Rochester Thunder PDL Team Prepares for Season Opener with Improved Roster
Neil Cassidy, head coach of the Rochester Thunder, thinks this year’s team is improved from the defenders on the back line to the attackers up front. “From front to back I think we have a lot better caliber player,” said Cassidy from Rochester, Minnesota as he prepared his players for their home opener this Sunday, May 23 at 3:00 pm. The Thunder USL-PDL coach says he doesn’t want to take anything away from last year’s players. However, he admits that the team’s first year in the league and his first year coaching PDL helped him to know the quality of the league, the level of player needed to compete and to use his resources better in recruiting.
A quick glance at the roster reveals 9 players from 7 foreign countries. You’ll also notice multiple players from specific universities. Cassidy says that was part of his plan heading into this season. There are: 2 players from Bellevue University Nebraska, 2 players from Butler, 3 players from MSU Billings, 4 players from Northern Illinois University and 5 former Shattuck-St. Mary’s players.
“We’ve got a year’s experience and we know what the competition is like now,” said Cassidy. “We went out and did some pretty specific recruiting. Quite frankly, I probably didn’t make the most of working as a Region II (ODP) staff coach last year. This year I did. I have brought in 4 guys from Northern Illinois and a couple of guys from Butler. I tried to keep guys in groups that have played together before. That really helps a lot with the team gelling. It’s not just 26 individual guys coming together for the first time and trying to learn each others’ style of play. I’ve got some guys who have played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s together. I have some from Northern Illinois University. I’ve also got guys coming back from last year who are used to playing with each other and know each others’ style. But beyond that the personalities of the guys we’ve got this year is absolutely fantastic. They’ve gone out of their way to get to know each other. In fact, when we went to the airport in Denver to pick up a few of the guys for our first game against Colorado, before we had even picked up the rental cars there was just a really good feeling amongst all the lads. I was really impressed with that.”
We will try to lure the other team into our lair and then pounce on them by counter attacking. Drop, let em’ in and counter.
Cassidy said the positive effect of last year’s season also helped as some of the players from last year’s teams spread the word that the Rochester Thunder was a good team to play for.
24 of the 25 players on the Rochester roster are living with host families. “I think that’s really fantastic,” said Cassidy. “The guys are really going to be out there in the community. We also have a lot of community-based plans with the team which I think is one of the important components of the program. It’s great to have high level soccer but they’ve got to be involved with the community as well. We’ve already had a few guys go into schools and do some sessions.”
Cassidy said the host families get season tickets but most of the expenses are paid for by the families themselves. He said it’s more about the experience for these host families and it’s the international players that often get chosen first. “I think they just want a different cultural experience,” said Cassidy. “It’s also great for the guys. We have a couple of Norwegian guys who have never spent a summer in America. The lazy days of Minnesota shall we say?”
“We are going to be more of an attacking team than last year,” says Cassidy as he turns his attention to the playing style of the team. “I think you can see that from our first three games. We’ve already scored 5 goals and we’ve only let one in. But we will also be defensively organized. That’s one of my keys this year.”
“We will try to lure the other team into our lair and then pounce on them by counter attacking,” says a laughing Cassidy. He says the team did have a somewhat similar game plan going into the first 3 matches of the season – all away matches. “Drop, let em’ in and counter — and it worked,” said the Rochester coach.
Cassidy says the team will play in numerous variations of the 4-4-2 this season, not wanting to share specifics and give away strategies to opponents. Where some foreign coaches have criticized American players for not being mature tactically, Cassidy a native of England, has been very impressed with both last year and this year’s teams. He says his players are able to adjust during a game and not only make the switch but execute it as well. Cassidy credits college and club coaches in the US for doing a better job of tactically preparing players.
Team shape is critical according to Cassidy and nowhere is it more important than in the back line. He says he is already very proud of the job his defense has done in keeping their shape in the first three games of the season. Cassidy says his defenders are also a physical presence. His defensive midfielder Finn Jor (Norway, Northern Illinois University) and central defender Francis Otira (England, Northern Illinois University) are both 6’4″. In the team’s first three games, Cassidy claims he has not had a team get in behind their defense yet.
