When he started to piece together the roster of the Long Island Rough Riders’ USL Academy team this year, head coach John Fitzgerald had an intriguing balancing act.
He wanted to give as many players as possible, from high school to college an opportunity to play and develop their game further. He also wanted the team to be competitive.
Not necessarily an easy task.
But things worked out so well as the squad finished its season with a sterling 8-1-0 mark, finishing second in the USL Academy Boys Under-19 Metro-NYC Division while outscoring their foes, 35-11. That helped the three top Rough Riders squads to finish with a collective 32-5-5 record. The men reached the USL League Two championship game, and the women reached the USL W League playoffs.
“it’s very satisfying,” Fitzgerald said.
Putting together the team
The USL Academy team certainly played its role as Fitzgerald recruited and held tryouts in search of the best of Long Island between the ages of 15-20. The team had a 43-player roster. Between summer jobs, commitments, eligibility issues and some unexpected surprises that pop up, a large player pool is needed.
“We wanted to offer them something that was going to be high level, challenging and competitive,” Fitzgerald said. “Because it is it’s a summer league, a lot of the older kids are getting ready for college. They wanted to be here for that reason. And then the younger guys were getting ready for high school and trying to get recruited.”
When putting high school and college age players on a team, there can be sizable physical differences,
The age range when from a player born in 1999 to another from 2007. The solution was proper coaching and advice.
“My concern was about the physicality,” Fitzgerald said. “These kids were recruited, so I already knew of a lot of them. For example, the one youngest player was a 2007. We had him in ODP already. I already knew he has some advanced physicality for this group. He’s very quick on the ball, very talented. We talked to him about playing quickly. Don’t get stuck in possession because that’s what you’re playing against the kid who’s a college kid in training.”
Fitzgerald was heartened by the fact that most of the players came to training twice a week – Mondays and Thursday – their college and high school coaches wanted the players to get the most out of the summer.
“They’re all fighting for a spot,” he said. “So, it’s not like an older kid is going to take it easy on a younger kid because end of the day, you’re competing for that spot in the 18. That was probably the toughest part is we had the right chemistry and the right culture, so that everybody understood that whether you’re in the 18 or not, you’re still part of the group, you’re still part of the team, and you always have an opportunity to make it.
“You prove it on in training. That to me was the biggest challenge, the other coaches and myself when we talked about it. I think we succeeded there because everyone seemed to buy in and be part of it. Even the youngest players who did not get a lot of playing time, they seemed to really enjoy it. They probably gave the most positive feedback because they feel that this helped their game a lot.”
Which, of course, was the ultimate goal of the Academy team.
As a coach, Fitzgerald also was forced to deal with a mathematical equation when putting together a roster for a game.
“You’re allowed to take five overage players and put them on the roster,” he said. “Of those five, you can only have three on the field at once. You really tactically have to plan that ahead of time.”
So, Fitzgerald and his assistant coaches Kevin Dorn, Vic Muntean and Raul Santos on Thursday nights and Friday mornings would go over which players would make the 18-man squad for the weekend games.
“That’s how it was done each week,” he said. “We tried to keep it as professional as possible, and the players bought into it.
“You know, it can be disconcerting, I’m sure for some players when they don’t see their name. Plus, they know everyone else sees it, but they all understood that they have a chance, every training session. You can never You can’t predict injuries. You can’t predict something personal comes up for a player, things that they had to step away for. And that’s when your opportunities come.”
There even was an occasional integration with the first team, the men’s side that competed in USL League Two.
“We have our first team who was doing very well,” Fitzgerald said. “The club itself has a reputation and we wanted to uphold that. The younger guys see that, and we would send some of our Academy players to train with the first team. There was good synergy there.”
Fitzgerald said that he worked with the League Two squad and head coach Tom Bowen every opportunity he could.
“On Mondays we trained back-to-back,” he added. “We intentionally set that up. We knew we were going to send four or five players [to train with the first team]. I pulled them out of training early. That’s the right way to do it. I was there with them to help with their transition if you will. That’s how we did it at the Cosmos.”
He was the New York Cosmos Academy coach for several years.
“If you want to do it at the highest level, this is this is how you have to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s got to be that connection between the teams.”
College-age players became leaders on the squad.
“The older players have more experience.,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve been playing in college a little bit longer and you’re hoping they’re going to be leaders, but they have to buy into it also. The older guys did a terrific job mentoring the younger boys.”
An unforgettable encounter
The team’s most memorable game?
That was easy. The July 20 match with the Westchester Flames.
It was the first time the Rough Riders trailed all season and showed great resolve in that encounter.
“We had two 7-0 games that are not memorable,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s not something that was that was good for either side.”
The Westchester confrontation might not have been good for the hairline of the coaches of both teams, given the back-and-forth nature of the match.
