The Swope Park Rangers are on the road to play San Antonio FC Saturday. They may have some tired legs after having played Saturday and Wednesday.
1 - What can we expect form San Antonio? Style, formation?
They’ve been going with a 4-1-4-1 and I wouldn’t expect that to change very much Saturday night. San Antonio FC has been a defense-first, offensively-challenged team, and we’re likely in for more of the same this weekend. Belmar by himself has more goals than SAFC does as a team so far this season. For me, this has been the most disappointing aspect of the start of the season. Ever Guzman in particular has just gone cold to begin the year. He was a late addition last year and scored a bunch of goals at the end of 2017. He continued his hot streak in pre-season, netting 5 goals, but they just haven’t been there for him at the start of 2018. I do think it’s only a matter of time before he gets going, so maybe this is the week. We also have Kris Tyrpak, who you guys will remember from 2016. He was second on the team in goals last year, and he’s in the same position here in the early going. It’s not a stretch to say he may be the likeliest SAFC scorer on Saturday night. SAFC’s leading scorer is Mikey Lopez, who has ties to KC but more recently came to San Antonio from NYCFC in MLS. Unfortunately he picked up a red card last week, so he’ll be on the sidelines. And so far Jose Escalante, formerly of Houston Dynamo and RGVFC, hasn’t seen the pitch for SAFC. Which, beyond week one when he had a carry-over suspension, is a bit puzzling. Again, maybe this will be the week. Keep an eye out for Alex Bruce, if he makes an appearance. He’s a very exciting up and coming player.
On defense, it all starts with reigning USL Goalkeeper of the year Diego Restrepo. He’s off to another good start, and the defense as a whole has been improving each week, with the first clean sheet coming in LA last week. I say improving b/c SAFC are missing some key pieces. Two big mainstays of the SAFC defense through the first two years have been out. Stephen McCarthy has been sidelined going back to pre-season and Greg Cochrane got injured late in the opening match at Sacramento and hasn’t been back since. And they lost USL Defender of the Year Sebastian Ibeagha to MLS and NYCFC in the offseason. So, they’ve essentially had an entire new back line to start the season. They’ve been putting it together and are starting to look much more comfortable together.
2 - You have three players with SKC/SPR connections. Cyprian Hedrick was drafted by SKC, Mikey Lopez was signed and played for SKC and Kris Tyrpak played for SPR. It looks like Lopez and Tyrpak have been the offense for San Antonio so far. What are your perceptions of how those three are doing?
Yea, it’s funny to see the connections that are starting to pile up for San Antonio now that the club is in year three. Tyrpak has by far been the biggest impact player for SAFC of the group. He was second on the team in goals and assists last season. He had the game winning goal against Saint Louis in the home opener two weeks ago and he added an assist as well. He could very well be the go-to guy on Saturday Night.
That’s b/c Mikey Lopez, who is the team’s leading scorer so far this season, will miss the match. He picked up two yellow cards in LA last week and was sent off, and as such, will be suspended on Saturday night. But my overall impressions of Mikey are very positive so far. There was a lot of fan excitement about the signing, largely due to his recent MLS ties. But after a quiet pre-season, he has been delivering, so it’s hugely disappointing to see him sidelined for the biggest home match of the young season, so far. My biggest knock on his game has been the cards. Three yellows in three games for Lopez – plus the second yellow that earned him a red. He needs to be more disciplined out there.
I would also say for both him and Tyrpak – they’re both very excited to be back to their Texas roots and play in front of Texas fans again.
Cyprian Hedrick is an odd one. He definitely has the physical tools to succeed. He was certainly impressive at OKC Energy. And it seemed pretty clear last offseason that he had beaten out McCarthy, at least to start the season. But the first match of 2017, he picked up a big injury at RGV. While he eventually got healthy and featured for the team, it really seemed like he more or less lost his place. So with Ibeagha moving on and McCarthy hurt, I have been pretty surprised that he hasn’t featured yet this year, with Coach Powell favoring the new defensive additions to this point. It’s hard to say what it means for him long term here in San Antonio, but if he can’t get on the field while McCarthy is out injured, there will be even less room for him once he returns.
