Mon. Dec 4th, 2023

Here we are again! The NPSL season is on its way and the NPSL North is heating up for yet another exciting season, it’s sixth in its current form. Med City will experience defending a title for the first time in club history, while Joy Athletic will take part in the league for just the third year in a row.

The Dakota Fusion competed for a top spot last year to a degree they haven’t seen since 2017, while Minneapolis City were left out of the title race for the first time since, well, ever. The Crows are also the only team from 2022 not to return, leaving the NPSL after an eventful five years in and around the league.

It is Sota Soccer’s understanding that the playoff structure will be different this season. The top four clubs in the NPSL North will face each other in a 1v4, 2v3 playoff structure that ends in a conference final. That team will then enter the regional playoffs. The Midwest is now a four conference region, making this model possible. This opens up the doorway for meaningful late season action for the conference’s midtable sides.

These predictions are to be taken with a grain of salt. These are also personal predictions, from me, Dominic Jose Bisogno, and do not necessarily reflect what other Sota Soccer writers think. I have grouped my predictions in large part by who I think do and don’t make the playoffs, with further thoughts on their potential in the writing.

It is worth noting that in last year’s predictions I made some good calls. I was able to correctly predict the table positions for Minneapolis City, the Minnesota TwinStars, and La Crosse Aris, and was close to guessing the title, as I foresaw Duluth and winners Med City competing in a tight battle for the North. I completely misread both the Dakota Fusion and Joy Athletic in 2022, however, so any teams feeling uneasy about their spot on here should remember that I might be truly wrong about them, and frankly I would look forward to seeing that story play out.

The Top Four

Med City

Going forward, Med City looks ready to be as dangerous as ever. Forwards Scott Neil and Andres Garcia are set to return after terrorizing defenses all summer last year, joined by returning midfielders like Diogo Mazzoco and Matthew Roberts. These attacking talents are just some of the impressive list of returners.

Defensively, the Mayhem look set to maintain the highly impressive core they built in 2022 with Josh Balsiger, Jack Strachan, James Averies, and goalkeeper Iker González all returning. NPSL sides often fall apart when they rely too heavily on new faces. While Med City have new players coming in, this returning core is the kind of consistency that builds successful campaigns in this league.

New faces like Abdul-Quddoos Hypolite, Yonis Muse, Ricardo Schroeder, Jr., and Noah Gjervik look promising and will have high expectations amongst a side of top performers.

Neil Cassidy is as experienced as they come when it comes to head coaches in Minnesota’s lower league scene and the 2022 season ensured that we saw the results of the multi-year project he’s headed at Med City. Cassidy was heading high level amateur sides in Rochester long before Med City and last year we saw the Mayhem put together a roster capable of executing his aims like never before. The fact he’s got a large slice of that crew returning for 2023 should concern opposition.

Med City will almost certainly be in the mix for a top two finish, and I would not blame anyone who pencils them in for a title defense. The one spot I think needs improvement? Last year, Med City surpassed Duluth in conference play by getting gritty results against every single team. When they might have lost, they drew. When they might have drawn, they won by a goal. The only team Med City didn’t quite figure out? Duluth FC. They went 0-1-1 against the BlueGreens and benefited from Duluth proving somewhat inconsistent on the road, particularly against Minneapolis City and the Dakota Fusion.

A confident title defense from Med City may rely on whether or not they can put Duluth to the sword themselves. If they do accomplish that, they will almost certainly win the NPSL North title, or at least earn the best possible seeding for the new post-season tournament.

First Game: @ Dakota Fusion, May 13, 7pm, Jim Gotta Stadium

Duluth FC

Duluth has announced a list of impressive returners, along with some new exciting pieces. Captain Jake Starling returns for a fourth season with the BlueGreens, along with other returners like Cian Gantley, Felipe Arteaga, Andres Solares, Felipe Oliveira, and Paul Bobai. A solid contingent of returners should provide the platform for success that it did last year, particularly with players like Starling being able to help provide leadership and guidance alongside the club’s coaching staff.

The BlueGreens won’t just be relying on returning players, of course, and have announced interesting additions like UWS’ Josh Bellamy and Aaron Shartin-Folkert, NPSL North veteran Tyler Limmer, and an Irish contingent of Conor Behan, Rory Doyle, and Colin O’Mahony.

Sean Morgan is coming into his third season as head coach of Duluth FC and it has been an impressive introduction for the former midfielder. Morgan helped lead Duluth to two trophies on the pitch, and while the first as manager hasn’t come yet, it feels inevitable that the pieces will come together soon.

Duluth FC have finished outside of the top two once in the entire history of the modern NPSL North, that being their third place finish in 2019. With a strong roster coming together, consistency off the pitch in terms of sideline and matchday leadership, and exciting new owners, it’s hard to think we’ll get anything different in 2023.

To a degree, I’m not predicting which of these two will win the conference. I just feel assured it’ll be one of them. In a way, that’s the most exciting version of a title race you can have, where it feels like it’s down to who plays their cards right. The new playoff structure means that Duluth may well have to beat Med City in a literal final to earn the title, regardless of what they accomplish in their two regular season meetings.

First Game: @ Minnesota TwinStars, May 13, 7pm, Park Center High School

Dakota Fusion

The Fusion were a surprise threat last season, able to beat the likes of Duluth FC and Minneapolis City on their day and finishing third after several seasons of lackluster table finishes. It was a promising return to form to the team that was a competing powerhouse in 2017 and even qualified for the U.S. Open Cup. This return to form was led by big attacking performances from the likes of Shoki Yoshida, Tre Bonaparte, and Nozomu Kamei.

