As a freshly placed San Diego resident, and as the play-by-play voice of the North County Battalion, our own Nate Abaurrea has had a close-up look at the National Premier Soccer League’s 2016 season in the Southwestern Conference, a season that just drifted past the halfway point, and into the home stretch, with the playoffs kicking off in July. We assigned Nate with the task of picking eleven players to go to battle in an imaginary (but highly anticipated in his own mind) knockout tournament against elevens from other conferences around the country. Here’s his squad.
Alright, first off, we need to make one thing abundantly clear. This is not a traditional mid-season “Best XI”. This is my squad, filled with my kind of grit and ferocity, delicately blended with flair and creative audacity. I have seen every team in person at least once, and have watched countless hours of film, in addition to sharing some great conversations with players, coaches, and fans from all around the league. I’m making a team here to take on all comers. We’re having fun with this thing, not only pretending that this is a real team, but that I as the manager will be accepted and respected by all of the players. We’re running a 4-3-3, and we’re taking your team down. Here’s what my squad looks like.
Goalkeeper: Jean Antoine (Albion Pros)
There’s no question that Antoine has been the best goalkeeper in the conference. Through seven games, he’s allowed just three goals, and his incredible athleticism has been lauded by Albion fans and neutral observers alike. The 23 year-old Haitian-American may not be in the NPSL for long. His head coach, Ziggy Korytoski, is not the only person who has said that Antoine’s got the talent to play at higher levels. What better level to jump to than playing for me?
Left-Back: Jose Merlo (Albion Pros)
I’ve seen Merlo play twice. He’s been absolute class on both occasions. That three goals against number for Jean Antoine has as much to do with him as it does the stingy Albion backline. He has played on the right side for much of the NPSL season, but is versatile enough to switch to the left channel.
Center-Back: Fernando Cabello (Deportivo Coras)
Funny enough, the one time I saw Cabello in person, he scored an own-goal in a 1-1 draw with the Battalion up in Riverside. But apart from that unfortunate moment in his own goal mouth, he was strong as an ox, and shut down just about every Battalion attempt to play through the center of the final third. His long hair makes his aerial prowess all the more noticeable, and Cabello has used it as more than just a defender. He’s got two goals to his name, and always attracts attention from his opponents on set-pieces.
Center-Back: Luke Staats (Albion Pros)
Again, a funny one, as I actually watched Staats get sent off on May 21st in the San Diego Derby rematch against the Battalion. But he’s the captain of the side that has allowed three goals in seven NPSL matches. He can play on the outside as well, but I want him anchoring my back-line. He hails from Amsterdam, and he’s most definitely an enforcer. Staats and Cabello up the gut. Come at us, bro.
Right-Back: Joe Shah (NC Battalion)
You will be hard pressed to find a more experienced player in the Southwestern Conference. The Battalion captain played by far his best match on May 21st against Albion, the Battalion playing with ten men for almost the entirety of the second half after Nelson Pizarro was shown his marching orders just ten seconds after the restart. Shah’s leadership was clear that Saturday at Mission Bay, as the derby rematch ended up with a 0-0 scoreline.
Left-Midfield: Mateus Cunha (Corinthians USA)
This kid is electric, and his first half brace against the Battalion on May 14th was a sight to behold. He can hit pinpoint crosses and blast shots with his outstanding left foot, and his tight knit control is quite special as well. He doesn’t have too much physicality in his game, but we’ll look to get him isolated and let him shine.
Center-Midfield: Felipe Laborio (Albion Pros)
Another head of long hair, and another baller. He was my man of the match in the first San Diego Derby on April 16th, and that was without scoring any of the three Albion goals that night. His distribution is consistently delightful, but perhaps my favorite aspect of Laborio’s game is his strength, more specifically his ability to stay on his feet. At 5’9, he’s got a very low center of gravity, and he uses it to his advantage. He’ll have quite a lot of ground to cover as he holds down the center of the park for my team, but I’m confident that he’s the man for the job, as we filter our attacks through the Chula Vista native.
Right-Midfield: Eric Lopez (NC Battalion)
Three goals, two assists, and two NPSL National Player of the Week nominations only tell half of the story on Lopez’s 2016 season thus far. He never stops. He never runs out of gas. His energy will be a major asset to this side, and will be given a unique task of occasionally dipping into the center to help Laborio.
Left-Forward: Matt Clare (Albion Pros)
Whether it’s indoors with the San Diego Sockers or outside with Albion, if there’s one thing Matt Clare knows how to do, it’s score goals. He’s got four on his 2016 NPSL campaign, and he’s always hungry for more.
Center-Forward: Santiago Warren (Temecula FC)
When the Red Quails came back from 2-0 down against the Battalion on May 1st to record an improbable 2-3 victory, Warren was in the mix of just about everything, and ten minutes from time he dribbled nearly the entire length of the field in a flash, was taken down for a penalty, got up, and converted it himself for the winning goal. His celebration was a thing of beauty, running straight for the arms of his head-coach, Manchester City midfielder of the 1970’s Willie Donachee. The 19 year-old Warren is bound for Scotland at the conclusion of the NPSL season, with a handful of sides in the second and third divisions coveting his professional signature. (Little do they know I’ve already snatched him up!)
Right-Forward: Esteban Reyes (NC Battalion)
“Don’t worry… About a thing… ‘Cuz going at the goal… We’ve got Esteban!” Battalion Head Coach Ryan Guy has heralded the 20 year-old star all season long, but it’s been the words from opposing coaches that have almost been more impressive. Everyone has noticed Reyes. It’s been hard not to. He scored the first goal in Battalion history on April 2nd, and has three goals on the season. Look for him to score at least that many for my ferocious Southwestern XI.