The Flames struck first in the seventh minute before Long Island equalized two minutes later. Westchester grabbed the lead again in the 33rd minute but the Rough Riders knotted it up again three minutes later. The Riders grabbed the lead in the 38th minute, but the Flames tied it up in the 42nd minute for a 3-3 halftime deadlock.
“The game was very much up and down, a terrifically fast, skillful game,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought it was a little bit of a of a tactical chess game because when they scored on us, we made a little bit of an adjustment. We come back right back and scored on them.”
At halftime, it was all about getting refocused.
“It was impressive how they spoke to each other in the locker room,” Fitzgerald said. “They really embraced this challenge. It was the first time we’ve been down the whole season. I was interested to see how they handled it.”
The was more adversity. The Rough Riders went on to win the game, 4-3, playing a man down a good portion of the second half a man down after a player was awarded his second yellow card. Chris Morandi scored twice, and Shane Siegel assisted on two goals.
Fitzgerald said that the ejection “put us up against it. But it really helped build the character of the team and show the quality that the boys had.”
“I said to the boys ‘Hey, this is a game you got to remember,’ and [goalkeeper] Mats Roorda said, “This is so much more [better} game that we blow anybody out.'”
Fitzgerald said many players impressed him this past summer.
Perhaps the one who might have stood out the most was someone who was forced to wait a half of the season before getting a chance to play. That was Roorda, a Dutch native and a 6-4, 180-lb. goalkeeper who plays at Binghamton University this fall season.
“He decided he was going to stay here this year and play instead of going home,” Fitzgerald said.
The Academy team, however, ran into a registration issue that affects many teams from the youth to professional level.
“He couldn’t get cleared right away because he had played in Holland,” the coach said, “But he was a training every single day with us. He often trained with the first team. he couldn’t get signed, even though he was our top goalkeeper. He couldn’t get signed until over midway through the season. He still kept such a professional [attitude]. It was kind of cool.
“I love telling people that when I when I told him at the training site at our Monday training session the week before our first game, Mats, ‘You’re not clear and they said they don’t think it’s going happen before this weekend.’ He’s taller than I am. He’s looking down at me and his reaction was, ‘What do we have to do to make it right?’ He didn’t sulk. What a mature young man to say that.”
There were plenty of players who stood out on the field.
One was outside back Michael Iemma, an ODP player who was cut from his club team.
“He joins another club team doesn’t blink an eye, such a positive attitude,” Fitzgerald said. “He winds up starting a couple of games for us. He’s a 2000 [player]. You know how crazy is that? He’s a kid that just has a great mentality, the heart of a lion. I liked him a lot.”
The team’s captains were right back Ralph Pascarella, who is attending Seton Hall University, center back-midfielder Andrew Watson, who is at Adelphi and midfielder-center back Sean Fitzgerald, the coach’s son, who is playing at Binghamton.
Other players who stood out included George Washington University goalkeeper Colin Raupp, midfielder Stephen Nelson, midfielder-right back Kyle Smith (“He’s a midfield stud. A player that’s going to be somebody that we’re going to see in the national pool,” Fitzgerald said), Monmouth University winger-forward Morandi (“very sharp for us up front”), College of Staten Island winger-forward Siegel and Fordham forward-winger Andrew Insalaco.
The Academy squad also opened up the doors for players who didn’t have a spot on a college roster.
Take, for example, right back-right winger Nate Yu, who played for Fitzgerald at the club and Olympic Development Program levels. Fitzgerald said that Yu was a “Covid player” who wasn’t picked up to play in college, which was the case with many players from the same graduating year.
Yu is attending Binghamton as a sophomore “and was determined to try to show them he could play there,” the Riders coach said.
“He’s a super athletic player and had such a terrific summer for us that the Binghamton coaches invited him to join in the spring of ’23,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the team’s fall roster was full). “A positive example of what the RR Academy has done for a player. There are many other stories of players getting noticed for playing here, as well.”
Setting the rules
What impressed Fitzgerald the most was that the team set its own ground rules in a preseason meeting in the Mitchel Athletic Complex locker room in Uniondale, N.Y.
“We sat down, and we talked about what the culture of this team is going to be and set our own ground rules,” he said. “They owned it. We [the coaches] kind of facilitated the meeting, but the boys did it themselves. We came up with a nice list of things that we were going to look to accomplish and how we were going to carry ourselves as a group and they I believe they really bought into it and owned it.
“Psychologically, it was it was satisfying that way and the fact that they that they did play well and win medals that always helps. You know, that’s a bonus.”
The Academy team was sponsored by Krystal Fruits and Vegetables of Syosset, N.Y., which is owned by Michael Longo, who once played for Fitzgerald. In 2021, Long was elected as fourth vice president of the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association.
“One of the reasons the season ran as smooth as it did is because a former player of mine sponsored it through his company,” Fitzgerald said. He wanted to give back to the game, which was a terrifically nice and generous gesture.”
Pardon the pun, but Longo, Fitzgerald and the Rough Riders today can see the fruits of their labors from this past summer.
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