Winning’s Journey from Keeper to Coach in the NPSL

I first talked to Samuel Winning, digitally at least, in the Winter of 2017. I was working on player profiles for Duluth’s 2018 season, starting off by getting in touch with as much of the 2017 roster as I could, with a considerable turn over expected.

He told me a bit about himself, his early childhood memory of going to Dundee FC matches as early as 7 years old and falling in love with the game. Winning would eventually not return for the 2018 season, and I thought that was, unfortunately, likely the last time I would interact with the goalkeeper. Turns out I was wrong.

Instead, the Scotsman would return just a few years later, now an assistant-turned head coach for NPSL club the Dakota Fusion. The story isn’t as simple as that though.

Winning in goal for Florida Southern College, current Duluth defender Jake Starling to the far right. Courtesy of Mqueen Productions.

Winning arrived at Florida Southern College of the NCAA Divsion II in 2017 via Anoka Ramsey Community College, where he was awarded All-Minnesota College Athletic Conference honors in his freshman year, 2015, as he guided the side to a 14-4 record, a Region XIII Championship and a runner-up district finish.

After spending the rest of his NCAA eligibility at FSC, he would then move into a goalkeeper coach position with the men’s program in time for the 2019 season.

Between that freshman year at Anoka Ramsey and that first assistant coaching season at FSC, Winning would begin to define himself within Minnesotan soccer, not just in college, but at the NPSL level with the Minnesota TwinStars and Duluth FC.

Winning’s first brush with the NPSL would come with a spot with the Minnesota TwinStars in the Twin Cities. The 2016 season would be the last before the NPSL North formed, and despite it seeming an odd idea now, the TwinStars were Minnesota’s only NPSL club at the time following the departure of the NASL-era Minnesota United Reserves for the PLA. Their conference that season, labeled the Midwest-Central, included La Crosse Aris, the Chicago Mustangs, and the Milwaukee Torrent.

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The TwinStars would finish with a 3-3 record, third place on the table, pulling nine points from the six matches they’re smaller-than-usual conference allowed. With just a few matches played, the season would end there, the Torrent top of the table. The TwinStars would also play in the American Premier League (APL), a short-lived league that featured the likes of Duluth FC and FC Minneapolis in 2016.

As Winning told Sota Soccer, the journey was a complicated one, but proved to be worth the work.

“I was looking to play college in America because I wasn’t going to get signed to the professional team at the academy I was at, which was St. Johnstone. I wasn’t going to get signed, so it was kind of like, well, what are you going to do. I got an offer to go to Anoka Ramsey, where I could get a foot in the door of college. At that time I was just looking for the cheapest option possible”.

Winning would then make a fateful move to the TwinStars for summer soccer, where he would meet well known coach Youssef Darbarki and learn more about the soccer scene in Minnesota.

“I’d heard about the Twin Stars. Obviously Youssef Darbaki is a great coach, a guy I respect a lot even to this day. He does everything and he cares for his players… It was a great experience for me and to be honest it opened my eyes a lot because [Youssef Darbaki} likes to play football, they don’t like to play long ball, Stoke City type of football. They want to play. So it made me as a goalkeeper a lot better with my feet.”

The Torrent would remain in the NPSL via the Great Lakes conference, Aris would join the TwinStars in the North conference, and the Mustangs would leave for the UPSL.

Winning would return to Minnesotan soccer in 2017, joining Duluth FC in the first ever season of the NPSL North as we know it now. Winning would prove one of Duluth’s two main options at goalkeeper, alongside Englishman Tom Greensall. Each with a share of appearances, they would guide Duluth to the first NPSL North conference title, the club’s first piece of competitive silverware.

Duluth conceded just 18 goals that season and earned 28 points from 14 matches. They would make the playoffs, where Greensall started in a 5-2 to Detroit City FC, prior to their eventual rise to professional football in NISA and the USL Championship.

“Funny enough [the TwinStars and I] played against Duluth FC, if you remember in the APL, and [after the 2016 season] I was like huh, they’ve got some English guys, some older guys, a good set up… I reached out to him and he remembered who I was. He was like, yeah sounds good, we’ll get you set up… That 2017 season, it was a good year and I learned a lot during that year as a player because I was a young kid, I think I just turned nineteen. We had some experienced guys and I learned a lot just about myself… It made me think more about what I can do for the future. Is the end goal going to be playing professionally or should I go into coaching? Obviously this year and the last couple years I’ve gotten into coaching.”

The community which developed in NPSL North clubs and rosters, like Duluth FC’s, would leave a lasting impact on Winning, who saw the club make room for its stars as well as its bench and reserves players.

“It was, looking back now, such a good time. It was a new organization but as you know we had so many of those guys that played for St. Scholastica, UW Superior that stuck about. We had a brand new team but we had that local mix as well. We had, I can’t remember but probably six to eight guys who were full starters and the lived in Duluth, which is unheard of now… Everyone knew each other… Those guys, once you were in training with them, you’re a part of the team. We’re in this together, no matter if you’re the star player or one of the guys, you know I remember we had guys that would just train, never dressed for any games but they would show up every day and there was no difference between us… It’s been something I’ve tried to do this year at the Fusion and on the college side as well. When you have a team atmosphere of guys fighting for each other, that’s when you win games.”

Sam Winning, first from the top left, starts for DFC against the TwinStars. Current DFC head coach Sean Morgan & current TwinStars defender Ivan Adika kneel in front of him. Courtesy of Alex Ganeev.

Winning would arrive at the University of Jamestown in 2020, following that year at FSC, becoming a grad assistant coach for the NAIA men’s soccer program. He first served under veteran Jamestown head coach Tommy Nienhaus in his eighth season, helping the Jimmies to a 8-10 overall record, 5-6 in conference play.

