After two-year delay, Peoria City soccer team prepares for debut
Peoria-area soccer fans finally have a franchise of their own to support.
After a two-year delay brought on by COVID-19, the Peoria City franchise makes its debut as a USL League Two expansion franchise Saturday night at Shea Stadium.
“For the local community that's going to come out and watch the game, you're going to see some really, really high-level soccer players, but a real possession-oriented, attack-minded, brand of soccer, which is exciting,” said manager Ruben Resendes.
The USL2 is a summer developmental league offering current college soccer players and recent graduates to hone their skills in a professional-type setting as they look to advance their careers.
“The league is full of guys that are going to be playing professionally in the next 1-4 years, depending on where they are in their professional pathways,” said Resendes. “So you can expect a lot of really, really high-level players that you can watch live, that in six months or two years or three years, you might see a few of these guys playing in the MLS on TV.”
The roster for Peoria City’s inaugural season features players from across the U.S. and international additions from Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Canada and Ireland. Resendes said the roster has a dynamic mix.
“I would say about 65% of the group is high-level (NCAA) Division I or Division II college soccer players that all have professional aspirations,” he said. “Then the other 35-40% of the group are guys that have already completed college but looking to get a little bit more exposure, be in a professional environment and see where the summer can take them.”
Four Peoria-area players currently in Division I programs are also on the roster: former Notre Dame High School teammates McKay LaHood (DePaul), Noah Madrigal (Marquette) and Myles Sophanavong (SIU-Edwardsville), and Morton’s Wes Gibson (SIUE).
“I think we have a lot of really good players, and the thing about the USL2 is that there are double-fixture weekends and that's why it's important to have more than just 14 or 15 good players,” said Resendes. “Some of the local guys, we've practiced a couple of times so far and they've really surprised me as young Division I college soccer players. Then on the other end, we got some guys with a lot of experience.”
Resendes is also the head coach at Franklin Pierce University, a Division II program in New Hampshire that’s been ranked in the Top 10 in each of his three straight seasons there. He boasts a 74-8-3 record in five seasons as a college coach, and has also coached the New England Revolution’s U23 youth team.
Now he’s eager to help Peoria City general manager Tim Regan and advisor Jim DeRose, Bradley University’s head coach, get the Peoria City program launched.
“When the opportunity presented itself to come to Peoria and help players be in a really good professional environment over the summer before they head back to their programs in the fall or whatever professional team they're going to play for, it was a good opportunity for us to be a part of,” said Resendes. “Jim and Tim are great guys, very motivated, ambitious with this project, and it was an exciting opportunity for us.”
As a developmental team and franchise, Resendes said there may not be much roster continuity from summer to summer.
“There's always a lot of turnover every year. So next season, Peoria City's roster may look 90% different than it does this year, or maybe you'll have 50% of the guys that do come back,” said Resendes. “So from a ‘building the roster’ standpoint, you're always going to be working hard to bring in 25 good players every summer.”
Peoria City slotted into the six-team Deep North Division of USL2’s Central Conference, joining the two-time champion Des Moines Menace as well as teams from Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba. Resendes said he believes the team has a strong enough roster to make the playoffs as one of the division’s top two teams.
“We're just going to use every day as an opportunity to improve and get better, as cliché as that sounds,” said Resendes. “It's not going to be perfect on Saturday (with) three days of practice before the first game. But if we can keep improving every practice and every game, then by the time the third week or the fourth week comes, then we'll be in pretty good shape.”
Saturday’s 7 p.m. match against Minneapolis City opens a 12-game regular-season schedule, with half the contests at Shea Stadium. General admission is $5, and a season-ticket package can be purchased for $25.
Resendes said it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from their initial opponent.
“It's really tough to gauge, and that's why our philosophy is really about developing and getting better every day,” said Resendes. “You have to focus on yourself in this type of league because I think it's difficult to predict exactly who's going to be playing for the other team week in and week out.”