3 - What is the reaction in San Antonio to the possibility of Columbus moving to Austin? Do you care or really hoping for another USL team to be in Austin?
Sore subject, thanks for bringing that up! The sports fans of San Antonio want to see our city get a second “major” sports team, and of course the soccer fans would love to see us have an MLS team. It’s also a goal of the Spurs organization, and remains so. The mayor wants it as well – he’s still taking meetings with MLS. So for San Antonio to be in the middle of this expansion process and going about things the “right” way, it has been severely disappointing to see all of those efforts essentially undercut by what is going on in Austin. It seems very unlikely MLS would have teams in both cities. But when you reflect on all the tangible evidence in place – the strong support that we’ve demonstrated over the last 7 years with both NASL and USL (not to mention several, larger international games), and then you talk about things like the very successful SAFC Pro Academy that the Spurs have in place, the support of local civic leadership, having a soccer specific stadium in the ground. When you take all of that together and then you compare it to what Austin has done in relation to soccer – it’s no comparison at all. We blow them out of the water. So, it’s a highly disappointing situation b/c it becomes very apparent that it’s all politics and it’s nothing that is merit based. And it is creating bad feelings between the fans in the two cities b/c we’re feeling very overlooked here in San Antonio. We feel like our city, our fans, and our owners have done exactly what has been asked of us by MLS, and they are passing on us anyway b/c of some back door deal with Austin that has been in the works for years. It’s all very disingenuous and it makes me question whether going to MLS is the right thing for San Antonio. Meanwhile Austin gives off the sense that they’re entitled to have a team, Columbus be damned. It’s all very unfortunate.
All of that being said, USL is a fun league. It’s exciting soccer. It’s growing more and more every single day. It’s cool to be a part of that. San Antonio soccer fans support USL well and San Antonio will continue to support it, if that’s our fate. We have a beautiful soccer specific stadium that we’d all love to see expanded, but you know what – it’s a pretty impressive soccer experience with eight thousand fans, too. We love our rivalry with RGV – and adding one with Austin would be quite amazing at this stage, especially with the backdrop of all the MLS shenanigans. If neither city ended up with MLS and both remained USL cities – that would be a pretty fun outcome, too.
1 – Swope has been the crown jewel of the USL West in their first two seasons, and going two for two, winning the Conference in 2016 and 2017. They’ve also won their first two matches of 2018. Aren’t you guys tired of all this winning, yet? What’s been the secret to so much of their instant success?
Wow, Crown Jewel of the West. I am sure Sporting Kansas City would like that description. No, you never get tired of winning or watching good soccer. I think the secret is twofold. First, as a B team for Sporting KC they are getting good players. Whether it is Academy kids coming up, players from other USL teams or foreign leagues looking for a connection to an MLS team or SKC drafted and signed players on loan, they have some quality players. Second, even though there has been significant turnover each season, Sporting KC has an identity, a style that is played at each level of the organization and it makes it easier to clearly lay out what is expected. Academy kids already know the style, loaned players from the first team know the style, so SPR players just have to be plugged in and learn. Some of Swope Park’s players go to spring training with SKC so they get an early start on learning the system as well.
2 – While Swope is off to another great start, they did stumble in Las Vegas last week, as the Lights came back in the second half to earn the 2-1 victory (shout out to former SAFC man Carlos Alvarez with a goal) – what happened in the Vegas match that caused Swope to take a step back, if only for one week?
I will mark it down as just one of those games. SPR out-possessed, out-shot and out-played the Lights most of the match. Soccer games do not always go to the better team. But credit to Las Vegas also, they are an older and bigger team playing at home and wanting to knock off a top team to establish themselves early. If not for the miscommunication between a keeper and defender that have not played together before resulting in an own-goal, SPR would have at least pulled out the draw on the road. Despite knowing the system, that is one of the challenges of a team that is always in flux with their lineup.
3 – Last week aside, Swope looks flat out ridiculous on offense so far this season, putting in a whopping 9 goals through their first three matches. SAFC is known for being a tough defensive team, especially at Toyota Field. Who has the edge in this matchup?
