When Association Football Club Ann Arbor joined the National Premier Soccer League in 2016, they wasted little time in proving their will and ability to compete at a high level. But in a league that consistently has over 90+ teams competing in it each summer, making it to the final 16 was something no one expected outside of the organization.
For certain members of The Mighty Oak, exiting the playoffs early in 2016 was something that stuck with them for an entire year. Twelve players from that team returned to Ann Arbor for the 2017 campaign in the pursuit of national championship including James Vaughan, Matthieu Braem, Jake Rufe, Hector Morales, Yuri Farkas, Dario Suarez, Colin Watson, Leigh, Rumbold, Jake Rosen, Adrian Motta and Zach & Chase Pagani.
After a very successful first season in the NPSL, Ann Arbor had caught the eye of certain players from the 2015 team as well. Four players returned after spending 2016 with different teams including TJ Tommaso, Kyle Breitmeyer, Alec Lasinski and Amadou Cisse.
These players, along with the group of new recruits brought in by Head Coach & Sporting Director Eric Rudland and staff, were focused on continuing the clubs winning ways and improving on the club’s inaugural NPSL campaign. Rudland has quickly established a winning mentality in a professional environment which set the tone from the first day of training.
The Mighty Oak’s 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, Matthieu “Frenchy” Braem was a key returner as he not only wore the captain’s armband but also played a crucial role in the defensive schematic.
“The 2016 returners were the core of our group in 2017 and really the catalysts for our success. Not only were they great on the pitch but they were so hungry to win, train hard and push the football side of our club forward. I will forever be grateful to them for coming back as returners. Obviously Frenchy, as our captain, was top man. You could see how much this club means to him after the Midwest Region Finals match, and players who care the way he does do not come around every day. I would say that's true for most of our returners though, they have a special draw toward AFC and the feeling is reflected back to them in the way that we try to structure our environment to look after them. There were a number of other returners that played a critical role for as well. Hopefully we will be talking about a lot of these men coming back to us in 2018,” said Rudland.
“For us the 2017 team building process was all about bringing in players who were determined to win and committed to the process of training daily and make progress as a player. We had a lot of special individuals, who collective came together and produced fantastic results game in and game out,” he added.
From day 1, Ann Arbor set out to build something special for the community and with the hiring of Coach Rudland and joining the NPSL, the AFC Family was born. Not only is the match day atmosphere at Hollway built around families, but within the organization, the team, the coaches and support staff build a bond that is unique to The Mighty Oak. A love for the city is born from players who had never visited Ann Arbor before. A connection made with the community with strength that was never expected. And a bond incomparable that turns strangers to brothers in just four months.
One of the leaders on the team, former MLS goalkeeper and the club's Defensive MVP in 2017, TJ Tommaso, has played for many teams during his storied career but none as close and unified as this team as he describes.
"For me it starts with the ownership an coaches and filters down from there. A lot must be said about the type of players brought in. Not only talented players but really good people off the field. I think the coaches do a great job of picking players that will fit right in to the family environment. It's super cool to see how involved the owners and coaches are in every aspect of the club. And right next to them are their significant others and kids helping out with everything. It's a total group effort which really shows how much people care about each other and this club. Players can see and feel that which keeps filtering through," said Tomasso.
Captain, Matthieu Braem added, "I think that it's just a mentality from the organization as a whole. The owners are showing us the path, while Coach Eric recruits players he knows will fit within this tight knit family. While looking at players he focuses not only on soccer but also on the players' mentality, and finds who will put the club above their own personal desires."
There is no better word to describe The Mighty Oak’s Midwest Region Finals loss to Detroit City FC other than heartbreaking. But when compared to the fact that DCFC is in their 6th season of the NPSL compared to Ann Arbor’s 2nd, there’s no doubt that AFC is on the fast track to success.
2017 was filled with great success including a Great Lakes Conference Championship, 2018 US Open Cup bid and Michigan Milk Cup. The team broke virtually every record set by a very talented 2016 team.
“We said all off-season that we wanted to take the next step competitively as an organization and win our first play-off match after losing in 2016, and we accomplished that, which is great, but it's still devastating that we didn't push on further. Winning the Conference Championship is definitely something to build on and a great step for our organization,” added Rudland.
Month by Month review of the season
An action packed month to start the season kept things busy for The Mighty Oak in the month of May. Almost half of the regular season matches would be played this month, but Ann Arbor started out with a huge road win against a tough, experienced Milwaukee side.
Immediately after the first league match of the year, preparations began for the first US Open Cup match in club history against the veteran Michigan Bucks side. Although Ann Arbor’s first appearance in the tournament was strong, the result didn’t go their way as the Bucks capitalized on a defensive miscommunication to advance 1-0.
After a pair of wins over Kalamazoo FC in the next two matches, Ann Arbor was 3-0-0 with 9 points prior to hosting Detroit City FC at home.
2016 team MVP Dario Suarez was in top form scoring 4 goals in just 3 matches. Suarez continued his amazing play adding two more goals against Detroit for a 2-0 victory keeping them atop the conference table.
Ann Arbor would drop their only regular season match of 2017 at Lansing United (0-2) on May 26th. In addition, forward Dario Suarez was suspended for 6 months, after being shown a straight red for referee assault.
With Suarez’s impressive start to the season, many saw this suspension as a blow to Ann Arbor’s season and counted them out of any serious contention as Lansing began to gain momentum.
In the very next match, Ann Arbor went down 1-0 to Grand Rapids FC at home, and for the first time gave use a glimpse of what was to come as soon as the second half kicked off. A new energy was found and The Mighty Oak fought back to earn a 2-1 result getting things back on track.
In the four matches in June, AFC went 3-1-0 adding another 10 points to their total. The men had responded to the challenge and showed that this was possibly one of the deepest rosters in the entire NPSL.
This month was special as the team began to click in a way that the chemistry building between the men was evident.
Twice the club set records this month for most goals in a game (5) and largest margin of victory (5). Collectively, the group scored 15 goals and conceded only 3 this month, while introducing 6 new goal scorers to the mix.
The Mighty Oak had a tough home stretch schedule to get through before they could begin thinking about postseason play. With four remaining matches, Ann Arbor went out and earned four tough wins finishing the month without dropping a point and picking up an additional 12 points.
After a thrilling 90’+ goal from James Vaughan in the Midwest Region Semifinal, Ann Arbor fell to Detroit City FC in a valiant comeback effort (down a man and 3 goals) that fell just short in the Finals.
US Open Cup Match (5.10.17)
NPSL Playoff Win (7.28.17 vs Dayton Dynamo FC 1-0)
NPSL Great Lakes Conference Championship
NPSL Midwest Region Final Appearance (7.29.17)
Michigan Milk Cup
36 goals scored
24 goal differential
13 different goal scorers
8 clean sheets
(5) Largest Margin of Victory (6.6.17 vs MSFC and 6.24.17 vs FC Indiana)
(5) Most Goals in a match ((6.6.17 vs MSFC and 6.24.17 vs FC Indiana)
(37) Most Points in a season
(12) Most Wins in a season
(10) Undefeated matches in a row
(8) Most Clean Sheets in a season
(35) Most goals in a season
(13) Most goal scorers in a season
(25) Most assists in a season
(8) Consecutive Unbeaten Matches at Hollway Field
(#2) Highest National Ranking (NPSL Power Rankings)
(2.64) Highest PPG for a season