If there was a slight sense of déjà vu surrounding the decision to return to America during this pre-season, the atmosphere surrounding the club – and therefore the subsequent reaction from fans – was a little different. Whereas this time last year, a pre-season trip to the States was something of an exciting novelty, when the news broke this year it was regarded as a 'waste of money' and 'a nice jolly for the coaching staff and the chairman'.
The reality, of course, is that while last season's trip did have its downsides, it offered a great opportunity for team bonding and great facilities for a pre-season fitness camp. With the recent upswell of optimism following Ian Lenagan's decision to step in as executive chairman, such criticisms appear to have become far more muted.
Last year we produced a quick Guide ahead of the tour, and this preview will attempt to fill much the same role, though I'll try to avoid going over old ground too much. Whereas last year all three matches were played in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, this year things are kicking off in Maine, as the yellows take on Seacoast United Mariners of the NPSL. The Mariners are the new senior footballing representatives of Seacoast United Maine (technically a separate organisation to New Hampshire-based SUSC) which formed when Seacoast United merged its Maine-based teams with another local club, the Coastal Soccer Club.
Coastal Soccer Club was formed in 1986 and had grown to become the biggest youth football club in Maine. Following the merger in 2008 Seacoast United Maine has over 1,200 players on its books(in addition to the 5,000 in NH) and has continued to expand, swallowing up several other youth football clubs in the area.
The Mariners have just finished their inaugural season in the fourth-tier NPSL, but as a new expansion franchise they have found life difficult, finishing seventh out of eight in their division (the Seacoast United Phantoms side in the same division didn't fare much better either, finishing fifth with just two more points). With just two victories to their name all season and a couple of heavy defeats towards the end of the season at the hands of Brooklyn Italians and New York Athletic Club, the Mariners will perhaps be the weakest opposition we will face this pre-season.
After that the side will return to New Hampshire, where they played three matches last year, to face the Seacoast United Phantoms of the USL Premier Development League – also a fourth-tier league. Last year we faced both NPSL and PDL Phantoms sides, beating the NPSL team 3-1 but being held to a 1-1 draw by the PDL side. The Phantoms were in the midst of a late surge up the table to qualify for the end-of-season play-offs.
This year the situation is slightly different, but Oxford fans will surely be able to sympathise with the Phantoms, who were unbeaten and top of the league halfway through their 16-match season, only to suffer an injury crisis which saw them fail to win in their last eight matches and finish third from bottom. Sounds familiar. The club has also struggled to replace last season's top scorer Chris Tsonis, who left for Ventura County Fusion in California and helped them reach the Western Conference final. It is likely that there will be several familiar faces in the Phantoms side, with many of the players who turned out for them last year also in the team this time around. Seacoast's greatest strength earlier in the season, before injuries started to bite, was their ability to soak up large amounts of pressure and strike on the counter-attack. Against a fully professional Oxford side with greater quality throughout the team, this is a useful asset to have.
Last year, Oxford's visit brought Seacoast their biggest attendance of somewhere around 1,000, but with some of the novelty value having worn off and fewer visiting fans, expect that number to be lower this year. Phantoms' attendances in general have fallen from an already low number (around 250) to around the 100 mark, and the team has slumped somewhat this season finishing sixth out of eight in their division. With United travelling to Maine for the first time, the Mariners game might be the best attended match this year.
The final match of the tour will be against a 'Jim DeDeus XI', which will be an 'all-star' team made up of PDL and NPSL players from around New England. DeDeus is a veteran of the New England football scene. He founded the New Hampshire Phantoms (which merged with Seacoast United last year) in 1996 and is still general manager to this day.