The Fusion’s roster in 2023 will have some familiar names and some unknown entities. Goalkeeper Jamie Colvill, defender Riku Kawano, and Daigo Adachi represent a range of experienced pieces that will know the club and the league. Yu Tsukanome provides a fascinating new face. The Japanese forward joins from the Biwako Seikei Sport College in Japan and has made an appearance in the prestigious Emperor’s Cup with the team. The 22 year old is an unknown but interesting element. He’s one of what seems to be dozens of new faces coming to the club, who seem determined to recreate the mass roster resetting they pulled off last season.

Head Coach Sam Winning impressed me in 2022 in his debut year as head coach of the Fusion. The former TwinStars and Duluth FC goalkeeper was able to instill persistence and organization into a group of players largely new to the NPSL North and each other. That 2022 roster included several groups of guys from similar schools or national backgrounds, but that could easily lead to a clique problem as dangerous as a room full of strangers. With meaningful purpose now handed to third and fourth place, it’s hard not to think that this Fusion team makes the conference playoffs.

First Game: vs. Med City, May 13, 7pm, Jim Gotta Stadium

Joy Athletic

Joy Athletic’s debut year in the NPSL in 2021 was a promising season, full of impressive performances and eventually a player going pro in the form of Emmanuel Iwe. 2022, however, was not so easy for the Goats. The team never quite found momentum, and ended the year near the bottom of the table.

Joy’s early signings for the 2023 season have been classic Joy signings, in the best way. Noah Eklund brings youth and experience from St. Cloud State and Andover, while Spencer Enright brings youth and experience from St. Louis Park and Augsburg. The club has added some other interesting pieces, like Jessie Juarez. The former Augsburg and current St. Scholastica player was a big part of Duluth’s 2022 defense and could bring some much needed experience to Joy’s backline.

Joy will need to make the most of this talent to improve on last year, but it remains encouraging to see the club put faith in local talent at the high school and collegiate levels.

Joy Athletic’s attack took attention away from some defensive issues in 2021, but the goals didn’t come as easily in 2022 and a general lack of execution in the defensive third left the team dropping points quickly, including twice to La Crosse Aris. Joy scored 28 goals in 12 games in 2021, and just 15 in 14 in 2022. All of that said, the margins of their seventh place finish were tight and some minor improvements could see the team do significantly better.

Joy Athletic can reach and should be aiming for the new four team playoff. I think some of the defensive reinforcements they’re bringing in, plus the lessons of 2022, mean they can get it done.

First Game: vs. La Crosse Aris, May 13, 7pm, St. Louis Park Oriole Stadium

The Bottom Three

Sioux Falls Thunder

Sioux Falls remains a difficult team to read every season. At times, the team has struggled to perform and have been inconsistent on the road, but the Thunder have been and remain the most difficult place to play in the NPSL North.

That’s not speaking ill of their ground or facilities, but rather the fact that they push teams travel limits as almost everyone’s longest trip, only to then have to face a Thunder side that draws a good crowd and wants to provide those fans with good performances.

It’s Robbie Carroll’s first season as head coach of the Thunder and that adds another wildcard when it comes to predicting their season. Some new head coaches challenge for the conference title, some struggle to get a win. In recent years, the few debut coaches who have thrived have mostly been those very familiar with the NPSL North either as assistant coaches or former players. 

Sioux Falls end up outside of the top four for me because, depending on how these pieces come together, we could easily either see the Thunder challenge for a higher spot or struggle to climb out of the bottom portion of the standings. If anyone is going to upset my top four predictions, it’s probably the Thunder. I just don’t see it actually playing out that way.

First Game: @ Duluth FC, May 20, 7pm, Public School Stadium

Minnesota TwinStars

The TwinStars started 2022, their first year back in the NPSL North in some time, quite well. They got good results and got big goals from the likes of Sidike Jabateh, Pe Carlos Gbamy, and Mark Boquin. Then, they finished the year with six consecutive losses. The question for 2023 is whether they can still start well without experiencing that drop. It’s not a change I’m confident they can pull off.

If Joy Athletic manage to grow out of last year’s issues and the Fusion keep up last year’s momentum, I don’t see much room for the Minnesota TwinStars to thrive this season. The playoffs, even if they include four teams, seem like a difficult hill to climb without serious improvement across the full season. The historic club has a way of staying in the mix, however, so keep an eye out.

First Game: vs. Duluth FC, May 13, 7pm, Park Center High School

La Crosse Aris

I predict that La Crosse Aris will finish last place. The club had one of its best years ever, even prior to the NPSL North, in 2022, and still finished last by one point. This is the challenge ahead of them. Last year’s product on the pitch was solid at times, but a host of other problems led Aris to forfeiting multiple games. Aris needs to find a way to be at their best week in, week out both on and off the pitch. Until that happens, I just don’t see them passing anyone for an entire season.

It’s worth noting Aris have made some announcements for 2023. They’ve appointed Charles Nasser as their general manager and announced in late January that they are resuming their academy system.

These adjustments aren’t enough to change my prediction that the team will once again finish last. If they prove me wrong, I would love that. This placement isn’t meant to poke fun. I’ve written two feature articles (here and here) about Aris in the past and know there are good people at and around the club. Let’s see if they can put the pieces together and make some history in 2023.

First Game: @ Joy Athletic, May 13, 7pm, St. Louis Park Oriole Stadium

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