Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

Image courtesy of the United Premier Soccer League.

The United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) Midwest-West is going through a mountain of changes this season, from teams being split between two divisions, like much of the league elsewhere in the United States, to a host of new clubs joining from across the state.

It’s sure to be a wild season, even in just week one. All four of the conference’s new members play week one on the road, while Vlora FC and Minneapolis City Futures immediately reconvene to play at Vlora in week one after last year’s title race.

This makes it quite difficult to predict exact results, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun as the season approaches. So, instead of laying out a full list of table finishes, we’re going to briefly break down each club in the UPSL Midwest-West Premier Division, noting one or two key details to watch out for.

Saint Paul Blackhawks

The Blackhawks may be new to this league and specific level of the game, but the historic youth club is anything but new to building the game in Minnesota. The club has helped develop past talents in the high level amateur level and even the professional ranks, now it’s time to prove they can successfully place their brand onto a full team of that talent.

If the Blackhawks can apply their history, know-how, resources, and support to the UPSL, they will almost certainly be a team to fear in 2023. Being new in a league like the UPSL is always tough, but the Blackhawks have the infrastructure to quickly compete for the Midwest-West’s top spots.

Oh, and by the way, their head coach will be Carter Albrecht, who has been one of the best Minnesotan coaches in the UPSL in recent years with Vlora. Albrecht knows how to get results at this level and with the Blackhawks talent pool, one he’s already worked with for years, in his reach, the club are one to watch.

First Game of Season: The Blackhawks will play hosts FC Minneapolis at Park Center High School on Saturday, April 29. It’s a big game right off the bat between two teams with the talent to compete for the playoffs.

Minneapolis City Futures

Even as 2022 brought difficult stretches to Minneapolis City in the NPSL and USL League Two, the club’s Futures’ based UPSL team continued to thrive, winning the conference tournament yet again. If you only want one reason to be excited for what the Murder will be up to in 2023, just know that they’ll almost certainly remain a competitor for the title.

Now without the NPSL to further split the roster, the UPSL will be the primary home of any member of the Crows combined roster not in the middle of USL League Two action, a dire situation for their fellow UPSL clubs, who must prepare to face the next prospective Loïc Mesanvi.

Minneapolis City’s mission to play in multiple leagues remains a difficult task, but with less strain on that system this season, it’s the Crows conference to lose. Their Futures system remains active and will surely help the squad, particularly in the UPSL, remain full of young Minnesotan talents looking to prove themselves.

First Game of Season: Minneapolis City start the season with about as tough a match as you can get, traveling to Vlora on April 30. Right off the bat, we’ll have a matchup that could inform the title race in a big way.

Vlora FC

The first champions of the new-look Midwest-West in 2019, Vlora have remained a highly competitive side in the league since then. The club responded well to a disappointing 2021, making the most of 2022. Vlora were regular season champs of the Midwest-West, finishing two points ahead of Minneapolis City, who then beat them on penalties in the playoffs.

While the club will be missing former head coach Carter Albrecht, it’s hard to see a future where they don’t remain clear candidates for the conference title. In recent years, the club has also helped produce several pro players, from Daniel de Leon to Jakob Popkin, a reflection of the quality hiding within their roster.

The only question is, as new names and faces pour into the league, will Vlora be able to focus on their continued title battle with Minneapolis City? Or, will the club, now with changes on the sideline, lose traction to the new powers at hand?

First Game of Season: Vlora will host Minneapolis City on April 30 to kick things off in a blockbuster week one matchup. Vlora will have the benefit of playing at home in a game with huge title implications.

FC Minneapolis

The City Lions had gone through several reincarnations when it came to their place in the lower league soccer scene. For many years, the club struggled in various leagues, from the APL to their early years in the UPSL.

More recently, however, FC Minneapolis have been very competitive in UPSL play. The club made an impressive Amateur Cup run not so long ago and had 4-3-1 and 7-1-2 records in 2021 and 2022 respectively. The City Lions are a force to be reckoned with in this league, no doubt about that.

The question now is if they can genuinely compete for the conference title, after often coming up short as honorable mentions in the title races behind the likes of Vlora and Minneapolis City. The squad has improved dramatically in recent years, 2023 might be the year things ramp up to the next level.

First Game of Season: FC Minneapolis will host the very first game of the 2023 Midwest-West season, welcoming the Blackhawks to Park Center High School on April 29. A win here could help announce the City Lions as title contenders.

St. Croix FC

St. Croix impressed last year in USL League Two and it seems they are now set to match Minneapolis City’s goal of fielding teams in both that league and the UPSL. Just as I expect City to benefit from experiencing last year’s test run, I expect St. Croix to take the challenge well.

The organization has years of experience navigating the youth scene and fielding a range of teams. That along with their access to a great talent pool on both sides of the state border leaves this lower league reporter thinking we could have a real contender on our hands.

St. Croix, much like the Blackhawks, feels to me like a new team that can actually disrupt the order of this conference. The club has lower league experience at a higher level, has recruitment power, and they were Minnesota’s best performing team in the USL League Two last year.

First Game of Season: St. Croix’s UPSL journey starts on April 30 when they travel to play Granite City in St. Cloud. Having to go on the road isn’t ideal, but may still present St. Croix with the right amount of competitiveness to get the wheels turning.

Superior City FC

2023 will almost certainly include some big challenges for Superior City. The club is new to the UPSL and its previous history, or rather that of the Wolfpack, is entirely in significantly lower levels of the amateur game. That being said, there’s plenty of reasons to be excited.

