It’s been a long preseason for the Swope Park Rangers, seven weeks to be exact, but on Saturday night the squad will finally have the opportunity to play their first-ever competitive game as a team.
In October 2015, Sporting Club and Sporting Kansas City introduced the Swope Park Rangers as the club’s official United Soccer League team that would be plunged into the league for the first time in 2016. Five months, 23 player signings, four technical staff hires and a first-place finish at the Desert Diamond Cup later, the team will make its long-awaited official debut in the USL on March 26 at Children’s Mercy Park.
So who are the Swope Park Rangers? It’s a diverse roster with players harboring experience from MLS through the divisions to the NPSL, players from nine different countries and a coaching staff that represents the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Serbia.
Marc Dos Santos, Nikola Popovic, Alec Dufty, Josh McAllister
It was seen as somewhat of a coup when the Swope Park Rangers lured NASL Coach of the Year Marc Dos Santos away from Ottawa Fury FC. Dos Santos was coming off of an impressive season with the Fury, winning the NASL Fall Season and advancing all the way to the Soccer Bowl before falling just short in a 3-2 loss to the New York Cosmos.
The next man to join the staff came internally, with fitness coach Josh McAllister stepping up from the Sporting KC Academy to accept a new role in the organization. McAllister has extensive experience coaching with youth clubs and at the college level, while he also spent a year interning with the Portland Timbers.
The coaching staff was complete in January, when Serbian-Portuguese assistant coach Nikola Popovic, who has known first team assistant Kerry Zavagnin for several years, flew stateside after coaching at Benfica B and goalkeeper coach Alec Dufty headed back to the U.S. after a season in the USL with Toronto FC II.
Jon Kempin, Zac Lubin, Steven Tekesky
Until Friday, the Rangers only had two goalkeepers officially on the club’s roster in Zac Lubin and Steven Tekesky. That was until the announcement that Jon Kempin had joined the club on loan from parent club Sporting KC. Kempin and Lubin split time in preseason, with both showing impressive flashes as the two challenge for the starting spot in the Rangers’ lineup. Tekesky’s arrival directly from the Sporting KC Academy is heralded as a positive step with the young goalkeeper afforded the opportunity to learn his trade under two exceptional ‘keepers.
Ezra Armstrong, Oumar Ballo, Amer Didic, Christian Duke, Johnny Grant, Tommy Meyer, Jimmy Mulligan, Jacob VanCompernolle
On the defensive side, Dos Santos and his staff focused on bringing in strong and reliable defenders with experience and significant upside. In Christian Duke, Johnny Grant, Tommy Meyer and Jacob VanCompernolle, the Rangers already have a backline with extensive USL experience in their first season in the league. Add 2015 MLS SuperDraft pick Oumar Ballo and 2015 NASL and NPSL champion Jimmy Mulligan to the mix and Dos Santos suddenly has some tough decisions to make – a good problem. Baker University product Amer Didic has taken to the professional game like a fish to water with his domineering physical presence during preseason, while Academy product Ezra Armstrong looked comfortable shutting down MLS wingers at the Desert Diamond Cup.
Tomas Granitto, Will Little, Jimmy Medranda, Alex Molano, Kevin Oliveira, Tyler Pasher, Ualefi
Midfielders are typically required to do a bit of everything: defending, attacking, scoring, halting counters etc. SPR’s midfield has been meticulously constructed with players that can provide a bit of everything. You have the midfield anchors in Ualefi and Tomas Granitto, who allow the explosive Jimmy Medranda, Alex Molano and Kevin Oliveira to showcase their trickery. On the wings, there's Will Little – who assisted on the game-winning goal and later scored a screamer against the Colorado Rapids at the Desert Diamond Cup – and Tyler Pasher. Canadian youth international Pasher came into camp in Tucson and earned himself a contract with his blistering pace and direct play.
Mark Anthony Gonzalez, Dane Kelly, Daniel Salloi, Nansel Selbol, Kris Tyrpak
Where else to start with the forwards but Dane Kelly? The Jamaican striker is the USL’s all-time leading scorer with 42 goals during a five-year spell at the Charleston Battery. Kelly showed his ability to score, assist and fight the physical battles as a target forward in preseason. In Kris Tyrpak, Dos Santos has another experienced forward at his disposal who has scored goals in the top four tiers of American soccer. Former Evansville striker Mark Anthony Gonzalez led the Rangers in scoring in preseason with three goals, while the small yet tricky Nansel Selbol is a youth international for his native Nigeria. The addition of Daniel Salloi from Sporting KC just before the start of the USL season provides the Rangers with a formidable attacking corps heading into the season.
Overland Park, Kan. Native Christian Duke was named the club’s captain earlier this week, but Dos Santos has been very clear that there are several leaders on a young team whose average age is just over 22. Duke isn’t the only member of the team Dos Santos is looking at to lead by example, with players considered veterans on such a young team also expected to contribute: Zac Lubin and Tommy Meyer, both 26 along with Sporting KC loanees Jon Kempin and Jimmy Medranda, both 22.
STYLE OF PLAY
The first thing Dos Santos knew when he entered the organization was that he wanted to implement a system that is closely tied to that of Sporting KC. While a 4-3-3 is seen as an offensive and positive formation, the coaching staff spent large chunks of preseason focusing on defensive organization and staying focused and compact. The team has been built to limit its opposition’s chances while having the ability to transition with devastating pace – something that was evident in preseason when the Rangers surprised their MLS competitors in Tucson.
Expectations should always be tempered when a team is entering its expansion season, but a strong preseason has propelled the Rangers into playoff contenders. Only three MLS-owned USL teams have clinched a playoff berth on their first attempt, but Dos Santos has been clear that postseason participation has always been the goal – a sentiment echoed by his players. With the quality in the squad, a deep run in the USL playoffs is hardly unrealistic.
Children’s Mercy Park is the venue, March 26 is the date, 7:30 p.m. is the time. History will be made in Kansas City, Kan. as the Rangers make their USL debut. With all things considered, this team certainly has the capability to make all the noise it wants in 2016.