Sun. Dec 10th, 2023

The news is out. Renowned youth academy, the St. Paul Blackhawks, are joining the UPSL, ensuring an already-quickly growing conference earns yet another heavyweight contender.

The Blackhawks, based in the Minnesotan capital of Saint Paul, have long produced talent seen on the fields of the UPSL and NPSL. Now, their own name will be at stake, along with that of Saint Paul.

The capital city has struggled to find a long term representative at the upper level adult amateur tier since the departure of VSLT from the NPSL in 2019. In that time, many neighboring suburban cities have earned or further developed teams, from Joy Athletic in St. Louis Park to Vlora in Burnsville and the Maplebrook 58ers in Osseo/Maple Grove.

The Saint Paul Blackhawks, however, are far from new to the Minnesota soccer scene. The original Blackhawks organization, which had a focus on adult soccer, was founded in 1952. The Saint Paul Blackhawks youth organization as it exists today can be traced back to 1985.

So, who are the Saint Paul Blackhawks? What stands out about the club, and what do they have planned for the UPSL? Blackhawks Executive Director Viktor Adamcsek explained to Sota Soccer that the club is structured as a non-profit organization. Adamcsek also noted how the Blackhawks serve different communities than many other metro clubs.

“We are a youth soccer club, a 501c3, so a non-profit club run by a board,” Adamcsek said. “We have a few professional staff, some administrators, some coaching directors. We have around 1,200 kids in our program, anywhere from age 5 to 19. Something else that separates us from the other soccer clubs is our membership, which is much more diverse than some of the suburban clubs. We’re really proud of that.”

Adamcsek added that the club has prioritized accessibility, taking steps to make involvement in the Saint Paul Blackhawks available to any interested families.

“One of our biggest missions that we’re proud of is that if people want to play competitive soccer, they’re able to do so regardless of the price of it,” he continued. “So, in regard to that, something like 35% of our kids are on financial assistance… Any given year, we give out around $300,000 of financial aid, and by we I mean our membership.

The St. Paul Blackhawks 09B Gold team which won the 13U Bronze title at the 2022 USA Cup. Courtesy of the USA Cup.

The Blackhawks have been part of the Minnesota soccer scene long before any of the current leagues in the national adult amateur level. Why, then, is the UPSL set to be the home of the team’s debut season? Adamcsek explains that the journey here has taken time, but is rooted in the bonds that connect many graduating players.

“I’ve been at the club for 15 years and in those years we’ve had a couple groups who wanted to stay together and wanted to play, on the women’s side and the men’s side. In these last two years, we had a group that got together, our U19’s that had aged out. We had a coach with them, Chris Scanlon, who stayed with them and we started an MASL team.”

Adamcsek also noted that many youth clubs have begun to use leagues like the UPSL to develop older age groups. This trend in Minnesota has been considered for some time by the Blackhawks.

“More and more clubs are starting to have adult groups… We entertained the idea in years past, but the board came to it that this is a youth club and we should stick with that,” he said. “Our club has always wanted to be more than each individual team. We wanted to create a whole culture. We wanted to create an atmosphere where people can feel they belong to a club, not just to a team.”

Adamcsek explained that his own background made him hopeful that the Blackhawks could develop into a club that players could call home for many years. He also noted that the history Carter Albrecht, the team’s head coach for 2023, had with the UPSL helped pave the path. Albrecht was previously Vlora FC’s UPSL head coach.

“I do have a European background, I’m from Hungary. Carter and I were talking, it would be great to have that kind of pathway and that kind of club created where we actually do have an adult side. All these kids that are graduating away from us don’t have to go to other clubs and can stay with us… We wanted something with a little bit more prestige and something a little bit more organized. Given Carter’s history with this league, we decided to investigate if this would be a good option.”

Head Coach Carter Albrecht explained to Sota Soccer that, as he returns to the UPSL now managing the Blackhawks instead of Vlora, he knows the mission is to develop and compete.

“Every club’s going to have a different mission in the UPSL. So, within Blackhawks, we’re going to continue to develop players. We’re not just trying to get results in the league. That being said, we definitely plan to be competitive.”

Albrecht continued by discussing the importance of forming a supportive group in lower league soccer. The social and emotional sides of the game were as much at the front of the discussion as tactics.

“From my experience with the league, especially with a league that plays so many games in a short time and many players have other commitments, whether it be school, family, work, it’s important to find a balance of players that can hold each other accountable and have the mentality and commitment level to get through a grind like this.”

Albrecht also noted that style will be important for the Blackhawks. He hopes to prepare the team for the wide range of football styles the UPSL will expose them to, while maintaining a culture.

“From my experience at Vlora, I would say the cultural piece is huge, and also understanding it can be very pragmatic football at times. You have to be able to prepare a team for that while maintaining the style that we want at the Blackhawks.”

The return of lower league soccer to Saint Paul is a major opportunity, for both the club and the community. Executive Director Viktor Adamcsek is well aware of the importance local support holds for the people of Saint Paul and the future of the club.

“Saint Paulians have a pride,” Adamcsek explained. “They like to support the neighbor down the street, the local folks, local businesses. We definitely had that in our club’s history and it’s nice to see many teams when some of our teams achieved things, like Carter’s youth team from last year winning the state cup, we had nine or ten kids in that team that grew up with us.”

Head Coach Carter Albrecht added that he hopes the club’s growth into the adult amateur game can help the Blackhawks continue to give Saint Paul something of their own to root for.

“There’s certainly a lot of pride in the fact that this is here, and excitement… Whether you were already associated with Blackhawks or not, there’s something that Saint Paul can call its own. Sure, we have Allianz Field here in Saint Paul, but that’s Minnesota United and MLS and that can feel out of reach at times, whereas this ours. This is Saint Paul’s.”

The St. Paul Blackhawks 08B Black team which won the 14U Gold A level title at the 2022 USA Cup. Courtesy of the USA Cup.

Albrecht continued by noting that the Blackhawks want to stick to their style of play, one they believe will benefit the players and the club.

“We want to play an aggressive style that gives players a chance to develop and gives players a chance to be seen,” he explained. “I don’t want to make some grand statement, but we expect to compete. Finishing near the bottom of the table would be a huge disappointment… I think we’ll have the excitement, the talent, and the culture to play aggressive football and still get good results.”

Adamcsek also noted that the success of many Blackhawks alumni hints at the ability the club has to produce talent capable of this level of the game.

“If you look at most of the Minnesota United academy rosters at the older ages, if you look at Shattuck St. Mary’s, you have quite a few players from the Blackhawks at these places… We feel we’re going to be quite competitive.”

The conversation concluded with a note from Adamcsek on the mission the Blackhawks have to extend this expansion into the womens game.

“We’re doing this on the men’s side right now because it made sense where we started, but we’re hoping this year to maybe start a MWSL team on the girls side and eventually have them join the same league on the girls side.”

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