The wait is finally over. After more than a year of build-up and planning, the SF Deltas inaugural NASL season begins this Saturday. It has been almost a 10-year absence since a professional soccer team called San Francisco its home.
This time last year, the SF Deltas were already a long way into their preparation for this day. It was St. Patrick’s Day of 2016 when the Deltas officially were given permission from the City to call historic Kezar Stadium their home. The Deltas took this with great pride and have put forth huge efforts and money into refurbishing Kezar Stadium to make it come to life on game days.
The Deltas finished up their preseason preparations with a test run at Kezar against USL’s Sacramento Republic this past Saturday. The game ended in a scoreless draw, but there were plenty of positives to take away both on the field and off. The Deltas finished the preseason with 2 wins and 3 draws.
The Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos
This might be the place that the Deltas hit it furthest out of the park. By AT&T Park standards, this hire was definitely a splash hit. Dos Santos is one of the most highly experienced coaches at this level of North American soccer. The last time he was coaching in the NASL he won the 2015 Fall League title along with the NASL Coach of the Year Award for the Ottawa Fury, before falling in the Soccer Bowl to the NY Cosmos that season. He was also Ottawa’s first head coach when they joined the NASL in 2014 as a new expansion side. Just last year he took charge of a USL expansion side, the Swope Park Rangers, and led them to the USL championship game before falling to the New York Red Bulls 2. This means that he has reached a championship final game in both of the last two seasons, once in each of the currently sanctioned D2 leagues. He has even won the old USL 1st division title back in 2009 with the Montreal Impact after taking over mid season. So not only has he won a D2 title, he’s been to both a USL and NASL final, won the NASL coach of the year, and brought an expansion team into both of the currently sanctioned D2 leagues within the last 4 years. I am not sure even Pep Guardiola would have been a better fit for a NASL expansion side in 2017.
How They Like to Set Up
The Deltas like to set up in what on paper is a 4-3-3, but for most of the game will look more like a defensively set up 4-1-4-1. During their pre-season so far, it has been a very tightly organized defensive unit from front to back.
Probable 1st Choice Starting Line-up
Goal Keeper Vice-Captain Romuald Peiser
Peiser is a very experienced goalkeeper who began his career in the Paris Saint-Germain Academy. Now 37 years old, he played the last 3 seasons with former NASL side, now in the USL, Ottawa Fury. The first 2 of these 3 years were under current Deltas head coach Marc Dos Santos. In 2015 he helped Ottawa win the 2015 fall season title by winning the NASL Golden Glove award for the League’s top goalie.
Right Back Karl Ouimette
A young but already experienced player, Ouimette was part of Trois-Rivières Attak, a Canadian reserve side to the USL 1st division/NASL Montreal Impact, while Marc Dos Santos was coach there. He also has collected 18 international Caps for Canada and spent the 2016 season between the New York Redbulls 1 and 2 as well as on loan with the NASL Jacksonville Armada.
Center Defender and Captain Nana Attakora
Attakora will begin the Deltas inaugural season as the Club’s first captain. He has previously played in the Bay Area for the MLS San Jose Earthquakes in both 2011 and 2013 following 5 years playing for Toronto FC. He also has 2 years of NASL experience under his belt, playing the previous two years with the San Antonio Scorpions and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Holding 12 Canadian Caps, Nana will be a vital leader for the Deltas.
Center Defender Reiner Ferreira
An experienced defender who will partner well with club captain Attakora, Ferreira has experience playing in his native Brazil in the Portuguese 1st division. He played most recently in the Turkish 2nd division.
Left Back Kenny Teijsse
The Dutch left back came through the FC Utrecht Academy, and played for Sparta Rotterdam and Go Ahead Eagles, both of the Dutch second division. Last season with the Go Ahead Eagles, he helped earn the club promotion back to the Dutch 1st division.
Defensive Midfielder Vice-Captain Christian Portilla
Portilla will be the most defensive minded of the 3 midfielders and will occupy the 1 in the 4-1-4-1 shape when the Deltas drop into it defensively. The Spaniard is in the prime of his soccer career and will be vital pulling the strings offensively and cutting out opposition attacks defensively. He may turn out to be the most important player if the Deltas are to be successful in year one.
Midfielder Michael Stephens
Stephens is an absolute engine in the midfield. He previously won 2 MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 where he often came off the bench for the final 20 minutes to cover ground and basically shut the game down. He also played abroad at Stabaek under former US National Team manager Bob Bradley. Thus he has played under two US National Team managers, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. This contributes to his very high soccer IQ.
Midfielder Kyle Bekker
Bekker will likely be the most attacking minded midfielder of the Deltas midfield trio. Bekker spent his first four professional seasons in MLS with Toronto, Dallas, and Montreal. He holds 18 Canadian Caps and is expected to be the Deltas 2nd runner into the box on all their goal scoring chances. Expect Bekker to be the top scoring midfielder for the Club.
