By Jeff Keeling
Semi-pro soccer’s Tri-Cities debut is just 23 days away, and Otters FC Head Coach David Strickland said he expects to field a competitive team that will give area fans a fun experience at a high level of play. Fans will see a mix of familiar faces – including elite area high school players and current and former college players – and players from further afield.
The Otters, playing in a seven-team division of the Premier Development League (PDL), will play their home opener at Science Hill’s Kermit Tipton Stadium May 13 against Tormenta FC of Statesboro, Ga. As of Monday, Strickland had23 of 26 roster spots filled after selecting from more than 120 hopefuls.
The PDL has nearly 70 teams nationwide, and is known for being the starting point for many current and former players in the U.S.’s top league, the MLS.
“It is going to be a step above, because we’re taking the best of the best,” Strickland said of the level of play. “I think the speed of play will be good, the ability on the ball is going to be better than what’s normally seen around here, so the product on the field’s going to be exciting.”
Some familiar names to area fans will include Lucas Altman and Scott Lich, both Science Hill players. Altman, whose hat trick led Science Hill to a 3-1 victory over Dobyns-Bennett Friday, will play for Wofford next fall. Lich is a junior center back who will play right back in Strickland’s 4-2-3-1 system of play, which uses four back line players and just one striker.
Other local elite high schoolers (most are seniors) playing include D-B midfielder Jordan Broadwater, Tennessee High midfielder Orlando Rosales and Virginia High midfielder/striker Evan Harr, who is committed to play at Carson-Newman next year.
Of Rosales, whose penalty kick goal provided the only scoring in Tennessee High’s April 12 win over Science Hill, Strickland said: “He’s a very talented player, technically gifted.”
The other graduating high school player who will join the team came through a connection with Joe Cordero, who owns the area Amigo’s and Poblano’s restaurants and lives in the Tampa area. Cordero saw Mario Llin playing in a Sunday adult league there and was impressed enough to bring him to the Tri-Cities for a look.
“He is an incredible athlete up top (striker),” Strickland said. “He’s got crazy speed, a great first touch, and he’s so open to learn. Off the field he’s a humble, nice guy and I think he’ll be a favorite on the team.”
The younger players will be joined by some college players and some former college players, with additional familiar names mixing with players from some of the better Division 1 programs in the country. Science Hill graduate Andrew Kenneson, one of three Davidson College players on the roster, will be one of the team’s three goalkeepers. Other Wildcat players include center back Nathan Marder and Hunter Howard, “an excellent midfielder,” Strickland said.
Two players from 2015 NCAA tournament team Dayton University will join the team as well – they are midfielder Carlos Sentin and center back Blake McNeils.
The other goalkeepers are former Science Hill and Milligan College net minder Nick Smith, and King College keeper Kari Sviennsson.
East Tennessee State University, unsurprisingly, is well-represented. Current player and Dobyns-Bennett graduate Warren Austin, recently graduated James Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer last fall, and former All-Conference player Itode Fubara all will don the Otters green and blue, as will former player Guy Reis.
Another source for talent is One7 Ministries, a Charlotte, N.C.-based inner city ministry with a program in Johnson City as well. Founder David Garrett and Strickland are friends, and at least four, possibly five players will come from the program in Charlotte.
“We’ve got one player from Vietnam that’s coming, we’ve got players from Central American countries that are coming who through life have gotten into the One7 program,” said Strickland, whose Science Hill squads have scrimmaged with One7’s teams. “David does a great job of helping these guys, number one play soccer, but get through their schooling, find a good walk with Christ in life, and just go on to be productive citizens.”
Strickland said it’s impossible to gauge how the Otters will stack up against their divisional opponents.
“That is going to be a complete, ‘we’ll see when we get there.’ We think we have some incredible talent coming in, we really do. We seriously have expectations of being in the playoffs.”
The top two in the division make the PDL playoffs, but whether the team advances or not, Strickland said area soccer fans and players should get a treat watching the team and meeting players during the two-month regular season (the schedule is available at ottersoccer.com/2016-schedule).
“Our players will be out at the youth clubs’ trainings and involved in the community, so there’ll be that personal connection, and the Balluffs (club owners Michael and Elizabeth) will provide a great family atmosphere for the games.”