Lower-league soccer is well and truly back!
In fact, professional soccer is well and truly back!
As far as we can tell, the unofficially named NISA Spring Tournament in Chattanooga, TN will be the first professional soccer event of 2021 when it kicks off in mid-April.
It should be an exciting time for grassroots soccer-lovers everywhere, but for smallworld, it’s especially exciting to find quality soccer on offer so close to home! Every match between April 13 and 25 will be held at Finley Stadium, the home of Chattanooga FC, and that figures to be a fantastic venue for such a tournament.
But with a handful of additions and subtractions for NISA this season, what can we expect from the nine teams participating? smallworld has you covered with our very own power rankings post.
It’s important to keep in mind that the tournament will be broken down into what appear to be randomly-drawn groups of three. Because those haven’t been determined yet, there’s obviously some degree of difficulty in each team’s draw that can’t be accounted for yet.
But for the first time in a while, it’s a power rankings about actual, on-the-field soccer. So yay!
Let’s get started with the debate: who’s going to take the spoils in the spring tourney?
- Detroit City FC – they were the league’s best last time out, and there’s no reason to expect them to take a step back in 2021. It appears Le Rouge are bringing back quite a few players from last year’s champions, and they’ll have similar expectations for the spring opener. A second straight piece of silverware would be a big statement for City as they seek to start a NISA dynasty early on in the league’s history. Watch for returnee Connor Rutz to be an impact player in the attack after he delivered four goals and an assist in his six appearances last year.
- Michigan Stars FC – the “nOt RivALrY” between the two Michigan representatives in the league will be significant this year just like last year. While they couldn’t come close to equalling their in-city opponents in the support category, they were a much better match for Detroit on the pitch. Predictably, we don’t know much about the roster yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of turnover. Either way, though, I’d expect them to get better rather than worse, given that they’ve added a reserve team in the Midwest Premier League, just like Detroit’s done. The Stars seem to be equalling Detroit City so far step-for-step, but if they fall off in this spring tournament, many will be led to believe last year was just a fluke.
- Maryland Bobcats FC – On one hand, it feels like a top three spot is overestimating a team that’s making the jump from NPSL to NISA. On the other hand, though, not putting them in first almost feels like an underestimation, as crazy as that would sound for literally any other team. The Bobcats proved they could play at this level at last year’s Independent Cup, winning their group and going unbeaten in a pool with multiple NISA members. They’ve been intentional about bolstering their squad and using the plethora of local talent in the DMV area to create a team that’s truly formidable. I like their chances to win their group of three at the very least. And if they can pull off a victory in this tournament, the momentum will be there for the new kids on the block to do the same in the Spring season proper. NISA, you’ve been warned.
- Chattanooga FC – The more real rivalry between Detroit and their fellow grassroots greats in south Tennessee will be equally exciting to watch. Chattanooga will have home field advantage all tournament long, and for the first time in a long time, that’ll actually mean something since fans are being allowed (at least, that’s the expectation for now). They’re still probably a step behind Detroit on the pitch, but it’s not an unreachable gap. It’s entirely feasible that the Boys in Blue find their way to the top to open up the spring, especially if they get a favorable group.
- California United Strikers – in a word, these guys are average. they haven’t won anything since their West victory in the very first season, but they’ve always managed decent results in every competition NISA has put on. In the fall season, they earned nothing but draws. In the Championship that followed, they picked up a win, a draw, and a loss. I can’t help but expect more of the same in a group that looks very top-heavy. The best teams in the league will be hard to stop, but Strikers should take care of the bottom dwellers rather easily. Should be fun to see where they end up!
- Stumptown Athletic – given that Danny will soon be adding Charlotte to the long list of home cities he lays claim to, I’m quite tempted to give Stumptown a biased boost up the table. Being neutral and honest, though, it just doesn’t feel likely that a club who hasn’t been in the action for a while will slot in and instantly be successful. Not in a NISA climate like we’ve got now, anyway. Lots of teams are good and getting better, so teams like Stumptown will have some adjusting to do to get back into the swing of things competitively.
- Los Angeles Force – the Force are the most confusing team in the league, at least as far as results are concerned. In Fall 2019, they were tied for the top of the West table. In Spring, though, they started poorly, getting one point from two matches before the season was called off. Their Fall 2020 campaign was also bad, seeing them finish last in the West, but then there was the Fall Championship, where LA won Group B. It’s all very confusing and leads me to believe it’ll take some improvement in the consistency department for them to truly be a force and live up to their name.
- San Diego 1904 – 1904 are an interesting prospect. I had high expectations for them last year, only to watch them bow out before the fall season even began for a year’s hiatus. They’re now back and seem to be at full strength, but I have the same lingering doubts with them as I have with the other team in their hiatus-return scenario, Stumptown Athletic. They could have issues integrating with a quality group of clubs that’s used to this level of talent and has cohesion within the squad already. That said, I won’t put it past them to prove me wrong and be competitive at the very least.
- New Amsterdam FC – New Amsterdam has struggled mightily in virtually every NISA capacity they’ve been in. They’re one of few in the league who doesn’t really look the part of a professional side on the pitch, despite some brilliant branding off it. I expect a step forward from the New York standard-bearers, but I doubt a single step up will be enough to make them competitive this spring.
A skeleton of what the entire Spring 2021 calendar holds for NISA clubs can be found here on their website.
Make sure you voice your opinions by doing so on Twitter or below in the comment section! Because if you aren’t giving another team some banter in the process, are you even supporting your club?
Thanks for reading, and support local soccer!