwinStars are already a year behind with their brief departure in 2021.

7th – Sioux Falls Thunder

The Sioux Falls Thunder want, and are working on, being better than they’ve been. The Thunder received new ownership last season, ownership that even then did well to try and start processes that would help the Thunder improve. They haven’t reached the top of the mountain on that one, and they probably won’t this year either.

As the NPSL North gets better, the work required of teams increases. While there are great things happening in and around the Sioux Falls Thunder, they don’t have some of the resources teams based in Minnesota, particularly the Twin Cities metro, have, and they simply haven’t made their roster details clear enough to search out a player or two who could change their course outside of the usual.

Sioux Falls celebrate a goal against Joy Athletic at home. Courtesy of the Sioux Falls Thunder.

I expect Sioux Falls will take points off the better sides, especially at home, but they’ll suffer in the long term and even slightly lose track of the race for fifth between the Fusion and TwinStars.

8th – La Crosse Aris

This is likely the one spot on the list that most or all readers will agree on. It is what it is, Aris have gotten better as an organization on the pitch and gotten more points in the last two seasons. They won’t compete in a serious way for anything beyond sixth or seventh place. As much as the results have generally been better, Aris still have the same issues they’ve had since 2017 when it comes to roster building and roster maintenance.

La Crosse Aris players line up for the national anthem in 2021. Courtesy of La Crosse Aris.

They’ll continue to be a big opportunity for their players, who often are young and have very little experience or exposure at this level, but they will not change their fortunes by simply being a more functional version of themselves.

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