Home Sports “It’s a sprint.” 16-game season gives Forward Madison no time to let...

“It’s a sprint.” 16-game season gives Forward Madison no time to let up

Forward Madison attacking midfielder Don Smart holds off Toronto FC's Patrick Bunk-Andersen during a game last year.

It’s not the sophomore season anybody expected, but Forward Madison FC’s coaches and players are ready to get going.

“They’re excited,” head coach Daryl Shore said of his players, who are set to open a 16-game season Saturday at defending USL League One champion North Texas. “There’s just a lot of nervous energy. We’ve been together since February 13 and now we’re playing our first game on July 25. Guys are anxious to get on the field and be able to kick somebody besides each other.”

Originally set to begin in April, the second-ever USL League One season got underway last weekend with a single opening match, a 2-0 win for 2019 runners-up Greenville Triumph over Fort Lauderdale CF, an affiliate of MLS expansion side Inter Miami.

Forward Madison returns a core of 12 players, including Best XI honoree and Defender of the Year finalist Chrisitian Diaz, leading scorer and league midseason MVP Don Smart, captain Connor Tobin and Wisconsin natives JC Banks and Carl Schneider. That core anchored a side that finished fourth on the table in the league’s inaugural season, bowing out in the semifinal to North Texas.

Christian “Pato” Diaz.

The club also made a number of additions, including to the front line, as goal finishing was an area of deficiency last year. Over the winter, the club announced the signing of Wojciech Wojcik, a 6’4” striker from Chicago who played last year for Hartford Athletic in the USL Championship.

“‘Woj’ hasn’t surprised us,” Shore said. “He’s done everything we expected him to do coming into pre-season. He’s a guy that, if we get him proper service and we get him the ball in the right spots, then we feel like this is a guy that can score 10 to 15 goals in a 16 game season.”

Word from the training ground has been that newcomer Michael Vang, the youngest contracted player on the roster and on his first pro contract, has generated a lot of buzz among the veteran players. Vang was also a name Shore mentioned as a player that has excited the coaching staff; unfortunately, fans will have to wait a game or two, as there’s been a snag in his international transfer paperwork. Vang, who hails from the Minneapolis area, played in Portugal last year.

The biggest question mark in the offseason has been between the posts, as goalkeeper Ryan Coulter retired from play and moved into coaching, and Bryan Sylvenstre moved on to Miami FC of the USL Championship, earning Forward Madison a healthy transfer fee.

In an interview Thursday, Shore announced that the Austrian Philipp Marceta, who played in Germany and earned a trial with the Seattle Sounders this spring, will start in goal Saturday. Other goalkeepers on the roster include the returning reserve keeper Brandon Barnes and 16-year-old Chris Brady, on loan from Chicago Fire.

“We had two very goalkeepers last year and whoever plays in goal for us this year has big gloves to fill,” Shore said. “So we’ve got a good core group of goalkeepers and they’re fighting each day to really solidify their spot. Philipp Marceta is going to start the first game, but it’s really a wide open competition right now.”

Other loanees from the Fire include forward Alex Monis and midfielder Allan Rodriguez, both 16 years old. Forward Madison announced a new affiliation with Chicago Fire in March. Last year’s affiliation with Minnesota United led to loans of striker Mason Toye as well as defenders Carter Manley and Wyatt Omsberg, who both became stalwarts of the Mingos’ backline for most of the season, and goalkeeper Dayne St. Claire. 

The league will also look a little different this year, as Lansing Ignite folded and Toronto FC II will not be competing this season. Plus, Fort Lauderdale and New England Revolution II join as MLS affiliates and Union Omaha will compete as a new independent club.

In 2019, the Flamingos made the playoffs by virtue of a 1-0 win over Lansing Ignite on the last day of the season, after climbing the table from dead last in the midst of the summer. Shore knows there’s no time for a bad stretch this year.

“Every game matters” when there are only 16, Shore said. “And so the old cliche … it used to be, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Now it’s flipped. Now it’s a sprint.”

This weekend’s season opener is a rematch of the 2019 semifinals, and Shore said the youthful NTSC squad — an academy team of FC Dallas — is still the team to beat in the league.

“Until somebody takes their title away, they’re the team to beat. And they deserved it last year, there’s no sugarcoating that,” Shore said. “We gave it everything we could last year in the semifinal, and to be fair, they wore us down, and they deserved to win the game last year. So for me, as far as I’m concerned, North Texas is the team to beat until somebody proves otherwise.”

Forward Madison might be the team to prove otherwise, being the only team to beat NTSC twice last year, including a now-legendary 4-1 thrashing at Breese Stevens.

The Flamingos’ second match and home opener will take place Friday, July 31, against 2019 runners-up Greenville. All eight home matches will be played at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, due to Dane County’s current restrictions that don’t allow for outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people. 

Team officials said Monday that the capacity at Hart Park will be about 1,500 — far fewer than the nearly 5,000 who packed Breese Stevens last year, and far closer to the league average. Plus, fans will be required to spread themselves out and league guidelines prohibit chanting and singing. For that reason, the Flock supporters group — which became known around the league for their constant singing and raucous chanting — announced this week that they won’t have formal supporters’ activities during matches, but still encouraged fans to get to Wauwatosa to attend games.

“First and foremost, there’s not a team in our league that can replicate what went on last year at Breese Stevens Field. And I don’t care how many of the teams are going to try to replicate it. It’s not going to be done,” Shore said of the atmosphere the fans created. “Know that come 2021, we’ll be back and we’ll be better for all this. But right now, Hart Park is home, regardless of what the atmosphere is. We’ve got to make it a place where opponents don’t want to come play us there. And we got to make it our new fortress.”

Shore said he hopes fans stick with the club, and try to make it to a game or two in the temporary home.

“Just know that we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that we still create a safe environment and a friendly environment and not to be discouraged to make the drive to Hart Park and support these guys, because these guys have really worked their rear ends off to stay fit,” Shore said. “We’re going to put the best team available every weekend out there. And I just ask our fans to please continue to be supportive and try to make it down to Hart Park and show everybody in our league that it doesn’t matter where we play, we still have a loyal following.”

As for these first two weeks, Shore said he doesn’t mind playing last year’s two finalists back to back to open the season.

“Look, you’re going to have to play them at some point, so it might be better to play them early because they’re going to be working the kinks out also,” Shore said. “So the one thing that we liked about playing those two teams is last year when we played them, they were all good games, and they were healthy games where all the teams, both of us, got after the game the right way.”

Shore said it’s an unusual situation, but with the NWSL and MLS hosting tournaments and the top flights in Europe finishing their seasons, “soccer right now across the world is in a good spot.”

“I mean, this is  a crazy situation and there’s not one coach that can tell you that they’ve ever been a part of something like this.We’re all kind of learning as we go along,” he said. “There’s been a lot of time spent on phone calls and Zoom calls with different coaches and different colleagues. Together I think we’ve all come together and figured out that what the world needs is sport. And I’m happy that our sport figured it out and is doing it in the right way, in a safe way. And I’m just eager to get on the field and start playing games again.”