Coming off a national championship in just their second season, Ballard FC is now faced with the monumental task of continuing that success and building on the culture they have established since their inception in 2021. It is going to be a busy off-season for the front office.
Success is hard to sustain for any franchise at any level, but in USL 2 it is especially difficult to field a winning side year after year, largely due to the nature of the roster rules and the high turnover rate among coaches and players. And after winning a championship, next season will present some unique challenges for Ballard both on the field and off.
For one, their title has earned them a spot in the 2024 U.S. Open Cup. While they have not yet received their official invitation to the tournament, the club fully intends to participate, according to co-owner Sam Zisette. While this is a great opportunity and great exposure for the team, it means they will have to build a roster sooner than normal, and they will likely have to scramble to piece together enough players to compete since the Open Cup begins in early spring and the vast majority of USL 2 players are also competing at the collegiate or academy levels. This is a challenge the club assures me they are ready to take on, but they acknowledge that it will be something of a burden for the mostly volunteer-run operation.
“We’re planning to play in U.S. Open Cup,” Zisette said. “We just don’t know what the process looks like yet.”
Meanwhile, they are busy securing sponsorships, beginning early designs for next season’s kits, and generally getting the house in order for another playoff push in 2024.
Rueben’s Brews will be back as the team’s kit sponsor and local partner. Telescope Talent will remain the sleeve sponsor, and negotiations are ongoing with other key local sponsors. Announcements about remaining sponsorship deals will be made throughout the off-season.
Zisette confirms that there will be a new local artist kit in 2024 after the massive success of the Henry (2022) and Dozfy (2023) kits. The 2024 away kit will once again be selected by a fan vote, and there will be a new fan-designed scarf as well. Ballard’s crest, color scheme, and kit designs have won national acclaim, and their merchandising has been an important part of their club launch, so there is good reason to expect exciting things next year.
In terms of players and personnel, the team expects to announce a permanent hiring of head coach this fall. Coach Jason Farrell left the team by mutual agreement during the 2023 season to take a job as an assistant at Seattle University. Farrell notched an 18-4-3 record with the team and earned top USL2 honors.
Assistant coach Ethan O’Neill took over in July and guided the team to the championship. O’Neill is likely a front-runner for the permanent position, but there is no confirmation from the club and a final hiring decision has yet to be made.
Zisette acknowledged that as with the player roster, consistency among the coaching staff is a key challenge for any team at the USL2 level.
“These aren’t full-time jobs. Coaches are often working or coaching elsewhere, so managing those situations can be difficult.” O’Neill, for example, is also coaching the U-19 Seattle United FC side, which can cause scheduling conflicts that need to be ironed out.
All signs indicate that assistant coaches Ben Willis and Amadou Sanyang remain with the team going into next season, adding a nice bit of consistency.
The most complicated aspect of any team is the roster, and in USL2 this is especially true. Most of the players on any USL2 side are college or academy players who are at the start of their careers and are very open to moves at upper division clubs. This season alone, midfielder Danny Robles returned to USL1 side Northern Colorado Hailstorm to finish out their season. Goalkeeper Lars Helleren moved to Colorado Rapids 2, and Forward Alex Mejia signed with Honduran side Llieda. Peter Kingston and Khai Brisco are likely to enter the MLS SuperDraft in January after finishing their senior seasons at University of Washington. Bailey Leatherman and Declan McGlynn are moving on to higher-division soccer as well. These moves, while expected, leave pretty big holes in the roster and could threaten the consistency of the team’s play going into next season. But that is the challenge of running a club at the USL2 level.
Of course, it is also one of the things that makes the league special. Fans get the chance to see a lot of players at the very outset of their careers. Local college players get a chance to play competitive soccer in the off-season before the fall collegiate schedule kicks in, and amateur players can compete to make the roster through open tryouts.
Roster announcements – aside from whatever group Ballard is able to field for the Open Cup – will likely not be made until early spring, but the club is expected to once again draw heavily from local college underclassmen, especially Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University, and University of Washington.
Sounder at Heart will continue to follow Ballard FC’s off-season moves and will cover the team extensively during their summer season and US Open Cup competition.