The Fort Worth Vaqueros kick off their fourth season of NPSL play Saturday with a 7:30 p.m. match against Tyler FC at Texas Wesleyan University’s Martin Field.
Despite the club’s history, this year offers a bit of a rebirth.
“There’s been a lot of changes,” defender Joseph Cervantes said. “A new coach, new players, a lot of new faces. It’s been quite the adjustment for me.”
Indeed, probably the most notable change is on the bench, where longtime Dallas Sidekicks player and coach Nick Stavrou will be the new man in charge. Mark Snell managed the club for its first three seasons, but has moved to oversee the Vaqueros forthcoming youth academy.
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While Stavrou’s name is most famously attached to the indoor game, he’s no stranger to soccer’s more traditional form. He’s been coaching outdoor youth squads, up to the age of 18, for about two decades in the Dallas area. It was the opportunity to try something new that enticed him to take the job.
“It’s a level I hadn’t coached at,” he said. “I had coached with the Sidekicks after I played, so I’d done some indoor. To coach outdoor at the semi-professional level, I hadn’t done that and wanted to challenge myself as a coach at a high level.”
The Vaqueros play in the National Premier Soccer League, a fourth-division league in the U.S. Soccer Federation and players retain their amateur status.
The addition of Stavrou has also prompted fairly significant churn in the roster. While a few names will be familiar to Vaqueros supporters, there will be plenty of new faces in 2017.
“Anytime a new coach comes in there’s a turnover,” Stavrou said. “I think there will probably be a bigger turnover this year than in other years, just because with my coaching experience in the Dallas area in the last 20 years, there are a lot of players that I’ve coached that have gone on to the college ranks that are around and interested in playing for me, and I’m interested in having them on the team. I’m sure this is a bigger turnover than in other years.”
Among the notable newcomers is defender Mike Jones, who was drafted by MLS team Sporting Kansas City in 2011 and later moved to the New York Red Bulls.
“Obviously, we expect some leadership,” Stavrou said of Jones. “He plays at the back and we hope he’s the glue that keeps us tighter.”
Jones is familiar with the league, having played against the Vaqueros last season with Liverpool Warriors.
“We have some young talent mixed with some veterans. It’s jelled very well. We’re very excited and very motivated,” he said. “We have a bunch of boys that are coming in and eager to play. I know last year we didn’t have very much success, so I think we have a lot of guys who are coming in very hungry and determined. And actually we feel like we’re going to win this league.”
Winning the league would be quite a step forward for the club, which is still in search of its first winning season. Stavrou hopes his reworked roster has just the right mixture to do so. Jones, at 29, is among the oldest on the squad, while nine players are still under 20.
“Younger is obviously inexperienced, whereas older is typically more experienced,” Stavrou said. “There are definitely some younger players on the team, but I think I’ve added in some experience, especially in the right places, that can be good guidance on the field.”
Maybe more importantly, according to the coach, is what he perceives to be added depth throughout the roster. Whereas injuries had impacted the team’s success in the past, Stavrou hopes this squad is built to overcome injuries, as well as deal with any style of game opposing teams might bring at them.
“I think we have a better quantity of quality now,” he said. “We want to be composed on the ball and build it up. I think we’ve got enough speed where we can transition. The keys are that you’ve got players that can do everything. If we need to bunker-in and counter, we can do that. If we need to be direct, we can do that because we’ve got pace up front. If we need to possess the ball and waste some clock and keep possession of the ball, we can do that as well.”
Stavrou’s Sidekicks connection could impact the Vaqueros on the scoresheet. Jamie Lovegrove, who was among the leading scorers for the Sidekicks, will be leaned on to put balls into opposing nets. His experience playing professionally in England will also add the on-field leadership Stavrou alluded to.
Fort Worth swept its preseason matches against Dallas Baptist University and Sporting Fort Worth, but knows the NPSL regular season will be a step up in competition. Is the new-look roster geared for the challenge?
“That is the million-dollar question,” Stavrou said. “We do have players that have played in the league before that have experience in the league. I would hope the level we have will be competitive with other teams in the league.”