A Northern Retrospective of the 2022 NPSL North Season

Note: Featured image – Duluth and Med City players watch on as Iker González claims the ball – courtesy of Holden Law.

The 2022 NPSL North season has come to an end, so here’s a few thoughts on each of the eight participant clubs now that a big offseason awaits. Some clubs blasted through expectations while others underperformed, but it’s fair to say that 2022 was an exceptionally entertaining year.

A note that the Med City and Duluth FC sections are purposefully longer, in hopes of going more indepth about the conference’s top two sides in 2022.

1st – Med City

While the playoff campaign didn’t go as planned, it’s fair to say this is the best season Med City has ever had. They won the NPSL North for the first time, made their first Midwest semi-final appearance, and continued to grow as a community and brand in Rochester.

Few players in the NPSL North have had as impactful a season as Med City’s Andres Garcia. To get the obvious out of the way, Garcia scored ten goals in twelve games for Med City this season, unfortunately missing some time at the end of the regular season with injury. Along the way, Garcia has found minutes on trial with the likes of Minnesota United 2.

Those ten goals make Garcia the highest scoring player in the NPSL North for 2022, beating Duluth’s Blake Perry by two goals for that honor. He was also the only Med City player in the top ten scorers list for the NPSL Midwest.

In his second year at Med City and having graduated from Austin High School in 2021, Garcia is proving to be a shining example of what Med City can provide as a developmental step. This St. Cloud State talent deserves to go pro. While that has been said, rightly so, about many in the NPSL North before, Garcia is peaking at the right time, one when there’s a far more clear path to going pro than ever before.

While Garcia was the star of the show, Med City benefited from a range of talents across multiple positions. Of note to me were Scott Neil, Narcis Bou, and goalkeeper Iker González. 

Narcis Bou and Scott Neil proved to be the creative, attacking engines behind Andres Garcia this season. The Catalan and Scottish pairing may not have scored as many as Garcia, but they were often the players causing the most problems for the opposition minute to minute. Bou would score six goals this season, while Neil would add five to combine for about a third of the 35 goals Med City scored in the regular season. Along the way, they provided the pathways into the final third necessary to set up Andres Garcia’s ten goal season.

Med City also benefited from a big year from goalkeeper Iker González, who started all thirteen of the regular season matches the club played, plus a win via forfeit. While Med City didn’t break records in terms of clean sheets, they did concede the second fewest goals in the entire Midwest region.

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While Med City didn’t blast many of their opponents out of the water game to game in terms of goals scored, González was always there to help prevent letting in goals at the other end to cement those 1-0, 2-1 wins that populated much of the Mayhem’s season. Considering the conference title was largely won in a 1-1 draw against Duluth FC, we can go as far as to say that without González, the talented front half in Med City’s roster may not have had as much to celebrate in 2022.

Head Coach Neil Cassidy has led Med City since 2018, overseeing the club’s ascension to truly becoming one of the NPSL North’s big three. His tenure has seen the side develop talented players, consistently do well year to year, and even make their first playoff appearance in 2018, albeit in a loss to Minneapolis City.

The one piece missing from Cassidy’s multi-year tenure was silverware. From 2017 to 2021, Med City have simply never been able to get the job done in terms of winning the conference title. With few playoff berths to call their own, the regional title became all the more hard to add to that bounty.

I spoke with Cassidy after Med City’s statement 5-1 win against Minneapolis City about half way through the season. Here’s what he had to say about the way his team stepped up on the day, outperforming even their own standards from the first half of the 2022 season.

“We moved a couple personnel around, I think that gave us a bit of a different look in some areas, but in terms of preparation, it’s just knowing and giving the guys confidence. It’s more of a psychological thing today of, you know we know we can play well. We can put the ball away.”

Cassidy’s leadership has seen Med City compete over the last few years, but he’s finally found the recipe this year, combining locally sourced and international talents into a group that refused to let go of the top spot, leaping on every chance provided both by their own talents and the mistakes of other teams to ensure that 2022 was a historic year. Med City will be a side to fear in 2023 if they can keep this group together.

Unsurprisingly, star striker Andres Garcia and goalkeeper Iker González both made the Conference XI alongside midfield leader Matthew Roberts.

2nd – Duluth FC

I believe it’s fair to say that this is one of the more competitive pairs of clubs the North has seen in awhile, even if their playoff showings fell short. 2018, when Minneapolis City won the North for the first time and Duluth won the Midwest playoffs, was probably the last time we saw the gap between first and second feel as small as it was this season. I mean, after all, Duluth missed the conference title this season by a point.

It would prove to be a year of almost for the BlueGreens in some respects, walking away from a strong 2022 season without silverware, but the club should be lifted by the fact that Sean Morgan’s second year in charge showed some clear improvement from 2021.

