Considering that there are 29 teams now in the United Soccer League (USL) it has to be said that the Swope Park Rangers had one of the great first seasons in league history. Sure the Sacramento Republic won the USL Championship in their first year of existence but they did it when there were only 14 teams in the league. Making it to the title game when the league has since more than doubled is quite the achievement.
The Rangers will have lots to overcome this year including the loss of their head coach, Marc Dos Santos, who moved on to another expansion team (the San Francisco Deltas of the NASL). He will be replaced by former assistant coach Nikola Popovic in 2017. That won't be the only turnover this team faces in the offseason. Typically in lower division soccer (the USL is currently in the third tier of US Soccer) roster changes can be massive year-to-year. That said, I tend to think the turnover won't be quite as bad with a senior team position waiting in the wings. Let's get right to it with a position by position analysis of who is will definitely should be back and who will probably be gone.
Definitely Should Be Back: Adrian Zendejas and Steven Tekesky
Zendejas is a no-brainer. He is just 21-years old and had quite the showing when he took over as the starter. He didn't lose a game until the USL Championship. Now a lot of that has to do with the center back pairing of Amer Didic and Oumar Ballo in front of him. I'm not quite as high on Zendejas as others, but he has the potential and is still very young. No reason to believe he won't be the presumed starter.
As for Tekesky, despite five goalies earning caps for SPR in 2016 he wasn't one of them. Tekesky is a member of the SKC Academy and as such should be safe to remain around.
Maybe Will Be Back: Zac Lubin
Lubin I think he definitely could come back, but he moved last offseason from the Tulsa Roughnecks to SPR for a chance to be the starter. He had his chance and the results were mixed. My guess is he'll keep trying to find a starting job but if it doesn't work out he may hang around. Word around town is he's been working with FCKC on strength and agility very recently, so that could be a sign of him sticking around.
Probably Will Be Gone: Jon Kempin
Kempin was the starter going into last season as he came down on loan from Sporting Kansas City. With the recent news that SKC chose not to pick up his option for 2017, one would assume he won't take a huge pay cut to sign with SPR directly. Now if he can't land a job in the USL, all bets are off. Even then though, he may want a change of scenery and his mentor happens to be the coach of the Oklahoma City Energy.
Definitely Should Be Back: Amer Didic, Oumar Ballo, Ezra Armstrong
Didic and Ballo emerged as probably the best center back pairing in all of USL last year. They had a run all the way until the USL Championship where they hadn't lost while starting together. No reason to think they won't be back other than the fact that they could get senior team contracts with Sporting KC. Even then, they'd likely get loaned down to SPR. There is always the possibility that one of these guys could get poached (amongst others on the roster) as SKC can only protect three of them at any given time.
As for Armstrong, like Tekesky he is a SKC Academy member and I see no reason he wouldn't stick around.
Probably Will Be Gone: Tommy Meyer, Jacob VanCompernolle, Johnny Grant
For Meyer I went back and forth between being a maybe and being a goner. What it comes down to for me is that he was the starter center back before losing that job to Didic and Ballo. He still made good depth for the club and was serviceable at right back. But the way he got himself suspended for six games for his irresponsible conduct during the playoffs tells me he must go. On top of that he has MLS experience and likely won't want to sit on the bench in USL.
As for VanCompernolle, he was also a starter that was unseated. After it was clear he wasn't getting his job back he was loaned back to his old team the OKC Energy and finished the season there. No reason to think he won't head back there on a fulltime basis or look for another team that he can start on.
Grant has become the de-facto starter at right back and showed glimpses of promise. He's pretty raw but seems like he could have made that job his own. Unfortunately it sounds like he may be on the move and not back for a second season.
Shockingly, these are the only six defenders on SPR's roster. The team was often filled out with SKC loanees (Amadou Dia, Ever Alvarado, etc.) and doesn't even have a true left back on the roster. Duke is listed as a defender, but he finished the season as a midfielder so we'll address him there.
Definitely Should Be Back: Ualefi, Kevin Oliveira, Christian Duke, Ayrton, Christian Albelo, Filipe Hernandez, Will Little, Wan Kuzian Wan Kamal, Patrick Wilkinson
Ualefi, Oliveira and Ayrton are all stars and should stick around without issue. If Ualefi and Oliveira weren't dealing with torn ACLs I imagine they would be headed to the senior team right now. Ayrton could very well be on his way to doing just that. Ayrton and Ualefi also have a past connection with their new coach Popovic from their Benfica days and likely will stick around their former coach.
