After a long, nine-month offseason, AFC Cleveland returns for its sixth season in the National Premier Soccer League this summer. The excitement leading into the 2017 season is like none other in club history as the Royals look to defend the national championship they earned in 2016. The club also qualified for multiple mid-season tournaments and will be tested in the East Conference of the Midwest Region. With the core of their championship roster returning, AFC Cleveland has set lofty expectations for 2017 and inherits the unique challenge of being the first club to repeat as NPSL national champions in the league’s 15-year history, and add yet another entry into the growing list of Cleveland sports champions.
Who: AFC Cleveland Royals- Cleveland’s only soccer club in the first four tiers of the American soccer pyramid. The Royals will begin their sixth season, and have made the playoffs in four out of its first five seasons.
What: The National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) is an American soccer league considered to be in the fourth-tier of the Unites States soccer pyramid. The league expanded to 96 teams in 2017, including clubs across the entire United States.
AFC Cleveland plays in the East Conference of the Midwest Region, competing against Dayton Dynamo, Erie Commodores FC, FC Buffalo, Fort Pitt Regiment, Rochester Lancers, and Syracuse FC.
Where: The Royals will call Stan Skoczen Stadium at Independence High School home for the second consecutive season. This will be the first time the club has remained in the same stadium for two consecutive seasons.
When: AFC Cleveland kicks off their season on the road against Des Moines Menace in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on May 10, then returns home to host Dayton Dynamo on May 13 in their opening NPSL regular season match. The kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 pm.
2016 NPSL Season in Review
Record: 8-2-0 Goals Scored: 25 Goals Against: 9
AFC Cleveland were anchored by their stout defense in 2016, giving up a conference-best nine goals. Complementing the defense was an equally prolific offense that also led the conference with 25 goals.
The Royals were also home warriors, winning all five-regular season matches while conceding only one home goal across those contests.
2016 U.S. Open Cup
Record: 1-1-0 Goals Scored: 1 Goals Against: 2
The club competed in its first U.S. Open Cup in 2016, and won its first match despite traveling to Portland, Maine with only 13 players. The Royals were ultimately thwarted by the United Soccer League’s Saint Louis FC in the second round.
2016 NPSL Playoffs
Record: 2-0-2 Goals Scored: 7 Goals Against: 4
Finally, it would be unjust to discuss AFC Cleveland’s 2016 campaign without mentioning its triumphant end. The club’s thrilling run to the final saw them win two penalty shootouts and come from behind twice in the championship match en route to the club’s first league trophy. That the final was played at home in front of a sold-out Stan Skoczen Stadium made the triumph all the sweeter.
Former Cleveland Croatia SC and Cleveland Soccer Academy head coach Mike Sesar was tabbed as the next Royals head coach after the departure of former head coach and club legend Carter Poe. Poe had been with the club for each of its prior five seasons and served as both player and coach during his tenure. Poe has the designation of being the club’s first captain and first head coach to win a national championship.
Sesar steps in with a wealth of coaching experience in the Cleveland area and experience playing professionally in Canada. A London, Ontario native, Sesar is a member of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and has learned directly from professional coaches in Europe, including Manchester United’s René Meulensteen.
Many of the players who made significant contributions to AFC Cleveland’s championship campaign have announced they are returning to the club in 2016. Those players include:
Forwards: Vinny Bell (Parma Heights, OH); Ryder Bell (Westlake, OH)
Midfielders: Mike Derezic (Lakewood, OH); Brian Potocnik (Aurora, OH); Admir Suljevic (Devernta, Bosnia); Ryan Ware (Leighton Buzzard, England); Skye Harter (Copley, OH)
Defenders: Tom Beck (Poland, OH); Declan McGivern (Huddersfield, England); Chris Cvecko (Erie, PA); Coletun Long (Kent, OH); David Jordan (Mentor, OH)
Goalkeepers: Anthony Flowers (New Albany, OH); Alex Ivanov (Strongsville, OH)
The rest of roster will be announced in the coming days.
The 2017 regular season foes will bring plenty of entertainment with them to Stan Skoczen Stadium this season as a new division vies for its first champion. The Royals are the team to beat as the season starts when the Dayton Dynamo come to town on Saturday, May 13th. This will be the first time the Dynamo has had to travel to Cleveland as it will be the Royals first home match since their triumph last summer. Another game of note will be on Friday, June 9th when FC Buffalo and their well-traveled fans visit Cleveland. For those looking for the perfect opportunity to enjoy Royals soccer for an entire weekend, in late June there will be an eventful back-to-back with Fort Pitt Regiment in Cleveland on the 23rd followed by a quick jaunt to Marimon Field in Pittsburgh for a match on the 25th. Closing out the season against FC Buffalo in the 5,000-seat capacity of Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium will be one of the Royals’ toughest tasks. The travel for The Royals fans this regular season will be light with games in Pittsburgh, Dayton, Rochester, and Erie, all within a few hours’ drive.
Before NPSL conference play begins, the Royals have been invited once again to play for the U.S. Open Cup. On May 10th in Des Moines, Iowa, the first round will showcase an intense matchup of the 2016 NPSL Champions against the Des Moines Menace of the USL Premier Development League. The Menace’s 2016 season ended in their league championship tournament to the PDL’s eventual champions, the Michigan Bucks. If the Royals advance as they did in the 2016 tournament, the opportunity to play closer to home in the USOC for the Royals will come in the second round against FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium. The second-round matchup will be played Wednesday, May 17th.
Stan Skoczen Stadium will have the rare honor of hosting one of American soccer’s most prestigious tournaments this June. The Hank Steinbrecher Cup is a matchup of reigning champions from NPSL, PDL, USASA, plus the reigning Steinbrecher Cup holder. The exciting weekend of champion soccer is June 2-4 starting with the Michigan Bucks vs. FC United followed by AFC Cleveland vs. Christos FC.
The opportunities of playing in the USOC and the Steinbrecher Cup, plus 18 regular season matchups, will keep the Royals busy this spring and summer. Most of the core of last year’s dream run are returning, including the team’s first-team All-NPSL selection, Potocnik, and second-team selections Long and Harter. Although most of the competition in this year’s East Conference is familiar, the only teams from 2016 with a better than .500 record are the Royals and FC Buffalo. Thanks to dominating defense and the relentless fans of the Wampus, AFC Cleveland hasn’t lost a home game in years. The competition will be tough but the reigning champions will be favorites to win the conference and enter the NPSL postseason for a third consecutive year.
Photo Credit: Brent Durken/ 6th City Photography