Having never done anything like it, it’s fair to say Richmond Kickers coach David Bulow enjoyed his first taste of putting a squad together.
Given a clean slate to work from after the Kickers’ transition into the third tier of American soccer, Bulow was able to select players for their respective talents, taking into account how they’d fit into a system that never quite took shape during his first half-season in charge in Richmond.
“The process was fun: Getting to know the guys, calling them on the phone before we really made offers, making sure we had a bit of rapport. We did that with every single player,” Bulow said.
“It’s a really good group of guys. [Assistant coach Mika Elovaara] and I say just about every day as we’re warming up that we love this team.”
With Scott Thomsen, Conor Shanosky, Matt Bolduc, Greg Boehme and Braeden Troyer serving as the only five holdovers on a new squad of 27 players, Bulow said it’s been hard work to get a group of relative strangers to play well with each other.
In seven preseason games, the Kickers won just once. There were ties against VCU (twice), Old Dominion and James Madison, and losses to U.Va. and Loudoun United. But the talent on the squad is evident to the players and to the coaching staff, which is retooled with Elovaara joining Bulow on the touchline and Adrian Clewlow returning as goalkeeping coach.
Finishing the preseason with 11 goals scored and 11 goals conceded, the on-field product is certainly headed in the right direction after two goal-barren seasons at City Stadium. But the biggest changes aren’t on the field.
“It’s the culture,” Bulow said, making note of the friendly Jordan vs. LeBron debates at practice, the pranks pulled and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches shared while simultaneously digesting some of March Madness’ finest moments.
“There’s just a good vibe,” the coach said. “Everybody’s learning about each other. That’s what’s different. It just feels like a more cohesive group, it feels like a club. Where [last season] just felt more like a collection of players who were showing up, playing and running off doing their own thing. We seem really together, and that’s the most pleasing part.”
Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald lauded the fresh start that all parties of the club are enjoying, as new ownership takes the reins of a reimagined squad headed by a coach in his first full season.
Fitzgerald has been appreciative of the returning core in front of him, which is comprised of four players who logged minutes in defense last season and another who played chiefly as a holding midfielder.
A year off from finishing in the bottom in the USL in both scoring and goals conceded, the focus will be on the defense to return to the form it showed in 2017 when it kept the Kickers in close games.
“It’s a difficult thing at any club, trying to keep clean sheets,” Fitzgerald said.
“It’s a big thing to focus on, and I think it’s been good for us this preseason so far implementing a new style of play. The quicker we do that and impose our game on other teams, I think that will help us not only attacking-wise and possession-wise, but it will help us defensively as well.”
The matchups remain unknown in part because of the uncertainties of a new league.
After having to keep up with burgeoning soccer empires for the past two seasons in what is now the USL Championship, the Kickers are keeping on the blinders.
“We’re focusing on ourselves,” striker Daniel Jackson said.
“From top to bottom, we have the best USL squad as I look at other teams, too, and I’m confident in what this group can offer. It’s just fine-tuning things that we’re working on, and I think David and Mika have good soccer brains.
“I think we’ll be successful in this league.”