It’s the evening of 5th of November 2017. I’m bent double with my head in my hands as the sounds of boisterous celebration by the contingent from the New York Cosmos in Riccardo Silva Stadium confirm that The Miami FC’s 2017 NASL season is over. Mason Trafford has just planted his shootout effort onto the woodwork. For the first time in my life I couldn’t watch a penalty. It meant too much. Of all the players I didn’t want to miss, it was Mason. He’d not put a foot wrong all year, the likable boy from Boynton Beach had become a fan favorite for his consistent performances in defense. Soccer is a sport that writes cruel scripts.
Pic courtesy: New York Cosmos
Yet soccer is sold to the public as fun. Color, clear skies, hope and potential. More than anything else these days soccer is sold as winning and euphoric joy. Nowhere is this sales pitch more visible right now than in Miami. The city is firmly in the madness of the MLS maelstrom. The major league is coming. We are going to give you the most colorful club the world has ever seen! A global club! The most inclusive club! It will be a world class club! We’ll be the best and never lose! All total rubbish.
No matter what soccer is sold as, it is always experienced as doubt if you’re a supporter. It is watched feeling nauseous. Or you block the nerves out with beer and noise. It is wishing that matches were over, it is wanting to walk out of the stadium you have spent all day fantasizing about being in. It is being convinced that the most heartbreaking possible scenario is the most likely thing to pass.
I hate to admit it but I knew that we would lose that penalty shootout. Sometimes you just know. I’d already run that penalty shootout scenario over ten times or more in my head that day. We lost them all. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it wouldn’t be the low. Losing in the playoff semi and watching the Deltas of all teams do what we couldn’t in two seasons with better resources and a World Cup winner as coach wasn’t the low.
Life as a soccer fan
Soccer sucks you in and spits you out. I’d been totally sucked in by Miami FC in the most positive of ways. A club that wanted to concentrate on putting good soccer on show and building something up over the next couple of decades. Getting to watch a team grow from an idea to a tangible thing is a really unique experience that I think is sometimes taken for granted in the US. To think you were there when it all began isn’t something that happens if you follow an established team in another part of the World. It’s not that it’s better or worse than that but it’s certainly a different journey to being born into supporting someone. That 2017 NASL season was a great experience because I really started caring, this was a good group going places. The team had sucked me in. The USSF was about to spit us out. That up and down in Europe or South America might be winning a cup then getting relegated. There’s no new perspective I can put on the events and if you are reading these words about a lower league American soccer club you probably know all the details anyway. The 2018 NASL season would fall victim to the Soccer Wars. Worse than ‘my team lost in the playoffs’ it was now a case of ‘would my team survive’? Like I say. We live in a unique soccer culture.
Anticipation and hope had given way to disappointment and uncertainty. Where would my club land? On hiatus? The USL? A hastily created unsanctioned league? None of these. Rising like a salmon out of the river, a phoenix from the flames or Rhett Bernstein above an opposing center forward was something else. A team that would play in an established USASA league, the de-facto 4th tier of US Soccer. The Miami FC 2 would play in the 2018 NPSL season.
Pic courtesy: Miami FC
Understandably I suppose there was a little backlash. Why not go to the USL? Why didn’t the NASL simply accept Division 3 sanctioning and try to regroup? Everything seemed to have some drawback or downside but the more I looked at the NPSL Sunshine Conference and the potential for a long playoff run the more I liked the idea of it. There was a real variety of teams, us as refugees along with the Armada. The Magic City Clásico with Miami United and some local road trips. This was the highest level of independent soccer open to the club so why not make the most of it? It was still a national league and there was a championship to be won.
Sadly we’ve never really packed out the Riccardo Silva Stadium but 1000 people rattling around there would have been absurd. Home games were going to be played at the training ground. The Bobcat Field at St. Thomas University which would end up be smartly shortened to The Bob. There was some familiarity, we’d played preseason friendlies there, and it was our own manor. Grass, no football markings, a nice intimate atmosphere. Slowly this lower league picture was coming into focus.
A slow start
The season started with three tough games. An away-then-home series against Miami United and then we’d host the Armada. All three games ended 1-1. We were lucky to leave Hialeah with a point, a goal by Jaime Chavez with the last touch of the game avoiding the worst possible start. If there was one downside to this level it was the refereeing. During the return fixture FC were up 1-0 and comfortable when the ref sent off Tyler Ruthven for the heinous crime of clarifying where a throw in should be taken from. Apparently that’s worth a yellow. And he’d gone in the book already 30 seconds before that for a more colorful outburst. United tied it up early in the second half and the game petered out into a pretty awful game of soccer.
The Armada were a robust team but also their coach Mark Lowry had got them playing some good stuff. They’d take the lead and FC would have to patiently wait for an equalizer. It came and it was a good one. Chavez sliding a ball through for Ariel Martinez and the tricky midfielder thundering a low shot home to bring it back level. Three games, three draws, three points on the board. Then came a short lived Open Cup run.