Duluth FC benefited greatly last year from Sidney Warden, whose miraculous fifteen goal regular season spearheaded the club’s attack. Duluth’s 2022 front line was a more versatile group, a cast of different styles and builds that each contributed a share of the club’s eventual total of 43 regular season goals. Those goals came from a total of fourteen different players.

Sam Thornton and goalkeeper Iker González meet as the Duluth striker tries to find a goal. Courtesy of Holden Law.

Sam Thornton provided a sort of physically dominant forward style in a way that I’m not sure Duluth has ever found to this extreme. Thornton was a confident battering ram against defenses when Duluth needed one, but also tucked away a few well taken penalties and worked the wings when needed through the season. Peter Oyetunji couldn’t look less like Thornton, a slim, tall forward with a deft touch and a nice helping of pace. Oyetunji has been a must-start player for Morgan. His work rate is tiring to watch and he seems to always find a way to make something happen.

Blake Perry was not necessarily expected to be the face of this Duluth attack. Those that knew his escapades at the University of Wisconsin Superior may have predicted a good season, but the Anoka-native has destroyed expectations with an eight goal regular season. Kostyantyn Domaratskyy scored five goals and was a vital creative piece this season for Duluth, always getting the ball up the pitch through impressive dribbles or well placed passes.

I noted prior to the start of the season that Duluth could benefit this season from a rare column of continuity. It would no longer be Sean Morgan’s first year as head coach and Duluth would also see a considerable amount of defensive pieces return after starting 2019 and 2021 with almost entirely new look back lines each year. 

Midfielders Felipe Oliveira and Keegan Chastey returned along with defenders Jake Starling, Martin Grwzywa, and Scott Wilson, while goalkeeper Brendan Dally would also come back. The defensive consistency, along with strong recruiting of additional players clearly paid off.

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Duluth FC has earned a reputation with some for not having local players. While this reputation is inaccurate, with the club having locally-based players and coaches every season, it is true that this season saw an increased investment in local players compared to recent seasons, to the benefit of the BlueGreens.

A new cast of University of Wisconsin Superior-connected talents joined the BlueGreens this season in the form of Blake Perry, Alex Paredes, Harry Ambler, and Jake Kidd, joining experienced DFC defender and former UWS man Scott Wilson.

Jessie Juarez, based in the Twin Cities, along with Duluth-natives Keegan Chastey and Aiden Olson. Chastey was a returning name from 2021, while Olson played in Duluth’s academy last year, the son of an original Duluth FC founding DASL player, Tony Olson. Perry, Juarez, and Chastey, representing Anoka, Shakopee, and Duluth, have been the most present of the local talent. 

A combination of returning experience and local talent, Jake Starling and Blake Perry, unsurprisingly represent Duluth FC on the Conference XI this season, alongside head coach Sean Morgan.

Duluth didn’t get the trophies they hoped for this season, but the club should remain invested in the path it’s on. Morgan is clearly a good fit at the top and if they can rebuild the roster next year like they did 2021 to this season, 2023 could be a great year for the BlueGreens.

3rd – Dakota Fusion

The Dakota Fusion were a truly interesting club to follow this season, one that genuinely surprised me with their ability to grab results and climb up the table after a tough start to the season. Their 24 point finish is truly impressive from a side that frankly hasn’t competed for the top two since finishing second in 2017.

The keys to that success are pretty straight forward from my stand point. One was bringing in a new head coach, former Fusion assistant coach Samuel Winning, who clearly brought some new ideas to the table. The other key was a major injection of new, high level talent. The Fusion squad this season, full of D1 and D2 players, many of German and Japanese nationality, was an interesting change of approach for the club, but one that paid off.

That’s not to say the team completely shipped in its squad. Northland College and UMAC goalkeeper Jamie Colvill proved to be a key piece for the club, starting in some major results, like that 3-1 home win against Duluth FC.

The Fusion ended the year far away from second place but the fact they beat Minneapolis City to the best of the rest award is a serious achievement and one Winning should carry into next season with some confidence. We should not sleep on the Dakota Fusion.

4th – Minneapolis City

A lot of folks questioned my prediction that Minneapolis City would finish fourth this season, albeit largely respectfully, which was nice. In a twist that even I didn’t see coming, this was the only prediction I made that was particularly dead on.

Jokes aside, the fact is that using one large pool of players to play three leagues, even with the help of the Futures program, is an extremely difficult task to pull off. Minneapolis City certainly made the attempt, but year one of this experiment was always going to be really rough. The club, via information provided to me by Minneapolis City themselves, suffered an almost unbelievable number of injuries through the season.

