After completing the inaugural season in the Great Lakes Premier League (2015), the club’s front office set out looking to improve the quality of soccer within the organization. Two major off-season moves in the fall helped put The Mighty Oak on the path to a higher level of play. First, the hiring of Coach Rudland, followed shortly after by the move to the NPSL, positioned AFC Ann Arbor for a chance to make an impact in the league right away.
In his first year with AFC Ann Arbor, Head Coach & Sporting Director, Eric Rudland, wasted no time in creating a highly competitive atmosphere brining in top recruits from around the country and internationally.
When asked about the best moments of the season, Coach Rudland said, "The best part of any season, for me, is building relationships with the players and now is a really a neat time for everyone involved in our 2016 campaign. Some of our players will be heading back to their college programs and we will track their progress this fall. Others are looking to chase their dream of pushing on to the next level and we are going to work hard to link those men up to our professional networks. there are also a handful of our players who are rooted in the community and will now turn their focus back to their coaching or day jobs. As for our staff, we will start putting things in place for an even better 2017."
The Mighty Oak spent most of the season atop the Great Lakes West division table, setting the tone for a competitive first year in the National Premier Soccer League. The club secured its first postseason berth in its inaugural NPSL season finishing ahead of teams like Detroit City FC, Lansing United and Kalamazoo FC.
AFC Ann Arbor finished the season with the second best record in the Great Lakes West division, earning a spot in the Midwest Region Semi-finals (playoffs). With over 90 teams competing in the NPSL nationally, securing a spot in the Sweet 16 put AFC Ann Arbor on the map as a serious contender for years to come.
Although the loss in the playoffs to AFC Cleveland in PKs was heartbreaking, The Mighty Oak’s success in year one of the NPSL shows a promising future for AFC Ann Arbor.
When asked about the 2016 team, Coach Rudland said, "I was really proud of our men all season long. Their desire to compete for the club was first class. Their mentality and commitment enabled us to make progress on the training pitch and experience success in league play. At the end of the day it's a players game and I commend them for their efforts."
Rudland added, "I told the men after the match that it's not necessarily the result that is most disappointing in the regional play-offs, it's the fact that we will never play another match together as teams always change from year to year."
Standout striker Dario Suarez shared top honors earning the Golden Boot for the Great Lakes West division with (tied as the leading goal scorer with 6 goals).
The league is currently hosting a fan vote for NPSL awards but AFC Ann Arbor recognized a few players at the team’s end of season banquet.
Strength In The Oak – Willie Bayemi
The former Columbus Crew prospect played a huge role for The Mighty Oak this season, on and off the field. A fan favorite, especially with the young ones, Bayemi embodied the “Strength In The Oak” mentality and was always found high-fiving kids, signing autographs (even after a tough loss) and spending time in the community spreading the game he loves so much.
Ironman- Bruno Oliveria
To play every minute of every match is a feat of it’s own, but to do so in such a compact season is absolutely impressive. Left back Bruno Oliveria was one of two players for The Mighty Oak to play every minute of league play, filled with huge defensive plays all season long. In addition to his defensive impact, Oliveria contributed one of the most memorable goals of the season as he scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Lansing United off a corner kick.
Hometown Hero- Leigh Rumbold
Although the British native wasn’t born and raised in Ann Arbor, the midfielder has made Washtenaw County home for a while now and took to the field for his first season with AFC Ann Arbor. Often found wearing the captain’s armband, Rumbold played a pivotal role as the leader of The Mighty Oak. Not only was his play in the midfield superb all season long but he also was pivotal in bringing the boys together and helping build a family amongst strangers so quickly. For his leadership efforts, outstanding play and commitment to the club, Rumbold earned the Hometown Hero award for 2016.
Most Valuable Defensive Player- Matthew Braem
The center back was the only other player besides Bruno Oliveria to play every minute of league play for AFC Ann Arbor while playing a crucial role in The Mighty Oak’s backline. The French native, also known as Frenchy to teammates and friends, was definitive in his play as one of the best defenders in the Midwest Region.
Most Valuable Offensive Player & OVERALL MVP- Dario Suarez
From the beginning of the season, fans took notice of Suarez’s exceptional skill and watched closely as he lead The Mighty Oak to a dominating start holding first place in the NPSL Great Lakes West for the first 8 weeks. After a superb showing vs. Grand Rapids FC in the second annual Memorial Day Classic, Suarez earned a new nickname from the fans, which began chanting “Super Dario” anytime he gained possession of the ball. Suarez was tied for first in the Great Lakes West for most goals scored this season earning him a share of the Golden Boot, but it was his ability to bring the team together through leadership, hard work and sacrifice which was best highlighted in the last NPSL match of the season where led AFC Ann Arbor to a 2-0 victory over Kalamazoo FC securing the club’s first post-season berth.