Pic courtesy: Miami FC
Of course we were lucky to even be in the competition. Buried in the rulebook is a couple of lines about not changing leagues between seasons. Doing so invalidates your Open Cup eligibility. Well that’s fine but what can you do when the USSF has gone out of it’s way to kill the league you are playing in? The illustrious USSF leadership relented and gave us a play-in game against the PDL’s FC Miami City. A lovely Sunday evening in early May at Tropical Park would give us our first win of the season, 3-1 with goals from Smart, Suarez and Michaud. All three of those names would be new to the FC faithful. All three would go on to become fan favorites. Don Smart arrived from Indy and his exciting play down the right flank caught the eye early on. Super Dario Suarez would be welcomed with open arms. Any player with Cuban roots is going to go over well in the 305 but this was a guy with flair and determination too. He’d end up scoring some great goals operating on the left wing. Jeff Michaud would be more familiar to soccer fans in South Florida as a local kid made good. A handy all-round central midfielder with a knack for coming up with goals when it mattered. Think of a lower league Frank Lampard and you’re there. This was the new Miami FC, direct, more youthful, hardworking. Paul Dalglish was starting to put his mark on the side.
After dispatching another local team, Red Force FC, in the Open Cup first round proper, the second round predictably gave us another game against Miami United. This time there would have to be a winner. The events of that evening would live on in infamy for so many reasons.
Pic courtesy: Miami FC
Paul Dalglish had shown a lot of backbone to take the job of manager at Miami FC. After two years of ultimately underachieving, Alessandro Nesta took one look at the chaotic uncertainty around the club and ran off to Serie B in Italy. Few could blame him really. Stepping into his shoes was Dalglish, son of Kenny, a man with experience of coaching in the US and Canada. Out was the distant and aloof Italian, in came the affable and accessible Scotsman. That seemed to translate to the style of play too. Where Nesta liked to wear teams down with possession and a pragmatic approach, Dalglish likes to get the ball out wide and get behind teams. Haggis and Pasta are both great things to eat but they definitely go down differently. In 2017 the club had torn up trees in the NASL and Open Cup. It would probably take someone who could roll with the occasional punch to deal with this unique season compressed into four months.
But the Open Cup campaign for 2018 would also be compressed. Into just ten days. And it wasn’t a punch Dalglish had to contend with, it was a stamp.
With time running out in the first half of the second round game against United, FC were 1-0 up and cruising thanks to a strike from the eternally fantastic Dylan Mares. In one of the more bold decisions taken by Dalglish, talismanic forward Enzo Rennella had been given a deep-lying midfield role. This is nothing new tactically. Enzo was by far and away our best player technically. You could see in his head he was always two steps ahead of everyone else on the field so why not pull him deep and let him try to run the game? And it was working. 1-0 up and knocking on the door for more.
Pic courtesy: thecup.us
Suddenly with the ref about to blow for halftime Kris Tyrpak stamps on an opponent with play going nowhere in midfield. It was ugly and it was a straight red. In these cases you always have to give a player a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know what is said between opponents on the pitch, we don’t know how many sneaky unseen fouls we’ve missed and players rarely turn violent without provocation. Tyrpak didn’t really seem to be the hot-headed sort. He really does seem like a good professional. But equally you’ve got a responsibility to everyone around you. He reacted. We played 45 minutes with 10 men. We conceded three unanswered goals. We were out of the Open Cup.
In the crosshairs
Given the fact that it was clear a player had let the team down, amazingly it was Paul Dalglish who found himself in the crosshairs. The cliche is soccer is sometimes a game of two halves. A play of two acts. Everyone forgot about the tidy first 44 minutes and tore the coach apart with the unusual use of Rennella at center stage. It was unfair. Everyone was shook at going out to Miami United and some people didn’t know how to handle this team losing. It seemed like we were on a path to self-destruction.
Not a matchup to remember unless you are Miami United or their fans, La Doce, in which case you’ll probably never forget it. So here we were in the middle of May. Out of the Open Cup and just three points from nine in the league. This wasn’t the unbeaten season some had hoped for. Everything was going wrong, everyone was to blame, no one had any answers. Passions were running high, including my own. When your soccer team starts performing poorly it starts to creep in to other parts of your life. It can turn the nicest men into monsters. So I can certainly sympathize with Kris Tyrpak.
We’d been spat out again. Could we turn this round? We’d reached another low but the good part about being in a trough is that when you start coming out of it the feeling that builds is fantastic. A week and a half after our cupset would come a rainy Saturday where our season would start to show signs of life.
Part 2 of Lee Ifans’ 2018 review of The Miami FC will come out shortly. Stay with Magic City Soccer for more!