Wahab Ackwei - Richmond Kickers (Credit: Suzanne Velasco / RVA Hub)

Richmond Kickers: Roster Breakdown Part 1 with Asst. Coach Mika Elovaara

The Richmond Kickers announced an initial group of 12 returning players for the 2020 USL League One season. A look player by player with Mika Elovaara.

It’s been a busy November for the Richmond Kickers. On November 5th, the club revealed that 12 players were being brought back for the 2020 season. On the heels of that announcement, the club named Darren Sawatzky as the next head coach. Sawatzky will be formally announced at a press conference this Friday (11/15). In the meantime, I sat down with assistant coach Mika Elovaara to discuss each of the players returning to the Richmond Kickers. In this piece, we look at the first half of the group.

BGN: Akira Fitzgerald. He was the clear number one keeper last season and would appear to be returning into that role. If so, what is the club looking for in a backup?

Mika: Akira was a key piece from last season that we wanted to resign. He brings leadership in the locker room and on the pitch. Any quality team in the world wants a backup keeper that has the ability to start over the starting keeper. That is the ideal scenario. Based on the level the club is at, that can be a challenge. So can you find someone that is ‘good enough to start’ but also understands their primary role may be challenging the starting keeper? There is no set profile. It could be an experienced player but someone who is looking to keep playing. Or someone young like we had last season in Rice and Broomall. Darren and I have talked extensively not only about the returners so far, but the rest of the team. You want someone who is playing at such a level that they make the case that they should get playing time.

BGN: All three center backs return – Wahab Ackwei, Conor Shanosky, and Ivan Magalhaes. What did they show as a group that the club wanted to bring them all back? How do they need to grow their game in 2020? Is the plan to add more depth to CB next season?

Mika: All three saw significant time in 2019 and their qualities complement each other. Connor brings leadership and a long career as a pro. From being a homegrown player, but also still getting his degree while playing, his veteran presence and mentorship are helpful qualities to have on the team. He has exceptional passing and better footwork than most people probably would guess. He is able to help guide the younger players. We will be a young team, not compared to the MLS academy sides, but to most professional, independent teams. For Wahab and Ivan, both are very athletic, appropriately physical, and good at 1v1 defending. We see the chance to help them continue to develop to a higher level. Which is a goal in general of the club – improve, whether that is here or up to another league. They are an important piece of the 3-back system we played last year. The way they carry themselves, do things right on and off the field, which align with Richmond’s vision. We think all three pair well together in combos of two and as a set of three. We want to add one more player that is at the level that should challenge for a starting spot. Staying healthy is important and I expect us to maintain that level of fitness while performing at high intensity. Expect us to add another center back, as it is important to have legitimate options at the position so it doesn’t dictate what we have to do.

BGN: Scott Thomsen. He is the only fullback on the roster. Has it been discussed yet how the fullbacks are to be used in 2020? In 2019 there seemed to be a lack of depth or competition at the fullback positions?

Mika: For the fullback position, it is similar to the keeper. We want the 2nd player to be of a quality to be challenging for the starting role. So that we are two-deep on both sides. There should be clarity on how we intend to play early on in the season, and allow the fullbacks to understand their role and expectations in the side. 100% expect there to be more competition at the fullback position next season.

BGN: Ryley Kraft. What did he show in late 2019 that made the club want to bring him back? Where do you think is his best position?

Mika: We did want the security of getting him back for 2020. If you get a mid-season signing in that position, of his quality, it made sense to have him finish the season but secure him for 2020 as well. He could play as a 6 or an 8. I might lean towards an 8, but could see him as a 6, based on the style of play for the team and the players that end up being on the final roster. Ryley is a more exciting returning player than maybe some may expect. He has the youth national team player background, which people will note. But when you look at his contribution on the field and in the locker room, he goes about his business, acts like a pro. Tough enough to play in that part of the pitch. Which is a goal for the entire team this season across the board, to get a little bit tougher consistently. A great example of what Ryley brings is from the match against Chattanooga in September. We were down a man, but we outplayed them. Ryley had nearly 100% passing completion. Quite often making forward passes.

Note: Not only did Kraft have 96.3% passing accuracy playing in a side down a man, but completed over 82% of his passing in Chattanooga’s half of the field.

So there you have part one. The Richmond Kickers return a starting goalkeeper, four defenders with experience playing together, and a very talented young midfielder. Thanks again to Mika for taking the time. Look for part two next week covering Joe Gallardo, Matt Bolduc, Mutaya Mwape, Charles Boateng, Greg Boehme, and Amass Amankona.

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