There are a plethora of parallels between the college soccer season and USL’s Premier Development League.
Each can be used as a vehicle for a younger player’s development. Each can be thrown off course quickly by injuries or a poor run of form. The start of the season can be a struggle with an abbreviated preseason to work out kinks.
Earlier this summer, Michigan Bucks were facing a stretch of the season that could’ve derailed their postseason hopes. After a 1-0 loss against the Dayton Dutch Lions back on June 3, a losing streak at that point of the season had the potential to throw the team completely off course.
The Bucks dug in, however, securing back-to-back wins (one against the same Dayton Dutch Lions) that rendered a heart-breaking 3-2 loss to Derby City Rovers as a mere bump in the road.
Since that June 18 defeat at the Rovers, Michigan has rattled off 10 straight wins over the regular season and playoffs. It’s carried the stories club all the way into this weekend’s PDL Championship game, set to take place on Saturday, August 6 against Calgary Foothills FC.
“We always knew we had the capability, we have a lot of good players, the organization’s great, the players really buy in,” Bucks head coach Demir Muftari told TopDrawerSoccer. “They come in, and the attitude of the guys is they want to be pros, they’re willing to embrace whatever role you tell them and see if they can get it done.”
Loaded with some of the best Division I players in the country, the Bucks are now on the cusp of a second PDL crown in three years. Holdovers from the previous championship squad to the 2016 roster include Brad Ruhaak (Akron), Francis de Vries (Saint Francis (PA)), Nick Wysong (Western Michigan), Tom Owens (Notre Dame College) and David Goldsmith (Butler).
Joining them on this year’s team include standout college performers like Bradley Dunwell (Wake Forest), Adam Najem (Akron), Lalas Abubakar (Dayton) and Russell Cicerone (Buffalo). Cicerone led the team in scoring with 12 tallies, while Najem is the team’s top creator with nine assists, both during the regular season.
A big part of the team’s current success at the present starts during the offseason, and begins with finding players who are willing to stick it out through the summer.
“One of the things we look for in the offseason is guys that are committed to the team,” Muftari said. “We don’t want guys in and out all the time, which sometimes happens. We ask that the guys commit and give us their all through the summer. That’s one of the things that gets done through the scouting in the offseason. We try to get guys who are capable of that.”
That philosophy carries over into the team’s playing style, as the Bucks favor a more possession-based approach that presses to win the ball back quickly. So the ideal players they recruit need to not only commit to staying for most of the season, but to also be able to execute the playing style.
Returning talent has also factored into this year’s success. Ruhaak, Cicerone, Bundwell, Goldsmith, Owens, Wyson and de Vries were on the team in 2015, not to mention being holdovers from the 2014 championship squad. That helps set the tone for the newcomers.
“They see the way the returning players carry themselves, they see the way the returning players prepare to train every day, they see the way the returning players prepare for the games, it’s really pretty impressive,” Muftari said. “They’re really impressive young men, and they really prepare hard, take it seriously. They make my job difficult trying to find the top 11 in that group, but they make my job enjoyable with the fact that they are willing to do what it takes for the team, and sacrifice some of their own individual accolades at times.”
And based on the team's historic success, the overarching philosophy is paying dividends both on the field results and when it comes to individual development. Michigan’s put together a sterling record of 15-2 this year (including playoffs), and an overall regular season record of 32-5-5. In 18 seasons in the PDL, the Bucks have finished first place in the Great Lakes Division 12 times.
Past players dot rosters in MLS, NASL and USL, including Kofi Opare, Scott Caldwell, Zarek Valentin, Ben Speas, Lucky Mkosana, Dzenan Catic and Adam Grinwis to name just a handful of the nearly 40 players that are on pro rosters. Current talent like Najem, Cicerone and Abubakar are among those who are likely to continue playing beyond college soccer.
But this weekend the focus is on the present: coming away with a second championship in three years, and in part erasing the disappointment of last season’s end.
“We were beaten last year by a really good K-W team that went on and won it, but it left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth,” Muftari said. “They beat us fair and square and were the deserved champ, but we feel like we didn’t show our best last year. We felt like there were some things we could’ve done differently, we are excited for the opportunity to get back.”
Saturday’s clash against Calgary is the final test and challenge, as the Bucks seek to continue to make a national impression in the PDL.
“We’re really excited to be here, feel fortunate, feel like we worked hard, we’re a good team and have faced some really good teams on the way,” Muftari said. “We’re excited for the opportunity, for the challenge.”