The long offseason carries on, and while we have a general idea that the season will begin in late April/early May, we don’t yet have the exact date of when the USL League One season will kick off. Fortunately, though, the Kickers have been consistently announcing signed players for the 2021 season, giving all of us something to grasp onto in the meantime. Let’s take a look to see where the team is at in the announced roster building phase (they almost certainly have other guys signed and/or lined up already, it’s just not officially official and publicly announced yet) and what you can hope to see as the roster fills out of the coming weeks.
Akira Fitzgerald, Austin Aviza
Fitzgerald, the starting goalkeeper the last two seasons for the Kickers, will return for year 3 as the presumptive #1 in goal. Akira started all 16 games for the club in 2020, only missing the second half of the season opener due to a slight early game injury that left fans worried that the season was doomed inside the first hour. Thankfully, it was nothing to worry about and he bounced back to tie for the league lead in saves (whether that’s a good thing in the bigger picture is a debate for another time). This season he’ll have even more on his plate off the field, as he was named Goalkeeper Coach for the team.
Aviza joined the Kickers this week from Orlando City B, where he started 11 games for a team that did not provide a ton of support for their keepers. Austin finished tied for the league lead in saves with his new teammate/coach Akira Fitzgerald, showing there’s some potential there in the right environment. He’s a young guy, having finished his college eligibility in 2019 at Providence College following stints at UConn and Syracuse (guy must really like awful winters) and then getting drafted in the second round of the 2020 MLS Superdraft. Depending on the source, he’s anywhere from 6’2”-6’4”, so when we do see him, it will certainly be a different look in goal than what we get from Akira. I’d expect him to get a handful of games this year as an opportunity to establish himself as one for the future in Richmond.
Ian Antley, Devante Dubose, Esteban Calvo, Jalen Crisler, Nathan Aune
There are plenty of questions surrounding the defense going into the 2021 season. Captain Kyle Venter has retired and gone into coaching in the collegiate ranks, and 2019 All-League player Wahab Ackwei has left for Loudoun United after a mixed bag of a performance in 2020. I’ll maintain that the turning point in the season actually took place in Omaha when Antley went down with what was ultimately a season ending injury. He’s back, as is Devante Dubose, who suffered a season ending injury of his own early on. How they recover and how the replacements adapt could very well determine where the season heads.
It’s safe to say that prior to his injury in late September, Ian Antley was a standout performer for the Kickers and on the path to follow in his twin brother’s footsteps as USL Defender of the Year. Playing primarily as a right back, Antley showed not only a great top speed, but a motor to match. He wasn’t all just physicality though (but seriously, have you seen the flexing pic? Cut from steel), he had the ball skills to match. He provided 3 assists in 9 games, and set up numerous other dangerous opportunities. An item to note is that he was actually playing quite a bit at left back last preseason, which could potentially be on the cards again.
Devante Dubose is also back for his second season with the Kickers. As mentioned, he also suffered a season ending injury, only making 2 appearances before being sidelined. He’s another right back with wheels, and I have to believe that part of Darren Sawatzky’s plan was to have Dubose and Antley flying up and down the wings together causing havoc. Based on the highly scientific research of following his Instagram stories, it looks like the recovery is going superb and he appears to be in incredible shape heading into preseason.
Esteban Calvo joins the Kickers in 2021 having played last year for FC Tucson. That pipeline has worked well in the recent past, since the club plucked Sawatzky and Venter from there a year ago. He’s a Costa Rican right back who played 14 times for Tucson a year ago. Kickers fans will best remember him as the villain who headed Mutaya Mwape’s shot off the line in stoppage time. Of course, that led to Victor Falck’s equalizer on the corner moments later, so I suppose we can forgive him for that one. He’s the third guy who is nominally a right back, and I don’t see teams at this level going three deep at that spot, which leads me to believe one of them is either shifting to the left or into a center back role.
Jalen Crisler is one of the two most recently announced new signings for the team. He’s a big guy at 6’4”, and he’s a center back. We’re going to ignore that he made a questionable life choice in 2020 going to play in Madison (or suburban Milwaukee as it turned out) and welcome him as one of Darren’s Washington pipeline guys. He spent the prior season with Detroit City after playing in college at Gonzaga, where he was an all-League performer.
He’ll surely be competing with Nathan Aune, another 6’4” center back from Washington who played in League One in the Midwest in 2020. Darren’s got a type I guess. Aune spent last year with Union Omaha after playing in 2019 with Reno. He was also an all-league defender in college, so the pedigree is strikingly similar between the two.
There will almost certainly be at least a couple more additions to the backline before the start of camp. While the new guys have potential, a veteran presence in the middle would probably be helpful. Left back is also up for grabs, and a “pure” left footer could be of use there, whether as a starter or a reserve.
Victor Falck, Matt Bolduc, Jonathan Bolanos, Mumbi Kwesele, Nil Vinyals
First, it’s important to note that who is considered a midfielder in Sawatzky’s system can be a matter of opinion. Some like to say the wide players in a 4-3-3 are really midfielders, and others say they are forwards. For the purpose of this piece, I’m going by what’s listed on the team website. There is one exception to this rule, which I’ll highlight when we get there.
Victor Falck was the iron man for the Kickers last year, leading all field players with 1383 minutes players out of a possible 1440. His most memorable moment was the aforementioned stoppage time equalizer against Tucson, but his best moments were consistently the ones that went unnoticed. Falck anchored the defensive midfield, already a fairly unglamorous position, in a simple way that allowed others the freedom to create and show more flair. He’s a bigger guy who looks like he shouldn’t be quick, and yet he’s right there in the right moment. He’s good with the ball too, connecting on nearly 80% of his passes, and almost 60% of his long balls.
