A new year has brought about a big change in the sporting landscape in San Antonio. The San Antonio Scorpions are no more, and in their place stands a bright and shiny new team, San Antonio FC (SAFC). Owned by the San Antonio behemoth Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the team’s off field goals have been clear from day one – they aim for competing in the Major League Soccer (MLS) league. On the field, that’s a little harder to determine.
“We’re always seeking perfection,” said San Antonio FC head coach Darren Powell at the team’s media day in early March. “That sounds silly, but it’s what we’re after. You can’t go into a season expecting anything else.”
How close can this team really go to that goal? Perfection seems highly unlikely, considering the United Soccer League (USL) is a competitive league, and the Western Conference, of which San Antonio is a member, is especially competitive and difficult.
Powell has used preseason the way it is intended – as a chance to see his complete squad – which has made life difficult for reporters getting a scope of what this team will look like when they line up for their competitive debut on Sunday, April 3, in Seattle.
Despite that, a few things have become clear. Most obviously, the team is a strong defensive unit, conceding just four goals all season, two of those coming at the death of their last friendly. That argues well for a team, since defense has continually been proven to win championships. It’s true in basketball and in soccer; Just ask the Italian team of 2006 or the Greek team of 2004.
SAFC’s defensive lineup has plenty of experience, with Stephen McCarthy and Milton Palacios providing the bulk of the experience and Fejiro Okiomah, who has played professionally since 2013 and had plenty of field time at Pittsburgh last year, leading not far behind. Defense is also where perhaps the most interesting signing for the club lies, with Bobby Moseley coming to the club on loan from English Premier League club Stoke City, looking to gain valuable experience in San Antonio.
The battle for goalkeeper is keeping everyone guessing since both Josh Ford and San Antonio native Matt Cardone performed well in pre-season, despite having spent the majority of their most recent seasons on the bench. Choosing the starting goalkeeper will be a tough decision, a fight that Ford may just be edging.
San Antonio soccer fans will notice a familiar face in the midfield with Rafael Castillo, who switched to SAFC after previously playing with the San Antonio Scorpions. That move was a popular one, announced the same day as the SAFC club name, and was greeted with great fanfare from supporters who hope he can repeat his 2014 heroics when he scored a wonder goal to give San Antonio its first ever professional soccer championship.
But Castillo isn’t the only notable San Antonio FC midfielder, since that portion of the field is also home to the club’s first internationally-capped player, Sebastien Thurriere. A Haitian international, Thurriere has been called up for several World Cup qualifiers in 2015 and 2016, and could likely play in the Copa America tournament against Brazil over the summer.
Another familiar face in the club’s midfield is Michael Reed, most familiar to San Antonio soccer fans as an opponent from Minnesota United. Danny Garcia, who has midfield experience in MLS, moved down to the USL in a bid to restart his career, and his high quality abilities have shown in pre-season.
Manolo Sanchez is listed as a forward, but his role will be slightly further back, since he has partnered well with one of the club’s biggest signings, Jamaican striker Jason Johnson. Sanchez and Johnson have proved to be a fruitful combination, the most successful one in pre-season, and one that could start on Sunday in Seattle.
Sanchez came to SAFC from the New York Red Bulls (NYRB) in the MLS, but spent the bulk of his 2015 season with their reserve team. That may sound like a negative for SAFC, but Sanchez is a good get for the club since he played well for NYRB II in the same league that San Antonio will be joining for the 2016 season, managing 22 appearances and four goals last year.
Johnson will likely be the frontman for SAFC, joining the club after a long time in MLS, most notably with Houston Dynamo. Johnson left Dynamo last year, heading up I-35 to Chicago to link up with the Fire where he had his most successful MLS season to date, scoring two goals. His high MLS salary of $60,000 may have pushed him out, but his departure is a big gain for San Antonio.
The only other listed striker on the team is Shawn Chin, who has built an impressive career for himself in the lower soccer leagues of the U.S. Over the past two years, Chin has been a stalwart for Fort Lauderdale, scoring three goals in the process, and could have a strong impact off the bench for San Antonio in the 2016 season.
The team’s lack of ample strikers may concern some fans, but based on the style Powell seems set to play, the amount of strikers will likely not be an issue. Powell seems set to play with wingers, his defensive players on the right and left, utilizing them in forward role when the team is on the ball. That will produce some entertaining soccer for the fans, but could also leave the team vulnerable to a counter-attack when they lose possession. That will make players like Reed especially important as he will play in a holding midfielder role, staying back while those wingers move forward.
Determining who will be the main opposition for San Antonio in 2016 is difficult; In a league with plenty of expansion, things are hard to predict. What is clear, though, is who the main rival will be. Geographically, the Rio Grande Valley Toros will likely prove to be a big rival given the absence of the Austin Aztex for the 2016 season. With four matches between the Toros and SAFC this year, familiarity on the field is sure to breed contempt between the players.
It is difficult to predict where San Antonio FC will finish in the 2016 season. Even with Powell’s talk about perfection, a playoff place would certainly be big news. But a playoff position is going to be hard to find in a competitive western conference with California offering some of the biggest competition in the league. Three impressive teams come from the Golden State, including the Orange County Blues, Sacramento Republic and last year’s champion runners up, LA Galaxy 2. All have good potential to win the title.
The biggest story, that will continue to develop throughout the season, will be how a team run by Spurs Sports and Entertainment fares compared to the San Antonio Scorpions. In comparison to past seasons with Scorpions, Cardone said, things with SAFC, so far, are looking good.
“It’s completely different,” he said. “The atmosphere here is much more positive.”
*Top image: San Antonio FC players go close to a goal against Corinthians FC of San Antonio in preseason action. Photo by Eric Guzman.