Swope Park Rangers: Rivals to the North

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

The United Soccer League is in the middle of a growth spurt, as evidenced by the addition of new teams for the 2016 season. The Tulsa Roughnecks FC excitedly welcome in a new regional rival- the Swope Park Rangers (owned by Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer).  Tulsa fans will soon be well acquainted with the newcomers from the north, as the Rangers and Roughnecks will battle at least 4 times in the 2016 season. This is exciting for Tulsa area Roustabout and Cauldron fans, who will now be able to watch the Roughnecks battle with the Swope Park Rangers, as well as attend a Sporting KC match in the same weekend (only a four-hour car ride from Green Country!).

I recently talked with the General Manager of the Swope Park Rangers, Kurt Austin, about all the goings-on at this new club.  Austin has been with Sporting KC’s front office for six years and has had experience handling Sporting’s USL affiliations with both Orlando City and Oklahoma City Energy in the past.  We talked about the new squad (which includes a familiar face from the 2015 Roughnecks team) and expectations for the Rangers in their first year with the USL. Of the announced roster, Tulsans will be most familiar with players such as Christian Duke and Jacob VanCompernolle who both played for Oklahoma City last season, as well as Kris Tyrpak who played for the Austin Aztex in USL last season and most recently for San Antonio in their final NASL season.

On the offensive end, Austin says they’re glad to have Christian Duke back in Kansas City. “He is a product of the Kansas City Academy, born and raised here. He was with Sporting KC and went on loan to the USL to get his first professional experience. Nothing official, but I expect [he] will be wearing the captain’s armband for this season.”

Former Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak is also someone Roughneck fans will need to keep an eye on. “Kris Tyrpak is a guy that’s had a lot of success wherever he’s been,” said Austin. “He started out in the MLS at Chivas USA, before they folded.  He went back to his native Texas in Austin where he scored a lot of good quality goals. We’ve already seen that quality show itself early on in preseason.  He’ll be someone who can carve up a defense, especially paired with Dane Kelly.  We were excited to get him [Kelly], due to his success in the USL [formerly of the Charleston Battery] and he has a high ceiling.  He’ll be able to come in day one and help make our team successful.”

On the defensive side, Austin said their squad is coming together. Jacob [VanCompernolle] will be pushing for starting spot on the back line.  “We have a lot of depth there and had some players step up in the preseason, giving us a lot of competition, which is what you want to see.  If you talk to Coach Marc Dos Santos, that’s exactly what he’s looking for- to see guys pushing each other every day, making Marc’s job tougher to put a line-up sheet together.”  Austin added that two other players that saw a lot of preseason action were goalkeeper Jonathan Kempin and Colombian-international midfielder, Jimmy Medranda. Medranda even saw minutes with Sporting in their first MLS matches.

How is former Roughneck Zac Lubin transitioning to the Swope Park Rangers?  Austin had this to say, “Two things about Zac; on the field he’s been a fantastic addition for us, he has played a lot for us in the preseason and made the most of his opportunities. Secondly, he’s been a great guy in the locker room. He’s had a lot of professional experience and, even though he’s still young at 26, he’s our oldest guy on the team. He’s great at showing the younger players the ropes of playing in the USL and setting the tone in the locker room. He’ll definitely push Kempin for that starting role.”

As an expansion club owned by an MLS club, SPR were always going to a have a strong lean towards development, but Austin said he strives to balance player development with maintaining a competitive team in the USL.  “I believe the two go hand-in-hand.  It’s absolutely about bringing in players who we feel could play for Sporting Kansas City. We look at the age of the players and view their ceiling, from a talent and ability perspective. In order for them to be successful, it comes down to performance. We also approached this from a fan-perspective. We want these guys (who are used to playing in front of their friends and family) to get that experience of playing in front of thousands of fans.  We want to set the bar high and treat this to the utmost professional level we can.”

Austin said he’s excited about playing in the USL.  “Personally, it’s exciting to me.  It’s a league that continues to grow and we’re excited to be part of it.  You don’t have to look far to find some really good rosters. Even the expansion teams, like San Antonio, are bringing in a lot of guys with MLS experience.  The talent of soccer in America is growing and the USL is a great showcase for that.”

Geographically, the USL also has advantages. “If I have to pick one thing I’m most excited about in our inaugural season, it’s that Swope Park Rangers will have several teams (Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Saint Louis) that are all in a reasonable driving distance. To watch those rivalries grow will be the best part of this year. In fact, most rivalry matches are played on Saturdays to accommodate traveling fans in these regional match-ups.”  Austin expressed his excitement for supporters of all teams to come and enjoy the matches at Swope Park, as well as helping their own supporter group “The Zoo” take shape.  This comes as a stark contrast to the lack of regional rivalries for Sporting Kansas City. The nearest opponent to Sporting Park is 8 hours away in Chicago or Dallas.

So far, Swope has had success in the off season, notching a 3-1 win versus Colorado Rapids and a 2-2 draw against Columbus Crew in the Desert Diamond Cup, held in the preseason. The Rangers have a bevy of USL-experienced talent, coupled with the technical staff of a successful MLS franchise.  If Swope Park gets an organically grown supporter culture, than I have no doubt they will join the budding rivalry with Saint Louis, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City.  Swope Park appears to be a team that will compete with Tulsa for one of the eight playoff positions in the western conference.