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He would then spend his second year as grad assistant coach under new head coach Connor Campbell, who took the school to a 6-9-3 overall record, 4-5-2 in conference play. During his time at Jamestown, Winning served as an interim coach for a period, during which he earned a 4-4 record.

Winning’s collegiate journey then saw him become the new head coach of Presentation College, a South Dakotan junior college in the same conference as University of Jamestown. However, an exciting new opportunity would arrive this summer with Winning offered the main assistant coaching position at NCAA D2 school Felician University of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, a massive boost to his ever growing resume.

2021, the year would see Winning in his second year as a grad assistant at Jamestown, is where both he and the reader return to the NPSL North. Winning would join the coaching staff for the Dakota Fusion, acting as an assistant coach.

Working under Jon Melendez, who was managing the Fusion for a third consecutive year in 2021, Winning helped the Fusion earn 12 points from 12 matches. It was almost twice the points tally the side earned in their previous season, earning 7 points in 2019.

Winning, in grey standing to the right, watches as his side fight out a 3-1 win over his former club, Duluth FC. Courtesy of Holden Law.

Winning would see his efforts move him up the ladder in 2022, earning the head coach position at the Dakota Fusion in tandem with his new head coaching job at Presentation College.

This season saw the Fusion, amid Winning debut as a NPSL head coach, impress with a  7-3-4 WDL record, finish with 24 points and in third place. Of note, the Fusion beat Minneapolis City 2-1 on the road and 3-2 at home, and beat Duluth FC 3-1 at home. Along the way, the Fusion maintained a mixture of out-of-area talent from D1 and D2 schools like Noah Boyce or Tre Bonaparte alongside area-based talent like Northland College’s Jamie Colvill and Concordia College’s Nigaba Olivier and Nate Weaver.

It’s not hard to see that this year has seen the Dakota Fusion play the most competitive season they’ve had in years. While their points tally is similar to their 6th place, 15 point season in 2018, one could argue they haven’t been as much of a danger for other clubs since 2017. That year, it was the Fusion that took second place and a playoff spot, beating out Minneapolis City and Med City.

“In about February of 2021, the old Fusion coach called me and the head coach at Jamestown asking for players to play in the NPSL season. So then we talked about players and he asked, ‘do you have a coach?’… So I went down to Fargo that summer, I was assistant coach for the 2021 season and honestly, as you’ve seen, it was not our best season. Like many of the past seasons for the Fusion, it was not up to my standards… After that season, Jon Melendez said ‘you obviously want to do this, I kind of want you to do this as well’. So I took that position the following year as head coach.”

Winning says that while 2022 went well for his side, there’s plenty of work to do, and even some expectations that weren’t met by the Fusion despite their climb up the table.

“The Fusion’s success we had this year, I know [Dominic Bisogno] said it was a successful year for us and you know if you look at the last few years since 2017 it was successful, but you know in my terms I would give it a six out of ten… Some of those games, if we made those adjustments quicker or if we had started how we finished, we’d have bridged that gap to those first and second teams. The perception of the Dakota Fusion was not very good. After that 2017 season, it was kind of like, we can play our second team or reserve guys against them… Obviously this year, that wasn’t the case. Finishing third in the table from where we finished last year, having a lot more competitive games. I remember last year we got beat 6-0, 4-1 by a couple of teams and I was just like, that’s never going to happen again.”

Winning credits the motivation within the club and the turn around this season in great part to the club’s owner, Sajid Gharui.

Winning, in grey, stands in the middle of a huddle, giving the Dakota Fusion a team talk. Courtesy of Dakota Fusion media.

“A lot of that comes from the owner, Sajid Gharui… He’s one of those guys that, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and I feel like some of the last coaches, maybe haven’t given their all to be successful… As an assistant and playing here, I know how to be successful here. I’ve seen it, I know the type of level the players are at… Even last year as an assistant, I was kind of looking about at some of the players we recruited were just not up to standard just to be perfectly honest.”

The Fusion’s 3-1 win over Duluth has proven to be a highlight of the season, both for the club and for Head Coach Samuel Winning.

“Beating Duluth in Fargo, you know that was a good moment for me, obviously I kind of wanted Duluth to win the title to be perfectly honest over Med City when it was obvious we weren’t gonna win it, but we got that decision done. It was a great result for us because it was at home as well, so the people got to see the work. A big thing for me is just to give back to people that give to you. Sajid has given me a lot of opportunities.”

Winning admits it was a great reunion when he returned to Duluth this year to lead the Fusion against the BlueGreens, having been to the city sparsely since playing for the club in 2017.

“It was good because I’ve only been to Duluth twice in the past like, four years… Obviously to see Sean as well, it’s always good to see Sean, he’s a great guy. I respect him a lot as well. It’s always good to be back at [Public Schools Stadium] you know, it’s a super nice stadium and what Duluth’s done with it, the fans they get there now, it’s always a good experience to go there and feel that atmosphere… Honestly, when you’re on the sidelines and you’ve got your game going on, subs coming on, you sit back for a minute thinking, ‘I used to be that guy on the field’… It just gives you more and more motivation to go okay, how can I help these guys get a much nicer potential?”

While the result, a loss, meant Winning had work to do after the match, he still found time to consider the context of it all, and find a learning moment.

“I remember taking a minute after the game just to stand on my own and, you know, just look at the stadium, look at the kids taking shots on goal and just remember that in life things change within a week. You can be here, next day you’re gone tomorrow. I remember, we got beat and I was not a happy guy as you can imagine, but I took a minute to reflect before the team talk.”

Winning, who is in the midst of transitioning to his new position at Felician University, noted to Sota Soccer that he has every intention of returning for the 2023 NPSL North season, where he has plenty of plans for how to continue the Fusion’s revolutionary return to form.

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