Those that were able to play didn’t score nearly enough. 29 goals in fourteen games just isn’t enough to compete for a top finish. For context, the last time City played a fourteen game season in the NPSL, they scored 46. Last year, in a twelve game season, they scored 44. City had the third least goals conceded in the North, but didn’t score the goals you have to to compliment that. 

The Crows were able to correct the course a bit in the last leg of the season and pieced together a few wins, but they’d already done the damage with two losses to the Dakota Fusion. On a brighter note, Matthew Murakami had a great year, scoring and defending simultaneously, while Thoo, Mesanvi, and Ouro-Akondo all seem like young talents that can really push this club forward next season.

Minneapolis City have plenty to look forward to, but it’s going to take a lot of patience. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Year five of this project will surely be amazing, but year one was always going to be rough.

5th – Sioux Falls Thunder

I was pleasantly surprised by the Sioux Falls Thunder this season. The club managed to get exactly fourteen points from fourteen games this season, getting results against the likes of Med City and Minneapolis City while coming close to doing the same against Duluth. Finishing fifth, ahead of two clubs from the Twin Cities, is a wonderful accomplishment for a club that continues to develop its local identity and fanbase.

The Thunder rightfully earned a few spots in the Confernce XI, with Ethan Glissendorf making the midfield while Tatsuki Kobayashi mans the defense. This is a strong roster with plenty of years left in the tank. If they can keep this group going and recruit another piece or two next year, perhaps something that can bag goals at a higher rate, I think Sioux Falls can challenge for a higher finish.

It’ll be hard, this conference is truly dense in the top half and there’s a gap between fifth and fourth this season, but for now the Thunder can celebrate their historic fifth place finish.

6th – Minnesota TwinStars

The Minnesota TwinStars were a truly interesting club to follow this season. I’m not sure any team had as many highs and lows. The TwinStars showed quality this year, especially in the first half of the season, and got some big results along the way. At one point, after a 3-2 win over Minneapolis City, they were in third place and looked the best side in the Twin Cities.

They had plenty of interesting talent, like young goalscorers Tayeb Benjaafar and Sidike Jabateh, and had some good long term NPSL experience through the likes of Karim Peterson-Darbaki, Mark Boquin and Ivan Adika.

However, they just couldn’t keep it up. After that win over City, they went on a seven match winless streak which included a 4-4 draw with the Fusion, a 6-0 loss to Duluth, and a 8-1 loss to Med City. While the other results were less extreme, the TwinStars just couldn’t keep the goals out in late June and July. It’s why they find themselves in sixth. 

If the club can keep most of its young squad around and find a couple good pieces to reinforce, it’s possible they can push up the table a bit. If nothing else, they have the talent to do better.

7th – Joy Athletic

What can you say, this year simply didn’t go the way most people thought it would for Joy Athletic. I myself put them in third place in my predictions. Instead the goats finished second to last in a season of highs and lows.

Joy Athletic, it should be said, did not play “bad” soccer this year in some sort of downgrade from 2021. Watch any of their games and you’ll see the same free form, creative, fast paced style that made them an impact club last season. In fact on the occasions they won, they often looked quite good. But, Joy were dangerously inconsistent this season, something perhaps brought about by a pretty serious amount of roster turnover from last year in key areas defensively.

Bennett Kouame earned a deserved spot in the Conference XI’s midfield and Phillip Caputo, the only Joy player to play in all fourteen of their games this season, continues to be a dangerous piece in this league. The Joy front line, however, was of course missing now-pro Emanuel Iwe and even Whitney Browne after the first chunk of the season. It wasn’t enough to find the sort of goals they did in 2021, the kind that could override a porous back line. Joy will be back stronger next year I’m sure, but 2022 has provided an important reality check about what the NPSL North can be like year to year.

8th – La Crosse Aris

Aris are a difficult team to explore retrospectively this season. This was, without a doubt, the best season La Crosse Aris has ever had in the NPSL. Three wins, one on the road, nine points, and twenty one goals scored. That’s six more goals than Joy Athletic scored this year and just one behind the TwinStars. I did not see that coming.

Nonetheless, they’ve finished bottom in a season full of strange events off the pitch and a whopping three forfeits, one due to a lack of travel ability on the day and the other two seemingly related to issues with pitch accessibility and quality.

The players of La Crosse Aris should be proud of the points they were able to put on the table. The folks that took away multiple opportunities for them to play, to do their job and exercise their passion, have to do better if they want this club to remain worthy of its spot in the NPSL.

Aris need to figure out streaming, they need to figure out hosting, they need to figure out travel, and they need to figure out maintaining their roster. I’ll leave it at that.

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