Sunday, 10 July 2011

TBFUTH's Guide to Oxford's American Tour

On July 11th the players and staff of Oxford United will fly out to America for their preseason tour, to play two matches against the Seacoast United Phantoms of New Hampshire and one match against Mass United FC of Massachusetts. Both clubs play in the fourth tier of American 'soccer', but like most of us over here I knew nothing about the lower levels of football in America, so I decided to do a little digging to see if I could get a feel of what to expect when the yellows take to the (artificial) turf out in the US of A.

First I will examine the two clubs we will be playing, starting with the Phantoms. Oxford will be playing two matches against Seacoast United Phantoms, as the club fields sides in both the PDL and the NPSL. The reason for having two sides is because it actually has its origins in two separate organisations; Seacoast United, a large youth football club, and the New Hampshire Phantoms, an ailing former professional club that relocated onto Seacoast United's patch in a bid to improve the club's fortunes.

Seacoast United were formed in 1992 as a means for local people to participate in playing football and soon grew to become something of a behemoth of participatory sport, with over 40 teams and 5000 members, expanding into the neighbouring state of Maine and branching out into other sports such as baseball, hockey and lacrosse.The club is a member of the US Development Academy, making them one of the top youth football clubs in America. In Oxford's first season in the Conference it was announced that, through the links of Kelvin Thomas, the two clubs would form a partnership with intention being an exchange of players and coaches between the two countries.

The New Hampshire Phantoms were founded in 1996 as an expansion franchise in the third tier of American professional football. Results were good and the club became a regular contender towards the top of the league, qualifying for the playoffs for five years in a row between 1997 and 2001. Probably their best season came in 2004, when they won the Northern Division. However, rather than being a springboard to greater things the Phantoms were unable to match these heights and they have never since reached the end of season playoffs. After a steady decline they eventually took a voluntary relegation at the end of a disastrous 2007 season which saw the club win just three matches and finish second bottom, and suffered from problems with their home stadium, forcing them to play 10 of their first 14 matches away from home. The move from the professional USL Pro to the amateur Premier Development League further damaged the club, as results failed to improve and attendances plummeted from an average of 2901 in 2008, their first season in the 4th tier, to a lowly average gate of just 106 in 2010. In a bid to arrest what appeared to be a terminal decline, the club's owners decided to relocate the club from their previous home in Manchester (NH) to Portsmouth (NH), a distance of over 40 miles, in time for the 2011 season.

Meanwhile, Seacoast United were making plans to form a semi-professional men's team in the fourth tier National Premier Soccer League, to be based at nearby Exeter (NH). As both clubs were to be playing at the same level and within the same catchment area, the decision was made for the two clubs to merge under the name Seacoast United Phantoms and field teams in both the PDL and NPSL leagues.

Far less complicated is the background of our other opponents on the tour, Mass United FC. The club was founded by the President of the amateur Massachusetts State Soccer League and Head Coach of the Massachusetts Men's Select Team. The club, like Seacoast United, is competing in the NPSL for the first time in 2011. Although they usually play in Lynn (MA) (which has an unusual and interesting history of professional football), we will be playing them at the home of Seacoast United in Exeter (NH).

Introducing.........Mass United FC

One quirk of the American league structure is that both the USL Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League - both of which are national leagues – are officially recognised by the USA's governing body USSF as 4th tier leagues, though informally the PDL is considered to be the stronger of the two. Realistically the standard of football and the stature of the clubs involved at this level is quite low and with most games being played at high school stadiums (our matches will be played at Portsmouth High School and Exeter High School), with artificial pitches covered in lines for gridiron football and with what appear to be flimsy, uncovered artificial stands situated quite some distance from the pitch, the sense of spectacle is also severely diminished. Attendances at this level typically fall between 300 and 600, though it's possible that the novelty factor of having an English professional club come to town will pull in a bumper attendance for our visit.

The fortunes of Seacoast United Phantoms have been mixed this season. The club has performed admirably in their debut season in the NPSL, currently sitting very near the top of the Northeast-Atlantic Conference and in a good position to qualify for the end of season playoffs – no mean feat for a new expansion franchise. Arguably the highlight of their season so far was the 6-1 thrashing they delivered to Morris County Colonials in their first NPSL home fixture of the season. In the PDL they got off to a stuttering start, losing their first three matches, and soon found themselves rooted to the bottom of the league. However, they have managed to scrape together some form and victories over rivals Western Mass Pioneers and Portland Phoenix, as well as over fellow strugglers Ottawa Fury have put them on course to at least better the poor final season of the New Hampshire Phantoms. Mass United's debut season in the NPSL has also been mixed, which is to be expected for a new club. After losing 3-2 to the Phantoms in their home opener they then won their next two matches on the bounce, but since then have embarked on a disastrous run of form which has seen them fail to win in five attempts (including this defeat away at Brooklyn Italians, which is worth watching just for the comedy throw-ins!) and with just one league fixture remaining for them, at home to the development team of the New York Red Bulls, they find themselves in danger of finishing the season with the wooden spoon.

Seacoast United Pantoms v Morris County Colonials, May 22nd 2011

Oxford face the Seacoast United Phantoms PDL side on Thursday 14th July at Exeter High School, followed by Mass United on Saturday 16th July, also at Exeter High School, and finish on Monday 18th July against the Seacoast United Phantoms NPSL side at Portsmouth High School. Live commentary will be available on Yellow Player, but it will be late at night!


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