Another defender on the Thunder is Naoki Mihara (Japan, J-League) who was a Japanese National Team player from U-14 to U-19. He has recently been playing in the J-League but is looking for a pro contract in the US. Cassidy says he feels the USL-PDL is a good way to make that transition just as Kentaro Takada did after his year with the Rochester Thunder. Takada, another former J-League player, signed a contract with the NSC Stars this spring after having a good season last year with Rochester and playing in several friendlies for the Sr. Thunder team last season.
Cassidy says his midfield is also strong with numerous players that are all highly talented. The Rochester coach says he can switch out a midfield player without losing any quality on the field. “We sub a guy out and we don’t skip a beat,” said Cassidy.
“We have Samuel Asante (Ghana, (Shattuck); Lindsey Wilson, who played for the Des Moines Menace last year and is more of an attacking mid,” Cassidy continued as he listed out some of his midfield players: “We also have Jor from Norway who is a defensive mid and Tyler Moriarty (Montana, MSU-Billings) who is more of an attacking player. Engebreth Faerden (Norway, Northern Illinois University), or Enge as we call him, is another attacking midfielder. Miguel Bonilla (Colombia, Loras) was with us last year as a central mid but we have converted him to wide player.”
With the loss of Hermann Trophy winner and 4th overall MLS Superdraft pick Teal Bunbury, you might believe the Thunder have reason to be concerned about their attack. But Cassidy says he believes the team will have even more scoring prowess this season. Cassidy is very high on Mark Heath-Preston (England, Bellevue University) who was with the team last year but is really coming into his own. “He’s scored 4 goals in 3 games with one assist,” said Cassidy. “I really believe he is a player who could take it to the next level. He can hold the ball up and he’s compact and strong. He just doesn’t get knocked off the ball but he’s also good in the air and is left- or right-footed. He pounces and makes the most of his chances. He had a good season at Bellevue and his confidence is high. He also understands that with Bunbury gone he needs to step up.”
Cassidy points out the other three forwards on the team and says they are all good but each one brings something different to the team like speed or a physical presence. “It will be like a 4-pronged attack,” Cassidy said. “It’s going to be very unpredictable for teams to shut us down.”
The team is also very motivated by their two wins in US Open Cup competition, Cassidy explains. He says the players are looking forward to their next two home games which will serve as part of the 4-game play-in to the USOC. “After the Des Moines Menace victory the guys were very excited with the prospects,” said Cassidy. “We just have to make sure we keep this energy going forward and the confidence without getting too cocky.” The Thunder did not qualify for USOC play last season. This would be the franchise’s first berth in the prestigious long-running soccer tourney if they should qualify. The current point standings find the team at the top of the Central Conference Heartland Division.
Thor as Bolt
The Thunder now have a new mascot which is actually a recycled mascot. Thor, the mascot of the Minnesota Thunder Division-2 team until they folded after last season, has been resurrected for the Rochester Thunder PDL team. However, due to legal reasons the team had to rename him. His new name is Bolt. Yes, as in lightning BOLT.
Rochester Thunder USL-PDL Roster
Sebastian Narvaez – Colombia, Bellevue University Nebraska
Paul Grandstrand – Minnesota, Brown University
Jordan Kadlec – Iowa, Drake
Travis Dehne – Colorado, used to play at Westminster College
Justin Hoskins – Montana, played for us last year. Played at MSU-Billings
Ben Sippola – Minnesota (Shattuck), Butler
Francis Otira – England, Northern Illinois University
Bakari Williams – Virginia (Shattuck), James Madison University
Naoki Mihara – Japan, J-League
Hezekiah Weiss – Kentucky, Lindsey Wilson
Engebreth Faerden – Norway, Northern Illinois University
Finn Jor – Norway, Northern Illinois University
Samuel Asante – Ghana, (Shattuck) – Lindsey Wilson
Jake Kessler – Minnesota, Luther
Miguel Bonilla – Colombia, Loras
Tyler Moriarty – Montana, MSU-Billings
Chris Andre – Montana, MSU-Billings
TJ Haag – Minnesota, Augsburg
Jordan Burt – Indiana, Butler
Alex Evert – Georgia, Northern Illinois University
Ryan Sappington – Virginia, (Shattuck) Bucknell
Mark Heath-Preston – England, Bellevue University
Christian Fernandes – Brazil, played for Oklahoma Christian University
Juan Chang – Guatemala, Oral Roberts University
Austin Decker – Iowa, (Shattuck) Lehigh