After a stellar inaugural season in 2016 that saw Albion Pros cement themselves as a contender for national honors, Head Coach Ziggy Korytoski and his staff are ready for more. Not only will Albion be kicking off their second National Premier Soccer League campaign in April, but the club will also be taking part in the historic U.S. Open Cup, thanks to their quarter-final appearance in last season’s NPSL playoffs.
Though the regular season is just under three months away, Albion Pros are already getting started with a jam packed pre-season schedule. Nate Abaurrea caught up with Korytoski in this week’s Soccer Nation Coach’s Corner. In part two (see part one here) of the conversation, the coach discusses last year’s playoff push, the upcoming season for Albion Pros, and the continuous cultivation of the Albion culture. Nate and Ziggy also chat about the United States Men’s National Team coming to the city of San Diego later this month, and what that game means to the community.
Nate Abaurrea: In any competitive sports culture, there exists a “what have you done for me lately” mindset. In your inaugural season, you and your club made a deep playoff run in the NPSL. What does that really mean today?
Ziggy Korytoski: Well, I think it was a tremendous accomplishment, and one we should be proud of. To go from 0 to 100 in a couple months the way we did was incredible. We built something from scratch. I’m proud to be a part of that, to have been able to help guide that on and off the field.
Albion Pros have become part of the San Diego community. Much of that is based on what we did on the field, and I’m grateful for every player who played a part in any of it, from trialists to the guys who were there for every minute last year. I keep coming back to the totality of the thing, the fact that we were all part of something bigger than ourselves. It was a tremendous way to start for this organization.
To go unbeaten in the NPSL regular season and go into the national quarter-final and qualify for the U.S. Open Cup… It’s remarkable! But at the end of it all, you want more. You have to live in the moment and win on the day.
Nate Abaurrea: How much does that quarter-final loss to Sonoma County Sol stick with you guys? Can it serve as motivation for 2017?
Ziggy Korytoski: Absolutely, it can. We played well enough to win that quarter-final. That’s soccer. That’s this game we live. That’s part of what leaves you wanting more. Myself and so many other people, we promised to continue and strive for more. I for one will not be changing my work ethic. I speak for the team when I say we will not be changing our culture. Sure, maybe there are a couple things we tweak here and there. Things like game analysis, tactics and such. It’s such a challenging league, and it’s only getting better. We will have a much bigger test this year in the regular season, with the expansion of the Southwest Conference and the added firepower. But my main job is managing players, and doing everything I can to get the best out of them. Our performance last season was a tribute to their commitment. We left it just short last year. That will be in the back of our minds. It should be. We want it all this time around. We want to continue to prove ourselves on and off the field, to this local community and to this national league.
Nate Abaurrea: Tell us a little more about the Albion Pros pre-season plans.
Ziggy Korytoski: I’m very excited for our Feb 11th friendly vs. East Bay Stompers. They were an NPSL playoff team from up north last season, and they have a quality side. We have some more matches through the month of February that we are still finalizing. We will likely head out on the road for a couple of them. We’ve also got some exhibitions lined up with local colleges. And there are some higher profile opponents that we’re in the works of organizing. We need to put our heads down and take off on the next journey. We’re definitely carrying the attitude that our season is already underway. I can tell you, these guys are hungry.
Nate Abaurrea: You guys ended the 2016 calendar year with a friendly against the reserves of Club Tijuana. Though Albion Pros lost the match to the Xolos 4-1, what were some of the positives you took away from that night?
Ziggy Korytoski: It was a tremendous opportunity. There’s a mutual respect between Albion and the Xolos. It’s a great relationship we’ve been building with them. It was also just a privilege to be a part of the whole event. Xolos were playing Atlas that night at Mesa College. To know that players like Rafa Marquez and coaches like Miguel Herrera were in the building. To have Joe Corona coming back to Xolos, and a hometown guy like Paul Arriola to be in the lineup for Xolos… For Albion Pros to be a part of that event with Xolos as the opening match was incredible.
As far as the match went, we were actually pleased with quite a few things, despite the disappointing loss. We got to see some guys that we needed to see put to the test. For some of those guys, that was one of the biggest games they’ve been a part of, playing in front of a few thousand people with a buzz in the air. We got to evaluate a few trialists and academy guys as well as see players we already knew. I liked that it was truly the last game of 2016, which was a great year for the Pros. We’re in a very good place right now as we start the 2017 calendar.
Nate Abaurrea: Let’s talk a little about the US Open Cup. It’s such a beautiful competition steeped in history. It dates back to 1913 and is one of the oldest, continuously operated soccer tournaments in the world. Here in 2017, one of your main challenges is balancing your schedule, with your first U.S. Open Cup match taking place in early May. What’s going through your mind with all this?
Ziggy Korytoski: One thing that I think about a lot in regards to the Open Cup and the NPSL is that we better have a deep roster. It’s part of why our reserve team is so important. We need guys ready to step up all the way through the ranks. We have to give our all in both competitions.
