By Harold C. Ford
The Flint City Bucks soccer club was booted from the United States League Two (USL2) semifinal in Des Moines by Ventura County Fusion FC (football club) July 31. The California club prevailed 2-1 and will host the championship match Aug. 6.
Ventura County scored its goal on a magnificent bend-it-like-Beckham goal — the Bucks’ website dubbed it a “wonder goal” — from forward Nathaniel Opoku in the 40th minute. From the right side (facing Flint’s goal) Opoku, using his left foot, perfectly curled the ball in front of and out of the reach of Flint’s goalkeeper, Isaac Walker, into the upper left corner of the net. Walker didn’t have a chance to prevent the winning goal.
“Long-ball” strategy yields no goals
In its match with Ventura County, the Bucks relied on a “the long ball” strategy throughout the contest. A long-ball strategy has defenders and midfielders delivering the ball on long kicks deep into the opponent’s half of the pitch/field. It is hoped by the side/team using such a strategy that its forwards can take possession of the long ball and create scoring chances.
More often than not, Ventura County’s goalkeeper and other defenders took possession of the long balls delivered by the Flint side and reversed the play back up field in the direction of Flint’s goal. At one point in the match, the lack of scoring chances by the Flint side led one video announcer to say that the Ventura County goalkeeper “had it fairly easy so far.”
Near the end of regular time, and desperately needing a goal, Flint loaded up its offense with a 5-3-3 formation (five forwards-three midfielders-three defenders) moving Hugo Bacharach from the defensive line to a forward position. A header into the Fusion net by Bacharach at the 77th minute, on a delivery from Sebastian Chalbaud, was disallowed as Bacharach was flagged offside by one of the linesmen.
The long-ball strategy foregoes the more common “build-up” or “building” strategy in which attackers pass among themselves looking for weaknesses and scoring opportunities in the opponent’s defense.
In the other USL2 semifinal Aug. 1, the Long Island Rough Riders ousted the North Carolina Fusion 2-0. Ventura County will host Long Island in the championship match at 9 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 6. The match can be viewed on elevensports.com; interested persons should check the Eleven Sports or USL2 websites.
The Bucks reached the USL2’s final four with a late-season run, as reported by East Village Magazine (EVM). In its final five regular-season matches, the Bucks outscored opponents 16 goals to six in a four-win/one-loss stretch enabling entry into a 32-team USL2 postseason playoff.
The Bucks consecutively dispatched three USL2 division champions during their run — South Bend (IN) Lions, Chicago (IL) FC United, and Des Moines (IA) Menace — before the semifinal loss to Ventura County.
Another successful season
Flint finished regular-season league play with an 8-3-3 (win-loss-tie) record and a significant plus-18 goal difference. Flint’s speedy defense led Bucks’ coach Andrew “Andy” Wagstaff to remark: “We’ve got some of the best defenders in the country. There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind.”
USLIn the summer portion of their schedule, the Bucks hosted their first-ever international friendly match against Tigres UANL from Liga MX, Mexico’s top league. [A “friendly” is a match that does not count in terms of regular-season competition or the playoffs.]
In June, the Bucks won their fourth Hank Steinbrecher Cup, a four-team invitational hosted by Flint this season.
A record of success
Over three complete USL2 seasons in Flint — not counting the 2020 season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic — the Bucks have never missed the playoffs. The Bucks won the USL2 championship in 2019 before 7,000-plus fans at Flint’s Atwood Stadium.
Founded in 1995, the Flint City team began play as the Mid-Michigan Bucks in Saginaw. In 1996, the team changed its name to Michigan Bucks, moved to Plymouth in 2004, then to Pontiac in 2008. They began play as the Flint City Bucks in May 2019.
USL2 is currently comprised of 112 teams in four conferences, subdivided into 16 divisions. The Bucks compete in the Great Lakes Division of the Central Conference. USL2 touts itself as “the leader in pre-professional soccer in North America … the elite platform for those pursuing professional careers domestically and internationally.”
The Bucks are arguably the most successful franchise in USL2 history. They’ve made the postseason playoffs in 24 of 27 seasons, a USL2 record. Their four league championships are unrivaled. More than 80 Bucks have graduated to professional leagues around the globe.
While the roster constantly evolves, a midseason analysis of the Flint roster revealed 29 players from the U.S. and 14 other nations.