The academy product had a great rookie season and should be a cornerstone for 2021. The interesting piece here is that he’s listed on the website as a defender. We’ll see if that’s a sign he’s getting moved to the backline.
Matt Bolduc is the veteran of the team now at the ripe old age of 26. He’s now in his fifth season with the Kickers, having worked his way up from a reserve to an important contributor. He’s a guy who can play all over the field, but appears to thrive on the wing where he can use his speed to cause trouble for left backs. Don’t believe me? Just ask Tyler Polak from Greenville. Bolduc provided a goal and three assists last year, and there’s no reason to expect those numbers to drop. The other thing that I personally like about Matt is that he plays with an edge on the field. You don’t want everyone on your team like that, but you need a few guys with that attitude and he definitely brings it.
Whereas we have Bolduc typically burning down the right side, Jonathan Bolanos takes care of the left. He started strong in his rookie season last year, assisting Terzaghi on opening day, but fell into a little bit of a slump midseason before storming back at the end of the year, capped by a two goal performance against Orlando. The key for this season will be a little more consistency. The potential is there to be the type of guy who can move up a level in my opinion, and it’s now just a matter of putting the pieces together.
Mumbi Kwesele returns for his second year as another of Sawatzky’s western legion. Last year he was a do it all utility man in the defense, usually helping to lock in the midfield. His most memorable contribution, for me at least, actually came as a right back, deputizing for Antley in Omaha for what was undoubtedly the high-water mark of the season. His versatility will likely come in handy again this year. Mumbi is also one of those guys you always see smiling. He’s a passionate guy on the field and off, already integrating himself into the coaching and training world this offseason.
As of now the only new face in the midfield, Nil Vinyals joins the team from Tormenta. Nil is a Spanish central midfielder who moves the ball around the field, having completed 88% of his passes in his first two years as a professional. He also added a goal scoring element to his game last season, putting the ball in the net 4 times. Impressively, all four came on shots from outside the penalty area. I think there’s a very strong chance that Nil will quickly establish himself as a starter in the midfield and help to create chances for the forwards that we’re discussing next.
There’s still depth needed in the midfield, but that’s sure to come. Personally, I’d like to see another box-to-box high energy guy and a more traditional creative attacking midfielder at a minimum, as that would give the team a diversity of options in how they approach any opposition.
Emiliano Terzaghi, Oalex Anderson, Luke Pavone, Stanley Alves, Hernan Gonzalez
First-team all-league. Golden Boot. MVP.
There are many ways to describe Emiliano Terzaghi. The Argentine forward took the team and the league by storm last year, scoring 10 times and being the central point of emphasis for the attack. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the fastest guy, but damn if he isn’t one of the most effective guys to ever come through Richmond. Defenses will surely be focusing on him in 2021, but he’s still going to get his, and with some of the other weapons available, it may become a matter of picking your poison on what to take away from the Kickers offense.
The only question surrounding Emi is if he starts on the forward line or drops a little deeper into the attacking midfield role. Personally, I felt the offense stalled a little bit when Emi dropped deeper to find the ball last year, so I’d prefer to see him as close to the goal as possible.
Another one of Sawatzky’s northwest pipeline, Oalex Anderson joined the team midseason last year and made an immediate impact. He won multiple penalties and scored twice himself down the stretch. While Terzaghi might not be the fastest guy, Anderson might actually be. The St Vincent international (remember, he scored early against the United States in our first World Cup Qualifier last cycle) provides a nice contrast to the other options available up front, and I anticipate that he’ll be a breakout player in the league this season.
Luke Pavone is the definition of a high energy player. When he’s on the field, you can pretty well bet that he’s going to be going all out and making life a pain for the opposition. Last season he primarily played in a central role up front, harassing defenders and opening up space and opportunities for Terzaghi. The next step for him in 2021 is to convert his contributions into goals. If he does that, just watch how the space starts to open up for everyone around him.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen me talk about how I felt Stanley Alves was the most hurt out of all the guys on the roster last year by the shutdown. In the preseason he couldn’t miss, continually popping up in the right place. Unfortunately, he picked up an injury and it took him a little while to get back to fitness once the season began. He finally got his goal in the penultimate game at Orlando, and I’m hopeful that will be a catalyst for him moving forward. He brings some size that the rest of the returning attacking corps doesn’t, and the positioning piece we saw last year doesn’t just disappear.
Hernan Gonzalez is the latest signing, announced today. Look, I don’t know much about him. He’s bounced around leagues in South America. He’s about 6’2” or so according to the internet. What I do know is that a year ago, Sawatzky and his contacts found Emiliano Terzaghi in the lower leagues of Argentina. He turned out more than a little ok if you ask me. Gonzalez will have a compatriot here already to help his transition, and Darren has earned the benefit of the doubt on international signings so far. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what Hernan brings on the field. Anyone getting the nickname “El Tanque” probably has quite the presence.
I’d be surprised if we saw any more forwards added unless it is a developmental prospect. The diversity of options right now is exciting; the crafty guy, the fast guy, the workhorse, the poacher, and the big man. Darren will have plenty of options for how he wants to approach each game.
So, there you have it, a quick (or not) look at what we know thus far about the 2021 Kickers. The one thing we really know is that this will probably be outdated within a day or two, which just means more exciting Richmond Kickers news is on the way.