Mon. Dec 4th, 2023

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2023 has been and will continue to be a year of dramatic change for Rochester FC. The club have made a significant jump from the UPSL to USL League Two, are embarking on a more robust women’s soccer project by taking part in the USL W League, and the club has gone through an in-depth rebrand.

The move up the lower league ladder has seen the club bring in new waves of players to mix with local talent already in their system, but perhaps one of them most interesting editions has been on the sideline for RFC. New head coach, Sebastian Narváez. 

Muharem Dedic has long led the club he co-founded with Midhat Mujic, serving as its head coach. The former Med City players have spent years now creating a club with a local identity, developing a place for themselves in the UPSL and beyond. Now someone else is taking the reins, a Colombian manager with a story that already connects him to Minnesota, Omaha, and college soccer.

Sebastian Narváez tells Sota Soccer that his reunion with Minnesota and Rochester is a welcome one, forged by his connections to the city from his playing days.

“I’m really excited. I’m happy about this new opportunity to be able to coach Rocheser FC in the USL League Two,” he said. “I’ve had the chance to be part of the area as a player, for the Rochester Thunder’s season in 2010. It’s been a long time, but I had a great experience. People down there treat me very well… I believe it was a very good season for me as a player and also to make contacts and I think those contacts right now help make [this be possible], being part of this Rochester FC family.”

The Rochester Thunder operated from 2008 to 2010 and served as a reserve side for the Minnesota Thunder. Rochester played in the USL Premier Development League, or PDL as old school lower leaguers may remember it. That league has since been rebranded to USL League Two.

The team played at Rochester Community and Technical College, the same home now used by both Rochester FC and Med City. Coincidently, the Thunder were coached by current Med City head coach Neil Cassidy.

The Rochester Thunder were moderately successful and came at a time when soccer in Rochester was still fostering its development, but still managed to help develop some standout players, including 2021 MLS Supporters Shield winner Teal Bunbury, who has over 300 MLS appearances, has played for the USMNT, and grew up in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Narváez attended Bellevue University, playing for the Bruins in the NAIA. He left Bellevue University as the all time leader in saves with 243, games won with 44, and shutouts with 19. Narváez also had an extensive summer league career in and around his time in college, playing for the aforementioned Rochester Thunder, as well as other PDL clubs like the El Paso Patriots, Houston Lions.

Narváez told Sota Soccer that after college, he worked to go pro, even at one point training with the Minnesota Stars. He later played for the Omaha Vipers in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), a professional indoor soccer league that ran for six years from 2008 to 2014. The league was home to several major clubs in the modern Major Arena Soccer League, like the Milwaukee Wave and Baltimore Blast. 

Sebastian Narváez, pictured to the far right in a black long sleeve kit, with his Omaha Vipers teammates after a friendly involving players from the USMNT 1994 World Cup team in 2010. Courtesy of the Omaha Vipers.

Eventually, he decided to redirect his focus on coaching, starting at the college level and moving toward club soccer. As Narváez explained, the journey started in Nebraska, where he had already played college and indoor soccer.

“I got the chance to coach at Bellevue University on the women’s side, also at Creighton University on the women’s side,” he said. “I think I got the chance to do the right process with colleges and then decided to come back to Colombia and start with state leagues, where I had the chance to win several tournaments, and then get into professional teams. So it has been a really good journey for me, learning from a lot of professional coaches here in Colombia, well-known coaches for [teams like the national team]. It’s been five years since I started being involved with two teams in the second division here in Colombia. I have been a goalkeeper coach and an assistant coach and have been able to be a head coach, so I believe it has been a really good process but we always need to learn and keep learning.”

Along the way, Narváez founded a club and developmental program in Colombia, Sports Legends. The program’s main goal is to help Colombian players work their way toward collegiate careers in the United States.

“I developed, 10 years ago, a club here in Colombia, in my city, Cali. It’s a club for under 20 athletes and what we do is we help them to develop in their academics, in soccer, and to be able to help them get scholarships for different universities in the states. So far we have more than 200 players, in the women’s side and the men’s side, that have been sent by my academy, Sports Legends, and are able to get really good scholarships.”

