The Madison 56ers will load up the bus and head to Iowa on Wednesday morning with just about a full roster.
"We'll be missing a couple of guys," 56ers coach Jim Launder said, "but we'll be close."
But just about everything else about the team's season opener, a first-round match of the 100th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against the Des Moines Menace of the USL Premier Development League on Wednesday night in West Des Moines, is pretty much an unknown.
That starts with the 56ers themselves.
The reigning National Premier Soccer League Midwest Region champions have only had a few training sessions that included the majority of their players – and those sessions weren't on anything like the artificial turf they'll be playing on Wednesday night at Valley Stadium.
Launder saw two completely different teams in recent days.
"We had just an awful practice (Saturday)," said Launder, whose team advanced to the second round of the tournament in 2011. "It's hard to tell how much was the field – there was mud and thick grass and clumps – but we were bad. I could hardly stand watching it. Then (Sunday), by some miracle we found a better patch of grass, which still wasn't great but wasn't as muddy, and we looked pretty good. We looked decent, we looked like we did last year almost."
That's probably not too surprising, considering 17 players are back from Madison's 2012 team that went 9-3-0 to win the Midwest's Central Division title, took third at the NPSL Final Four and finished 16-7-0 overall.
Included in that group are several core players: strike partners Carlos McCrary of Creighton and Anthony Santaga (Green Bay Notre Dame) of Hartford and midfielder Jack Keeling and center back Matt Balshaw, who are teammates at Jamestown (N.D.). McCrary had 17 goals and seven assists and was named the NPSL Player of the Year last year; Santaga had 13 goals and seven assists; Keeling added six goals and four assists; and Balshaw anchored the backline.
Santaga will meet up with the team in Des Moines – he had to take a semester final exam on Tuesday in Connecticut before traveling back to the Midwest – and likely will start, Launder said. He's coming off a great spring exhibition season, as is University of Wisconsin defender-midfielder Carl Schneider (Madison La Follette).
Several players who figure to contend for starting spots, though, won't be heading to Iowa. UW midfielder Derek Pitts (Middleton) and goalkeeper Max Jentsch (Hartland Arrowhead) and UW-Milwaukee defender Andrew Stone (Green Bay Preble) and midfielder Luke Goodnetter (Brookfield East) have academic commitments, while veteran defender Sean Ronnekleiv-Kelly – a general surgery resident at UW Hospital and Clinics – has work obligations.
In the long run, that might be a blessing. The 56ers will travel home Thursday, then play Eau Claire Aris FC in their NPSL opener Friday night at Breese Stevens Field. And if the 56ers advance in the Open Cup, the schedule would get busier: Wednesday's winner plays at North American Soccer League's Minnesota United FC in the second round Tuesday.
"Almost no matter what the outcome (against Des Moines), I'll rotate on Friday," said Launder, the only coach the 56ers have had since the NPSL started in 2005. "I might rotate differently depending on the result. But we built our team with that in mind, rotating, because we play a bunch of two-game weekends."
The Menace have one match under their belts already, having played a 1-1 draw at the Springfield Demize in their PDL season opener Saturday night. Defender Taylor Diem (Middleton), who played for the 56ers in 2009, set up David Santamaria's 29th-minute opener for Des Moines in its debut under coach Mike Jeffries.
"They got a game in, that helps them, but we do have a lot of guys who played together last year coming back. We'll see what happens," Launder said. "The biggest thing is I don't want this game to get everybody all upset for the rest of the year if we aren't successful. And if we are successful, I don't want it to throw us off for the league."
From the touchline
The site of the second-round match originally was announced as the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., but that field is unplayable and the game instead will be played at the University of Minnesota's Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium in St. Paul. ... The other seven NPSL teams went 1-5-1 in the first round Tuesday night, with the Georgia Revolution's 4-3 victory over visiting PDL side Real Colorado Foxes the lone win. Chattanooga FC played the host Carolina Dynamo to a thrilling 4-4 draw that featured goals for both teams in the final 5 minutes of extra time, but were ousted 4-1 on penalty kicks. ... SV Blau-Weiss Wiehre Freiburg (22-3-4), which plays the 56ers in a friendly May 25 at Breese Stevens, needs a win or a tie in its season finale Saturday against second-place FC Portugiesen Freiburg to win the Kreisliga B Staffel 3 in the 10th division of German soccer. SV Blau-Weiss Wiehre has outscored opponents 107-30 on the season, and also will play Quad City, the PDL's Chicago Inferno and Chicago amateur club Green-White during its U.S. tour. ... The 56ers' other European opponent this year, the University of Portsmouth, finished 10-22-0 and 16th in the 17-team Hampshire Premier League – part of the 11th division in England. The team, which visits Breese Stevens on July 2, did win three of its final four matches.
Madison's English contingent has grown to five, with UW-Milwaukee's Laurie Bell and Florida Southern's Luke Jenner joining the Jamestown trio of Keeling, Balshaw and midfielder-defender Dominic O'Connor – Bell will only be with the team for the first part of the season before returning home.
The 56ers' first Costa Rican player is Maximiliano Campos, a 23-year-old attacking midfielder from San Jose who spent time with the Deportivo Saprissa youth setup.
Two other newcomers have college teammates on the 56ers: midfielder Keenan Parsons played with Stacy Terry at Huntingdon (Ala.), while forward Jade Johnson is another Jamestown player. Defender Bryan Minogue is a 24-year-old New York native who played at Providence, while keeper Logan Ketterer (Racine Prairie School) plays at Bradley.
Stone and Goodnetter both spent time with the 56ers in 2011 and played for the Milwaukee Bavarians last summer.