Nine U.S. players called six states home: (number in parentheses are the number of players): Michigan (2); Ohio (3); Nevada (1); New Mexico (1); Georgia (1); South Carolina (1).
Flint’s foreign-born players represented: Germany (3); England (3); Australia (2); Denmark (2); Guinea (1); Venezuela (1); Spain (1); Netherlands (1); Ghana (1); Greece (1); Columbia (1); Haiti (1); Congo (1); Italy (1).
More often than not, the foreign-born players are drawn to the U.S. to attend universities on a scholarship. Collectively, the 29 players referenced above had enrolled in 22 different institutions of higher learning across the nation.
Eager to make their way to a professional league, players are drawn to clubs like Flint City with a track record of success.
“As soon as they hear the Bucks are interested or they show interest in the Bucks, it’s already known we are a feeder to the pros,” said Wagstaff in an earlier interview with EVM. “It’s a really good opportunity for them to get looked at by some of the top pro clubs in the country.”
“We reach out heavily to the people we know in the collegiate game,” Wagstaff said in a June 2022 interview with EVM. “It’s really built out of the top colleges.”
The Bucks’ formula for success is due to its management team as well as the players on the pitch.
In 2019, the Bucks’ Dan Duggan and Costa Papista, chairman and president respectively, were named Co-Executives of the Year by USL2. They were cited by the league as going “above and beyond in their commitment to improving their team both on and off the field.” It was the third such honor for Duggan.
The Bucks’ success is additionally buoyed by the coaching staff. Wagstaff took over as head coach in 2020 following the resignation of Demir Muftari who coached the squad to three of their four national titles.
“I’m inheriting a group and a program that are serial winners,” Wagstaff said at the time of his ascension to head coaching duties. “I’m entering a program … where everything is in place.”
“I do love it”
Wagstaff is virtually a soccer lifer at age 49. He’s been involved with the game for nearly 40 years in a player-coach career that’s crossed the Atlantic multiple times between England and Michigan.
He began playing organized soccer/football at age 14-15. He advanced to “apprentice-level” football at Bury FC in the northwest of England from ages 16 to 18. He attended nearby Oakland University in his late teens with support from a four-year scholarship. He coached youth soccer while attending OU.
After finishing college, he returned to the country of his birth to work for the Bolton Wanderers, a club located in Bolton near the town of Horwich, Lancashire, England. His journey next took him to Liverpool to coach under-six/seven/eight-year-old teams.
Then he accepted an offer to play professionally with two Detroit-area indoor pro teams — The Detroit Neon and the Detroit Rockers.
He also accepted a director of coaching position with the Bloomfield Hills Youth Soccer League. He helped grow the Bloomfield Force Soccer Club — now Liverpool Football Club Michigan — from 45 players to, at present, more than 2,000 players in six locations. He guided Bloomfield Force to back-to-back national championships.
After 18 years, he left the Bloomfield Force to pursue other opportunities. From 2010 to 2019 he enjoyed coaching stints for the Michigan Bucks, the University of Michigan, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State, and Liverpool FC Michigan.
Wagstaff left collegiate-level football in 2019 and began to patrol the sidelines for the Bucks. “I do love it,” he said. “The Bucks’ organization is classy from top to bottom.”
Bucks women’s team survived difficult season
The Bucks added a women’s team in the 2022 season. The Flint squad competed in the Great Lakes Division of the Central Conference of the United States League Women (USLW). Four conferences subdivided into seven divisions with 44 teams competed in the 2022 USLW campaign that has ended.
Flint’s entry in the USLW finished a difficult season with just two wins, nine defeats, and one tie. The club finished with seven points (three points for a win; zero points for a loss; one point for a tie). The first-place club from Indianapolis, the Indy Eleven, finished league play with 32 points.
According to the USLW website: The USLW League is a pre-professional women’s soccer league (that) strives to use women’s soccer as a force for societal good by creating a national platform to increase investing in women’s soccer — through not only financial resources but also with time, energy, and attention — and are united in our mission to grow the women’s game.
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The Bucks (men’s team) return to action Aug. 13 with a friendly against Detroit FC at Linden Stadium in Linden. Tickets can be purchased at the gate ($5 youth/$10 adult) or at gopassage.com.
EVM Sports Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.
Banner photo credit: Amanda Thick, Flint City Bucks Facebook page.