This might be the most talented player on the entire Deltas squad. Jackson made his name in the US while on loan at FC Dallas in MLS from Brazilian powerhouse Sao Paulo. He has top-notch speed and quickness on the flanks. He will most likely start the games on the right, but he is able to interchange to the left depending on the opposition’s tactics. Expect a huge portion of the Deltas goals to come off the abilities of Jackson in both assisting and scoring.
Winger Danny Cruz
Cruz will play opposite Jackson and has the ability to play on either wing like his counterpart. Cruz brings a deep resume of MLS experience having started in the MLS Cup final in 2011 for Houston Dynamo and having played more than 130 games in the League. Cruz also has NASL experience playing for Minnesota United just last season.
Forward Tommy Heinemann
Heinemann is a tall forward who is best in the air. He brings a long resume of North American soccer experience having played in the USL, NASL and MLS, including for the Ottawa Fury under Marc Dos Santos in 2014 and 2015 where he scored 14 goals in two seasons for the club.
Top Options off the Bench
While not the largest club in terms of depth, the Deltas have a good group of roll players who can come off the bench and make a big impact for the club. The first on this list is forward Devon Sandoval. The starting position most in doubt is going to be the forward spot. Both Sandoval and Heinemann have started in this spot during the Deltas pre-season.
The top midfield option off the bench is Greg Jordan who spent the last few seasons with Minnesota United. The backup keeper duties will most likely be handled by Steward Ceus, a Haitian international. He will not be available for the opener on April 25th because he will be part of Haiti’s squad for a pair of Gold Cup qualifiers against Nicaragua.
The Deltas did their best to bring in a few local players who have roots in the Bay Area. One player for local fans to be excited about this season is Saalih Muhammad. Saalih is a local product raised across the Bay in Richmond, California. Saalih has previous experience playing for the Dynamo Zagreb Academy, one of the top academies in Eastern Europe. Saalih plays a similar position to Jackson, but don’t be surprised if he breaks into the starting 11 at points this season.
The Deltas also swooped up two other local college products. Bryan Burke who played for the USF Dons from 2007-2010 will be one of the Deltas top defensive substitutes. They also signed former Cal Bear and Lafayette, California native, Alex Mangels, who will most likely serve as the teams 3rd keeper.
The Midfield Trio
The expected starting midfield trio of Michael Stephens, Kyle Bekker and Cristian Portilla, is an extremely talented trio, easily at MLS level. These three cover the same ground and do as much work as any 4-man midfield.
Organized Team Defense Shape
Marc Dos Santos team shape defensively was very solid in preseason. They held both of the other Northern California pro sides, Sac Republic FC and the San Jose Earthquakes, scoreless, and even held Sac Republic FC to just 4 shots with none of them hitting the target.
Jackson will be a key if the Deltas are to break other teams down. His pace both with and without the ball on either wing will create a majority of the Deltas best scoring chances.
The amount of total travel time for the Deltas this year will be more than 80,000 miles. For any person this would be grueling, let alone an athlete that then has to play games on top of that. They must travel to Florida and back 5 times, plus 2 trips to Puerto Rico, and that’s not even half of the total road games. To overcome this, the team’s depth will play a huge factor.
One of the problems for the Deltas during the preseason has been scoring goals. They were held scoreless twice this preseason both against Sac Republic and University of California, Berkeley. They only managed 2 goals in a game once and that was against NPSL East Bay Stompers. Without Jackson, they might have been held scoreless in that game too. The lack of goals is something that Marc Dos Santos’ Ottawa team struggled with in their 2015 spring campaign, scoring just 5 goals in their first 10 games. However, Ottawa came back to score 37 goals in 20 games in route to the Fall season title. So the Deltas have plenty of time to figure this part out and do the same.
Playing out from the back
The Deltas seem to play better without the ball. The majority of their best chances this preseason have come off of pressing the opposition and waiting for them to make mistakes. Creating their own goal scoring chances by stringing a long series of passes together hasn’t happened often.
Expect some scoreless draws early and often this season. The Deltas won’t give up a lot of goals, but also won’t be scoring a lot either. Life as an expansion side will always be tough and the total travel will be taxing on the players, however it is reasonable to expect that they will make the playoffs. Why not, since 4 teams do out of 8 total? On the other hand, I wouldn’t expect the Deltas to win either the Fall or Spring titles with all of the travel that they will have to endure, as well as having to go up against some more experienced NASL sides.
My off-the-field expectations would be to see an opening night attendance of at least 4,000 at Kezar. The Deltas had 1,685 in attendance for the Sac Republic game this past Saturday at Kezar. This bodes well for their opener as they have spent much more effort on marketing and promoting their League opener against the Indy 11. The season long attendance will be the big indicator of how successful the Deltas are going to be in the long run. The NASL league average for 2016 was nearly 5,000 a game, while only two clubs averaged less than 3,000. Anything less than 3,000 per game average for the season would be concerning for the long-term health of the team.
The Deltas open play this Saturday at Kezar vs. NASL Power Indy 11.