As far as the Open Cup itself, it’s truly a privilege to be a part of it. The history speaks for itself, and it’s amazing for a team in its second year of existence to be involved with something over 100 years old. Our first US Open Cup match will likely be on May 10th. The opponent should be announced in early April. It’s a one off. It’s win or go home. It’s a beautiful concept. It would be great to host, but we could have to travel out of town.
Nate Abaurrea: There is a very cool NPSL combine coming up, which will feature the league’s best players from all over the country, essentially divided up into regional squads. There’s an honor to be a part of the combine, but it’s grand purpose is to showcase talent. There were 3 Albion Pros players selected. Who were the players, and what do their selections mean to you?
Ziggy Korytoski: The players were Felipe Laborio, Luis Cardona, and Richard Cervantes. They are all deserving of their selections. They possessed certain attributes that the organizers were looking for. I am immensely happy for all three of them.
It’s a national combine taking place in LA. I like the way they did the regional format, our guys representing their region in a camp of quality players from all over.
It’s important to note that we want to give our guys every opportunity to move onto the next level. We want to accomplish everything we can in our local environment and our culture here in San Diego, and always be growing our club. But at the same time, these guys getting to go to the next level is a feather in our caps and it creates the likelihood that more quality players will come through the Albion system, knowing that we give them the best possible chance to propel their careers.
Nate Abaurrea: One returning player I have to ask you about is your “Haitian Sensation” in goal. How is Jean Antoine looking?
Ziggy Korytoski: Jean’s awesome. He’s working hard as ever. He’s really ready to get back into the groove. He’s also becoming a great leader, which is such an important trait for a goalkeeper. He’s got a lot of the tools necessary to be a top flight guy. We are extremely excited to have him back.
Nate Abaurrea: There’s obviously a lot of excitement in the air. What are three things you’re most excited about with Albion Pros in the year 2017?
Ziggy Korytoski: One thing is the commitment that the club and the community has made with the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. It is an unbelievable opportunity for us, to have such a professional environment in which to train. It’s a huge psychological boost for the players and represents what this club is all about.
I’m excited about the upcoming NPSL season, just getting back on the field and going through the daily process and helping in developing great young players who are aspiring to do something special. Also, the integration of our academy is going to become more and more important for the success of Albion Pros. It’s such a pure model, and as I’ve said before, one that is very similar to top clubs from around the world. The fact that we’re creating that in such a short time is a testament to the hard work of so many amazing people around me, from Noah Gins all the way through the organization.
Lastly, I’m excited about the U.S. Open Cup. Qualifying based on our quarter-final appearance in the NPSL last season was a big accomplishment. But we’re not satisfied. We want to make a splash.
Nate Abaurrea: Before we end this chat, we have to talk about the upcoming USA match. The United States Men’s National Team will be hosting Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium on January 29th. It’s Bruce Arena’s first match back in charge, and the Yanks first game since the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann. The Albion organization must be extremely happy to see this match some to San Diego.
Ziggy Korytoski: It’s fantastic. I for one am thrilled to see the U.S. come back to San Diego. It’s a new start. It’s a new year. It’s 2017. I’m happy to see Bruce Arena back in the job. He’s someone I’ve admired for many years.
It’s important for this city to host this game. It’s special. It’s a privilege to have the national team come to your city. It should be that way in any country. I see it like a player representing his or her country. For a city to host a game for the national team, to host an event for the good of the whole country, that’s an honor.
We have all these avenues for the game in our country. There are so many new things popping up in this community and all around our soccer nation. It might just be a friendly, but this game is a chance for our city to prove itself, to have a good showing with attendance and passion. It’s a fresh start for this team, and for a number of players in the wake of Jurgen leaving. It’s a fresh start for Bruce. It’s exciting in so many ways, and especially for the city of San Diego, and the soccer fans of this community.
Nate Abaurrea: We’ve spoken about this before, your love for this city. You still haven’t even been here a year and a half, but with everything you’ve been involved in, from Albion Pros to the San Diego State Aztecs and much more, it feels like it’s been a much longer period of time. How are you feeling about San Diego going into 2017?
Ziggy Korytoski: We’ve got a lot to be grateful for. I have a lot to be grateful for. I started at SDSU in 2015. Things grew incredibly well with Albion in 2016. There came a real good opportunity to dive into this Albion Pros project full time. We’ve created a specialization of my position, and my role with Albion SC as a whole has expanded quite a bit. I’m filled with gratitude, for this city and this organization. I’m excited to perform for this community. We want to put out an attractive product, a winning product, something everyone in San Diego can be proud of, regardless of what youth club they play for or what MLS or European, or Latin American club they support. We want to give people great soccer. That’s the foundation of it all.
I’m excited for every day on the job. I’m ready to help this Albion project flourish every morning I wake up. I bleed red white and blue. I’m proud to be a part of this organization, and I can tell you that everyone involved in this organization is proud to be a part of the city of San Diego.