The Wisconsin-club is working with a strong talent pool and has a head coach, Otto Berti, familiar with this level as both a head and assistant coach. The club also have players familiar with this level on their roster, including former NPSL North champs Mally Lumsden and Mark Fehringer, along with interesting younger players like Carsen Monnier and Garrett Sutton.

It’s unclear if Superior City will be able to compete for a trophy in 2023, though anyone you speak to at the club will tell you that silverware is the goal. However, it feels certain that at home in Superior, they’ll be a tough team to deal with and will be determined to represent Superior with pride.

First Game of Season: Superior City kick things off on the road to Twin City FC on April 30, playing at Spring Lake Park High School. Twin City struggled last year and this may present Superior with the perfect start and a big road win.

Austin Villa

Austin Villa were one of the pleasant surprises of the 2022 season, and while the club’s ability to compete for the title did simmer down by the end of the season, there’s no doubt Austin Villa know how to put together a competitive program.

The club has made the most of its local talent pools, joining the likes of Med City and Rochester FC in mining gems out of southeastern Minnesota. As I said before, however, the club shined brightest early in the season and at home. Moving on from relying on those factors is essentially the do-or-die as far as competing for the 2023 title goes.

Clubs that rely on provincial, hosting power to get results can have great days and weeks in lower league soccer, but it rarely allows them to win titles. Austin Villa did a great job sourcing talent last year, but we’ll have to wait and see if that can last.

First Game of Season: Austin Villa are the one team from the conference’s 11 that has a bye week one, so they start play on May 6th, on the road against the St. Paul Blackhawks at Humboldt. It’s a tough start, having to play a highly anticipated team on the road and with one less game of freshness. That said, Austin Villa love an upset.

Granite City FC

Granite City struggled to climb the table last season, finishing eighth of 11 in 2022 after finishing third of nine in 2021. I think it’s worth noting the club has been in the UPSL since 2017, significantly longer than the rest of the crowd.

The club has the benefit of solely representing St. Cloud in the league and, despite lower table finish, pulled some interesting young talent into its roster alongside lower league veterans.

At this level, a good roster can get you far regardless of brand, so we’ll have to wait and see what Granite City make of 2023. It’s probably fair to say the club aren’t favorites to win the conference, but there’s every chance they’ll have some serious input on who gets the points to do so.

Granite City’s road to an improved 2023 starts with some promise. The club host St. Croix on April 30 at St. Cloud Tech. If they can get a win against the newcomers, momentum could quickly build for the side.

Maplebrook 58ers

Maplebrook had a quiet but confident season last year, earning a 3-3-4 record and essentially representing the best of the clubs that didn’t have a look into the title race.

Maplebrook have history and experience on their side, having even temporarily played in the NPSL North through a short term partnership with the Minnesota TwinStars. Last year they showed their experience in youth development and club play could result in a respectable UPSL season. The club is also based in the soccer youth talent hotbed of the western metro.

With a mixture of young faces and older, experienced names from the semi-pro and amateur scenes (including high level coaches), Maplebrook provides an interesting squad profile for the UPSL that is sure to challenge their fellow clubs.

First Game of Season: Maplebrook will be the first ever hosts of Worthington Community FC in the UPSL, playing at Maple Grove High School on April 29. It’s a big chance to start the year strong and get points against newcomers, but the danger of an upset feels ripe if Maplebrook are not prepared.

Twin City FC

The rebranded Ebusua FC will play their second season in the UPSL. 2022 was a difficult year for the club and their 1-1-8 WDL record left them bottom of the Midwest-West table. All of that said, teams at this level can turn things around fast.

It was not long ago that clubs like FC Minneapolis, with all due respect, had a reputation for performing quite poorly in league play. The City Lions are now among the top competitors in this conference.

All of that to say, Twin City FC will likely struggle this year. However, if the club can make the most of the talent pools it has access to in the metro, it’s entirely possible they can climb several spots up the table.

First Game of Season: Twin City start the year at home, hosting Superior City at Spring Lake Park High School on April 30. It’s a good opportunity to play a new team at home, but Twin City are likely to have their hands full given the ambitions of their opponents. A competitive performance here, however, could change perceptions.

Worthington Community FC

Another new club to the league, Worthington Community is a difficult club to predict for 2023. That said, there are some factors that suggest the club will at the very least be an interesting addition to watch and have a fighting chance against the rest of the Midwest-West.

One factor Worthington will benefit from is their relationship with the local adult league, one the city is quite proud of. Having a clear, grassroots source of soccer networking and talent gathering is a great way for a team to find their feet while developing a long term plan for competitiveness. The other factor is distance. Worthington will essentially be the new Sioux Falls trip for UPSL clubs, and while at times that distance can feel like a cliche, it’s a genuine factor.

Long trips are a genuine challenge for clubs at this level, and making a fortress of your home ground is how many clubs are able to assert themselves as provincial powers in the lower leagues. Austin Villa has done this. The Sioux Falls Thunder and Duluth FC have at times done this. If the club can make the most of their grassroots recruiting and their home fixtures, we could see a team that at the very least no one wants to play on the road.

First Game of Season: Worthington begin play on April 29, traveling to Maple Grove to play Maplebrook. With both teams’ trajectory this season somewhat unclear, it’s a big chance for both to get a win. If Worthington get a point or three on the road, it would seriously change their competitive potential.

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