With the USL Cup being won last night by New York Red Bulls II in a 5-1 victory against Swope Park Rangers, the book has been closed on the 2016 USL season. For the USL, the season has been a glowing success. Attendance grew by 33%, more franchises entered play, with more coming next year. The limited testing of video replay at games was successful. The partnership with MLS has been a success as well, with two MLS owned and operated USL franchises making the USL Cup Final.
For the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and their fans, an early exit in the playoffs at the hands of Vancouver Whitecaps 2 makes the official start to 2017 a little bitter to the taste. While a 3rd place finish in the Western Conference regular season for the second straight year should be considered a success, the franchise and fanbase will look back on 2016 as a disappointment.
While looking back at the 2016 season, one cannot help but compare and contrast the season with the inaugural 2015 season. Much like that season, the Switchbacks entered the final game needing a win to clinch the top of the Western Conference table, and as in 2015 they lost, this time in a demoralizing 4-0 defeat to the Orange County Blues. That was followed by a 2-1 playoff defeat at home to Vancouver.
So what went wrong? For a team that brought back the majority of the players from the 2015 year, its hard to pin down. The team made a decision last off season to shore up the defense. 2015 was a year of late game breakdowns, and points squandered away. The team brought in former Orange County Captain Josh Suggs, as well as defender Christian Ibeagha. Together with returning defenders Josh Phillips and Jordan Burt, and goalkeeper Devala Gorrick, the defense improved significantly over last season, giving up 0.9 goals per game, compared to 1.25 in 2015. Both Suggs and Gorrick are second team selections on the All USL Team, and Gorrick is a finalist for USL Goalkeeper of the Year.
While the defense improved, the offense took a step backwards. The high scoring pace from 2015, scoring an average of 1.9 goals a game, dwindled to 1.2 in 2016. There were bright spots, with Mike Seth leading the team in goals (8) and assists (5) and Marty Maybin following closely with 7 goals in his first season with significant playing time, there was a notable drop in production from Luke Vercollone and Miguel Gonzalez. Vercollone and Gonzalez were the lone tandem in the USL in 2015 with 10+ goals (14 and 10), but this year notched on 6 goals a piece.
Where did the offense go wrong? One could point to the lack of production being a result of shuffled lineups and some players playing out of position, or injuries as the reason. Others would say it was the lack of a game changing striker. Last offseason saw former Switchback loanee Chandler Hoffman leave and sign with Louisville City FC, where he challenged for the USL Golden Boot with 14 goals. That production would have had a season changing effect on the Switchbacks 2016 campaign.
Where do the Switchbacks go in 2017? A hard look has to be made at the personal. It was a frequent comment by Head Coach Steve Trittschuh that the quality of the players were lacking. While its not clear if that was a genuine complaint, or motivation tactic, it is clear that the topic was on his mind frequently. With most of the 2015 team originally on 2 year contracts, its possible we may see a mass exodus of the 2016 team, and have a 2017 squad significantly different in makeup.
In an interview with Back Chat’s Mark Turner, Captain Luke Vercollone said about 2017, “I would love to have all the guys back. I think thats a big need. I think the front office and the coaching staff has their work cut out for them with keeping a lot of the guys, because Im sure their gonna need an increase in pay, and budget issues and what not.” With the bulk of inaugural season players contracts coming up, the team will need to make the decision wether to reward the players who have succeeded here, or seek out younger talent at a lower price. Coach Trittshuh summed it up to the Gazette in a postseason interview, "We didn't have as a good of depth as we expected," Trittschuh said. "We need players to push our starters more. We have already started looking at who is available and finding out who wants to come back to the team. Not everyone was happy with the amount of playing time they had."
"I want to bring in that consistent goal scorer up top who can score in the air," he said. "Mike (Seth) did a good job but we need more of that next year."
The Switchbacks, being an unaffiliated, privately owned team, in one of the USL’s smallest markets, have made no bones about being at a competitive disadvantage financially against other teams. Team President Nick Ragain has stated that the team needs 4,000+ people a game to be profitable. "We need the place to be as full as possible," he said. "We feel with the size of the community and the success we've had, we can be top five or six." With team profitability a focus, its uncertain if the team will have the financial clout to bring the bulk of the team, let alone go out and sign a big name player or two this offseason.
Day 1 of 2017 officially starts the Monday after the USL Cup Finals. Whatever direction the Switchbacks and USL goes this offseason is still in the air, but however it goes, it should be an interesting 6 months.