For decades now, the relationship between New England and the American soccer pyramid has been fickle at best, with only one team at the top and dozens at the very bottom.
A combination of low attendance and the United Soccer League consolidating have created a wide gap in the “middle pyramid” that are the second and third divisions for the region.
Clubs that potentially could have made up the northeast market for the USL PRO (third) or North American Soccer League (second) either folded before the huge league sanctions of 2010 (Connecticut Wolves, Boston Bulldogs) or decided against promotion and relegated themselves for financial purposes (Western Mass Pioneers, Cape Cod Crusaders).
This is the state of things in New England as the Revolution continues to compete in top division Major League Soccer and smaller clubs thrive well-below them in the fourth tier (PDL, NPSL, USASA, etc.).
Enter the New England Force; a club-in-the-making based in Hartford that first surfaced in early January with low fanfare and an extensive year-long building plan.
“We saw an opening,” says Force Head Coach Jon Langer. “We felt there was an opening in the area for another team at a high level. Right now, if you look at the NASL, you’ve got the Cosmos… and Ottawa coming in but what is there for the NASL in the northeast? Nothing.”
The former Head Coach of the star-studded-turned-defunct Austin Posse (which included USMNT members and MLS stars Roy Lassiter and Chad Deering), Langer now oversees the player development and building of a team hoping to be the region’s next stable top-tier club.
“(There were) a group of people: three different part-owners talking about… starting the team. I didn’t know how far along they had progressed at the time and they asked me that, if they put the team together, would I be willing to coach? And that’s how it happened.”
Operating in 2012 in relative silence, the Force made itself known last January with the launch of their website, stating “the Force understands that building a top flight organization will take time and we are looking to the challenge with optimism” according to General Manager Nate Millette.
“It’s a work in progress: we’re not rushing overnight,” Langer explains. “What we’ve seen a lot of are teams that come and go. What happens is a club comes along, gets a lot of publicity, throws themselves out there by spending a lot of money and the next thing you know, a year later they’re down and floundering.
“We figured we’d take a different route, that we’d take our time. We’re going to take 10-12 months to build this team. It’s not an overnight type thing: we’re not trying to impress anybody.”
Still, with EPL veterans like Manchester City’s Emile Mpenza and Stuart Taylor committed as well as several players with international team experience, the Force’s current roster looks more and more ready to play than it did in January when the club was bringing in trialists left and right.
“(As of April), I’d say we’re somewhere above PDL but really, even though we beat and tied USL teams, we’re not really there yet at the NASL or USL level,” says Langer. “We did outplay (them): both of our games against Harrisburg and Pittsburgh were predominantly with trialists. We had four guys that are (now) on the roster.”
With a win versus the Harrisburg City Islanders and tie against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds under their belts, it was also with trialists that the Force faced the New England Revolution on April 5th, losing 4-0 with the Revs using most of their starting lineup.
“We brought 22 guys that were all trialists (and) if you take away the PK that was a bad call, even Heaps and everyone admitted, and the goal in the last two minutes, it would have been a better game but they outplayed us, they were the better team,” Langer admits. “So we’re not there yet but the point I’m making is this: we did that with trialists while they’re a team that was five games into their season.”
Since then, the Force has made a number of changes, including adjustments to its roster, an academy partnership with Sporting Club Accra in Ghana, and announcing an international friendly in Hartford versus C.D. Olimpia for July 23rd.
But according to Langer, six months into their 10-12 month time table, there’s still work to be done.
“We definitely need to work on chemistry and continuity. Most of our guys came in the middle and end of May when most (international) seasons end like in Argentina. But I can’t wait to get them on the field and training and getting our system in place. We picked out the pieces to the puzzle and we’re already a few pieces away. Once we’re there, then we’ll start working them overtime. We’ll take hits, but in the end it’s going to be fantastic.”
(Editor’s Note: This article originally stated the Austin Posse played in the United Soccer Leagues (USL). We later discovered that this was not the case; the Posse played an exhibition season under Langer (much like the New England Force), but disbanded in 2004 without ever joining a league.)