It’s amazing what Association Football Club Ann Arbor has accomplished in three short seasons in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The ‘worst’ regular season finish The Mighty Oak had was their first year in the Great Lakes Conference when they finished second behind Grand Rapids FC, while being crowned conference champions the following two season (2017 & 2018). The Mighty Oak won’t slow down now and look to lift a trophy that has eluded them for the past two summers.
Ann Arbor has qualified for the playoffs each of the three seasons, but both 2016 and 2017 ended in heartbreak for the club. No one will ever forget the match in Grand Rapids against AFC Cleveland back in 2016. After ninety minutes of regulation and thirty minutes of extra time, the two sides went to penalties where AFC Cleveland prevailed and eventually went on to win the National Championship. The hardest part of that match were the three goals that were called back creating a roller coaster of emotions for players, staff and supporters alike.
Flash forward to 2018 where AFC Cleveland no longer exists, and a new franchise, Cleveland SC, has taken control of the market’s NPSL franchise. New ownership, branding, venue and team name have separated this new franchise from any previous ties to AFC Cleveland, but the supporters and many of the of players once wore the AFC Cleveland badge. Come Friday, Ann Arbor will see some familiar faces, including standout striker, Vinny Bell.
“Looking back to 2016 there were some obvious reasons why things didn't go our way in that match. We have been working diligently to get those things right in how we prepare and how we play. For us it's about doing what we do. Playoffs aren't a time to reinvent the wheel. It's about finding ways to dictate play within our system and working to neutralize the opponent. Cleveland are very good at what they do. Their system fits their players well and they have a few veterans with a National Championship under their belt,” added Rudland.
One thing Rudland’s side has shown time and time again is their depth, especially in the backline and frontline. But no matter how deep a team is, they’ll always hope to have their MVP with them, especially come playoffs time. When Stanley Okumu left earlier this month for his USL trial, little was known about this future with the club, other than the fact he would be missed while away. It is confirmed now, that Okumu will be with The Mighty Oak for the playoffs, just days after receiving the Team MVP award.
“The experience this past week for Stanley was really valuable. He spent a week in a USL environment and had an opportunity to train and take part in their daily rhythm. The club he was with liked him and wants to bring him back in for a more extended look at the conclusion of our season. Fortunately for us, they were willing to release him back to us for the playoffs. His presence obviously breads confidence into the team and it's a great opportunity for him individually to showcase his abilities on a national stage. So we are excited to have him back in the team for our playoff run,” commented Rudland.
The stage is set. Ann Arbor has an opportunity to earn revenge from the 2016 loss (new club or not), have finished first in the Great Lakes the past two seasons, earned the right to host the 2018 Midwest Region Championship but came up short last season in the Midwest Region Final and are hoping to have a different outcome this go around.
“The opportunity to host is neat for us as a club and for the greater Ann Arbor community. A lot of energy has gone into the past 3 seasons so it means a lot that all of the variables lined up this year and we won the bid to host. We love playing in front of our fans and feeding off their energy so we’re thrilled to have these matches in Ann Arbor,” said Rudland.