That is a difficult question. I hate to base a lot off of the first few games of either team but at the moment I would have to call it even. SPR is off to a good start, lots of goals, good ball movement, young guys getting experience is all good. San Antonio has been good as well with the win at home, draw on the road and the one loss at Sacramento in their opener. If I HAD to bet, I would put money on a draw. If I HAVE to pick a winner, it would be SPR but I would anticipate losing my money.
4 – Is there any stopping Kharlton Belmar? 4 goals and 2 assists in their first three matches. Projected over an entire season, those are MVP type numbers. And by himself, he has out-scored SAFC so far this season. It’s early, but could this be a special season for him in particular?
I hope it is. He seems like a great guy and has been a tireless worker in practice. He has benefited from the close relationship with the first team. Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes was able to see play a lot last year and when they had chance signed him to an MLS contract. So Belmar is rewarded with the better contract, gets to practice with the first team most of the time but still gets games in instead of sitting on the bench behind better players. When he practices with the first team he is going up against very good MLS defenders in Matt Besler, Ike Opara, Graham Zusi and more. It is like playing a youth player an age group up to see if they can handle it. Belmar has not only handled it has used it to improve and get stronger. I would not be surprised to see him make the 18 for SKC in the near future.
5 – Swope has been a very tough matchup for SAFC through two seasons of play, with San Antonio only earning one victory in six matches over that time. However Swope has never defeated SAFC at Toyota Field. How do you see this one playing out and what are your big keys for the match?
It will probably be a close game. SPR will try to possess the ball and wear out San Antonio a bit. If SPR can do that, they have the edge as that fits their style. It will be the second game in four days (third in 8) for SPR so there may be some tired legs. If San Antonio makes them chase more it will be a long night for the Rangers. A lot will depend on which players are on loan, who they want to get some time to take a look at as well.
6 - Tell us something we should know about Swope Park Rangers. (editor’s note - this is meant to be a fun, light hearted ending question. Can be about anything, the team, the fans, stadium, history - whatever you think is relevant).
Hmmm... The Rangers success has led them to not be the favorites of the USL or a lot of fan bases around the league. Other fans tend to hate B teams (even though the influx of B teams gave the USL the critical mass to succeed) because nobody wants their first team losing to a B side. USL hates.. err.. dislikes the Rangers for much the same reason. In 2016 SPR blew through the playoffs, even having a comeback to win while 2 men down. They then met the Red Bulls II for the final where they lost.
Last year when it looked like they might do the same thing, the USL decided to award a home game to Sacramento after claiming there were challenges at Swope Park. The actual challenges were a tremendous downpour and heavy, heavy lightening. The field drained well and was playable if the electrical show would have stopped before 1 AM. The Rangers beat Phoenix the next day on a perfectly dry field and on Monday USL announces the next game at the lower Sacramento team. After much angst and no explanation of what the “challenges” were, SPR was forced to play at SKC’s Children’s Mercy Park despite not having the fan base to justify opening the stadium.
This year, USL would not grant a waiver to play in Swope Park because there is not 5,000 seats for the 500 fans that show up so they have been forced to move to a high school stadium. They now have to play on turf, with football lines, no beer for fans, no tailgating (with alcohol) and a few other factors instead of playing in the area they are named for on a beautiful grass field.
Another interesting note, the starting midfield this year has been comprised of two Sporting KC Academy kids, Felipe Hernandez and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal. Both of them are just 19 and looking good. I would bet at least one of them earns a contract with SKC before next year. There is a good chance that they will be joined later in the year by 15-year-old SKC HomeGrown player Gianluca Busio. He is the youngest MLS player since Freddy Adu. When Sporting KC was in spring training and scrimmaging other teams, those three formed the midfield of one squad and performed well. So later in the year we could see a 15-year-old and two 19-year-olds as the SPR midfield.
One bit more on Kuzain (proper way to refer to him). He is known as the Malaysian Messi back in Malaysia. YouTube highlights of him draw thousands, millions of views in Malaysia. The kid is really good for his age but there is only one Messi.
Thanks again to Aaron Marvel