It has been a long time since Little Rock Rangers senior team players set foot on the turf at War Memorial Stadium. The pandemic has slowed many things about life and sport but one thing that is moving full steam ahead is the continued transition to USL2 and the upcoming Spring season.
For Rangers Technical Director Ante Jazic and Head Coach Will Montgomery, the transition has been a work in progress that takes the next step this weekend – beginning to fill out the inaugural roster.
“I'm excited about the transition,” Jazic said. “Just with our short interaction with USL on the technical side, it is extremely organized, and we have had great workshops for the technical staff, so I've been really impressed. I think we're going to have to be far more professional in terms of everything we do and the way we conduct ourselves. So, it's going to be a big step forward - one that I'm excited about. Obviously, hopefully we can attract a higher level of talent to these tryouts. USL franchises are basically the paths to become pros, so this is a steppingstone for a young hungry kid that wants to take the next step in the game and hopefully Rangers will be a destination where we see a lot of young talented players come through who are trying to achieve that dream of playing professional soccer.”
Montgomery has been doing what we all have been doing – becoming a Zoom professional. Meetings with players searching for those who fit the Rangers style of play and culture on and off of the pitch plus watching a ton of film have consumed his days and nights over the last few months.
“We're looking to hit the ground running in our first year so I'm definitely looking for quality players. Many of the resumes are impressive and some of the backgrounds of play and training have been as impressive as far as the academies that have come from. What I am really keen on is not just having a player, but a player that's looking to become a professional. I've been doing a bunch of Zoom calls since November. It is a formal interview process, where I get to ask them questions about them as a person and then they get to ask us about our organization and tell us what they want to do. One question I always ask is where do you see yourself in three to four years? All of them say, being a professional player. That means a lot to me because I know that when they come here, that is how they're going to carry themselves - as a professional. That's what we're looking for - players who want to play at a higher level of professional soccer somewhere.”
This weekend’s tryouts will have 50 players ranging in experience and age. All in an effort to begin to assemble a roster that will work towards a championship in what is anticipated to be a highly competitive and very talented USL2 Central Conference’s Mid-South Division.
“I'm looking to complete three fourths of my roster (from the 50-players trying out this weekend),” Montgomery said. “What I mean by that is, I have some players on my radar, who are international players who have a strong pedigree having worked their way up through youth academies, but I'm looking for some local players here in the Little Rock MSA and the state of Arkansas, to fill some holes, and I'm hoping that we can find some players who have the ability to do what we want them to do as far as the level of play. There are some players here locally who are awesome players that can do that and I hope they come and participate in the tryout. After that, I may have some trial dates for some players, who will come in for a three-day trial and see how well they do. If they perform well, I might pick them up. As far as a roster spots, I'm trying to leave my roster flexible in the sense that I have some needs in some areas on the pitch. I also have some secure positions from players who play with the Rangers previously. So, it's a good situation for me to have, because I have four or five previous Rangers coming back.”
These tryouts and those trial dates for collegiate players, especially the Division 1 players still participating in their spring seasons are going to be very important for especially when you consider the roster rules for USL2 which include a maximum of 10 foreign players and 10 overage players (players who were born before December 31, 1996). You can have an unlimited player pool to choose from but the 26-player game day roster that will be submitted before each match must fall within those two guardrails.
“Obviously we're looking for talented players that are game changers that can then take the program forward immediately,” said Jazic who played on the Canadian national team as well as clubs in Croatia, Austria and Russia before ending his playing career in Major League Soccer. “In that respect, those type of guys probably won't be with the Rangers long term. Hopefully, they're moving on to either USL League One or USL Championship, whatever it may be. Our task is to then find a balance of the up-and-coming youngster who maybe spends three or four years with the Rangers. On top of that looking for local guys that grew up playing in Central Arkansas or in Arkansas, and who we can build the club around. Now obviously each year you're going to add pieces to that and bring players from out of state, but I'd like to ultimately through our Academy develop a core bunch of players that are part of Rangers on and off the field in the growing the presence in the community. That's my main objective. But obviously, in the short term, we're looking for results. You want to be competitive and if there's a player that performs who stands out in tryouts- we're going to select that guy, and each player now owns their own path, whether that's a year with the Rangers or several years.”
The future of Rangers is a labor of love for Jazic and where a large part of his focus lies. The ability to compete year in and year out depends on growing and developing players from the very youngest to those who could contribute in 2021.
“It's all about development. What we're doing at the youth level with youth programming from one year old’s all the way up – we are trying to develop our brand, build our brand and have a pipeline a pathway from our academy into the first team. It's going to take a few more years for that, but I see a community that's hungry for soccer that has a passion for soccer and our whole philosophy is to move the game forward in Central Arkansas that's going to take time, but hopefully we have the infrastructure here that we're going to develop and start developing a player pool that eventually will be part of our long-term vision for our USL team.”
The future is now in 2021 though for Rangers with the first USL2 season just two months away. Montgomery has seen the level of player interested in Rangers increase tremendously. From international players to former national team players for their country asking about roster spots. The quality of the player has increased. That increase in quality in player means an increase in the expectation of the Montgomery, his staff and the entire Rangers organization as a whole.
“I want to be competitive right now. It's a new conference, new teams, different styles of play. I believe, two teams, us, and Mississippi are only two teams outside of Texas. So, I'm expecting a Spanish flair style of play that plays well into what how our style of play is. Our goal is to compete for a title in our first year plain and simple. The entire organization will step up to give us a chance to do that – I have no doubt.”
Being competitive begins this weekend. Montgomery anticipates a full roster announcement by mid-April as friendly matches begin ahead of the USL2 season kickoff versus Houston FC in the Capital city on Wednesday, May 12.
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