As for Duke, he sure hustles. He is a local product and the team captain. I can't see the team moving on from him or him from the team. I also can't see him getting the chance to move to MLS because he simply hasn't shown the ability to play at that level.
As for everyone else, they are all SKC Academy members and until they go to college it seems safe to say they'll be sticking with the club. Will Little has the second most minutes of any Academy player and would be a welcome addition back to this team.
Maybe Will Be Back: Tomas Granitto, Alex Molano
Granitto started the year as a starter in the midfield and was moved to the bench when Duke was pulled from left back and put into the midfield. Granitto showed some ability and would be great depth to have around. Especially with Ualefi out an extended amount of time, Granitto is the player currently on the roster most likely to fill in for him. That said, I'd like to see another defensive midfielder signed to keep developing the youth in that role.
Molano is another player who showed flashes of ability. He had a brilliant free kick goal in the dying minutes to tie the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. My only concern with him is he won't want to ride the bench. With the USL moving to only three substitutes per game in 2017 (as opposed to five previously) it's more likely that he may not get on the field. He is talented enough to start for another club so he may choose to move on.
Definitely Should Be Back: Mark Anthony Gonzalez, Tyler Pasher, Kris Tyrpak, Nansel Selbol
Gonzalez was the teams leading goal scorer in 2016 despite splitting time fairly evenly with Dane Kelly. He also lit it up in the playoffs and really put this team on his back even while he dealt with injuries during the playoffs. Gonzalez is a sure bet to be back and a guy that may end up with a promotion to SKC.
Pasher and Tyrpak are also obvious choices to bring back. They showed great speed and scoring ability from the wing which is something Sporting KC is in desperate need of. Lump these two into that group of players who may get senior contracts and be loaned back down instead of riding the bench. They both now have experience being called up to SKC and Tyrpak has prior experience with Chivas USA.
Selbol was by far the most used SKC Academy player in 2016 getting 22 regular season appearances with the team. He was creative on the ball and looks to be another player that will grow significantly in the future.
Maybe Will Be Back: Akeil Barrett
Barrett was a midseason signing and if he showed one thing it was speed. He often looked to be the fastest player on the field. He did sometimes struggle with his touch and general ability to shoot the ball but speed cannot be taught. If he can develop his ball handling and shooting ability, he could be a true threat.
Probably Will Be Gone: Dane Kelly
Don't get me wrong, I like Kelly. I'd love for him to come back. But he's the USL's all-time leading goal scorer and he's clearly second fiddle to Gonzalez. He isn't getting any younger (he'll be 26 by the start of the season) and strikers tend to peak early. He'll probably want to get that last chance to be a star which will be tough when he's sharing time with Gonzalez. I hope I'm wrong and he and Gonzalez both stick around.
Team Needs for 2017
1. Left and Right Backs. The biggest needs on this team are at the full back position. The only player on the roster who should potentially play left back is Pasher and he seems better suited to play on the wing (though Vermes and company do love full backs who can attack). With rumblings that Grant could be gone they'll need a replacement there. It wouldn't surprise me to see the recently departed Ever Alvarado end up on SPR as he tries to earn his way back to the senior team.
2. Another Defensive Midfielder. With Ualefi having a torn ACL and there being no true backup for this spot, this is a sore area of need. Granitto will likely be the presumed starter if he sticks around but he seems more like a box-to-box midfielder to me. It would seem SPR views him that way as well as they chose to start Emmanuel Appiah, who has a penchant for giving the ball away, over Granitto. Appiah could get an SPR contract, but he seems more like an attacking midfielder than a defensive one.
3. Depth at Forward. If Kelly were to leave the team basically has enough players to line up two wingers and a center forward and they'd have two backups. There will need to be more depth to push the starters and to be ready in the case of a call-up or an injury. If SKC hasn't entirely given up on him, Connor Hallisey would be an interesting guy to see get significant minutes in USL.
4. A New Backup Goalkeeper. If Lubin moves on, as I suspect he may, there will need to be depth at GK since Tekesky will likely still be with the Academy. Tekesky is also quite small (just 5'9") and doesn't fill out the goal as teams often rely on at the higher levels of the game.
We at TBT will have more on the offseason and all the moves when things start to ramp up in the coming weeks and months. It should be an exciting time and here is to betting a lot of these guys are with SKC during preseason in Tucson, Arizona.