The new Rochester FC head coach explained that hte team tries to emphasize doing things the right way, providing extensive resources to their players.

“We try and do it in a different way, where we have a club. Right now we have kids that are five years old, up to 12 years old, and then we have the elite program for our guys from 15 to 20 years old… We have English teachers for exams because they have to do a SAT. We have [a media team] so they can record videos for our athletes… We’re making that structure work and being helpful for our athletes.”

Narváez’ time coaching the Colombian second tier clubs Orsomarso and Atlético SC stands out as big additions to his resume. Both Orsomarso and Atlético have been mainstays in the Colombian second division for years despite their youth. Orsomarso was founded in 2012, coming closest to promotion in recent history in 2021. 

Atlético was founded in 2016 as part of the latest chapter in a series of rebrandings. The club has struggled to compete for promotion but came close to making the playoff stage of the season in 2022.

Narváez amongst his players at Orsomarso SC while coaching at the Colombian club. Photo courtesy of Orsomarso SC.

Narváez explained that his tie coaching at the professional level has helped him, but also emphasized that many of the keys of management apply to all ages and levels of the game.

“I believe when you’re coaching a team, it doesn’t matter what [the player’s age is]. I believe that we need to make them enjoy the game,” he said. “They’re human beings, especially when you get into the professional level, the pressure, the news, the TV, the owners of the teams are going to put a lot of pressure on them to win… So, dealing with different stuff, talking about that emotional part of an athlete is a big difference… So I think dealing with the environment for them as an athlete is something that we have to deal with.”

Having gone through the transition from player to coach himself, Narváez discussed that coaching professional players also helped him learn the skill set of coaching players that already have a strong handle of the game.

“Now as a coach you can understand certain things that as players we always blame the coach and say, hey I don’t know why I’m not playing. But now you can show them why things happen… If you coach a professional athlete, they now understand. They know how to play, where to move, the different zones of the field, spaces. What we need to do is take care of small details. If we cover those details, I think we can help the team develop. It doesn’t matter what level, they still need to learn.”

We don’t have clear data to predict how Rochester FC will fair in USL League Two. Between it being the club’s first season in the league, the influx of new players, and a new manager, it’s just not clear.

What we can say is that 2022 was a tough year for both Minnesotan clubs in the league St. Croix Legends managed to get 8 points from two wins and two draws, while Minneapolis City earned just 5 points, their only win coming against neighbors St. Croix. Both clubs also ended the season with a -15 goal differential.

All of this is to say, 2023 may well prove to be very difficult for Rochester FC on the pitch. So, what are Narváez’s goals, ambitions, and hopes for the coming challenge?

The coach started by explaining the kind of soccer he wants to play, focusing on an energetic, possession-focused game.

“I want to play good soccer. I want to play possession soccer, I want them to be involved, all of them having the ball. If we lose the ball, we want to go get it as fast as possible. I believe they can develop better that way, just being involved in every situation of the game.”

Narváez also emphasised that he wants his team to always compete, focusing on the performance and less on outside factors like opposition crowds or weather.

“We want to compete everywhere we go. It doesn’t matter if we play home games or we play away games. Is it hot, is it cold? I believe that [they will compete] if we teach the players a way of understanding the game, the different situations offensively and defensively, and the transitions you have to take care of. But the mentality will be to compete everywhere, and if that leads to winning games, that will be great, but how you do it, the process I think is the most important thing to do.”

Finally, Narváez noted the importance of striking a balance between the club’s local and global talent. Rochester FC has long focused on local talent and that focus remains part of the plan in the USL League Two.

“I know we’re going to have players from different cultures, we’re going to have guys from Minnesota, that’s great. One of the main things we want to do is establish communication with the community and help develop players too… The little bit that I can give to the community and the team, that is going to be my purpose for the time that I’m going to be there.”

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