By David Rogers. BOONE, N.C. — With temperatures hovering in the high 30s, it was almost cold enough for the persistent rain to be called a “wintry mix.” The three dozen athletes aspiring to gain a roster spot in the 2023 edition of Appalachian FC weren’t concerned about the weather on Feb. 25.
Coming from all over the East Coast and at least as far away as Ohio and New York, the prospects included several returning players from the 2022 season roster. That team earned a 7-1-3 record in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the 97-team semi-professional association regarded as the fourth tier of organized soccer in the U.S. — and it is expanding, adding new teams, for the 2023 season.
Appalachian FC formed in 2021 when the Appalachian State men’s program was disbanded due to budget concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now preparing for its third season, Appalachian FC is looking to build on a post-season appearance in only the second year of existence in 2022, a season that also saw head coach Dale Parker named NPSL “Coach of the Year.”
Returning to lead the program again in 2023, Parker was excited by the upcoming season’s prospects in speaking with High Country Sports after the tryout sessions on Feb. 25.
“Each year, we are getting better skilled and more proficient athletes wanting to become a part of what we are creating here,” said Parker. “Part of it, of course, is the location. For a summer soccer program, it doesn’t get much better than Boone, North Carolina, which we already know as a tourist destination and vacation spot, a place to get out of the oppressive summer heat off the mountain. The rest of it though, is the community support we are receiving here, from the ownership group and sponsors, to the many fans that are attending our games. And when you add to that formula that we want to play a fast-paced, exciting, and attacking style of soccer that is highly entertaining, you get a winning combination.
“For the players, this is a terrific opportunity to display their talents,” added Parker. “Some are trying to get back onto the professional teams by showing their ability to still perform at a high level. Others are on their way up, having graduated from college and wanting to take their game to the next level. Some are still in college, already playing at a high level but wanting to improve their skills through a summer experience. Certainly, the college coaches love it because their guys are going to stay fit and in many cases even improve their level of fitness.”
Parker’s “day job” is as head soccer coach at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., as of January. The former Lees-McRae soccer star was a 2-time All-American while competing for the Bobcats, including helping his team to an appearance in the NCAA Division II national championship game in 2009.
After 12 years supervising a youth soccer program in the Washington, D.C. area of northern Virginia, Parker has advanced fairly rapidly through the college coaching ranks. From 2019 to 2021, he was the lead assistant coach for Lander University, was hired for the 2022 season at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., where in one year he turned around a 2-13-2 program to 10-8-1, advancing to the South Atlantic Conference championship game.
With the retirement of longtime Lander head coach Lee Squires, Parker jumped at the chance to become head coach of the Bearcats when offered the opportunity late last year.
Parker continues to find coaching success with Appalachian FC, now in his third year. In year one, building on a core group of former App State men’s team athletes, Appalachian FC garnered third place in the NPSL’s Southeast Conference. Then, in the program’s sophomore season (2022), the High Country’s finest went on a run that included an NPSL Southeast Conference regular season title, a Southeast Conference tournament championship, and a berth in the NPSL national quarterfinals.
A fixture on the Appalachian FC roster is Max Landau, a fullback who doubles as a graduate assistant for Parker at Lander University. A native of England, Landau has a passion for soccer from a very early age.
“From the time I could walk, I have had a soccer ball at my feet,” said Landau. “I love the game.”
He also is a devotee of Dale Parker.
“I am here because I believe in Coach Parker,” said Landau. “He has created an environment for success.”
When asked about what is primarily responsible for Appalachian FC’s rapid ascent in the NPSL, Landau didn’t hesitate.
“Togetherness,” he explained, in one word. “We have come together from so many different places and so many different backgrounds. Different ethnicities. Some Americans and some international players. Different college programs and different top level backgrounds. But we have one common goal and that is to create the best team possible here in Boone, with Appalachian FC. It is highly athletic and a lot of fun both off and on the field with our attacking, very entertaining style of play.”
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Looms Large
As soon as Appalachian FC settles on its roster, probably within the next two weeks according to Parker’s final address to all of the candidates trying out on Feb. 25, the team will begin to prepare in earnest for an important competitive opportunity: the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a knockout competition that could potentially end with a match against a Major League Soccer opponent. The first round is 14 games from March 21-23, and Appalachian FC has been invited as one of eight NPSL teams looking to advance and learned on Feb. 3 that they will host the North Carolina Fusion Under-23 team in the first round on Wednesday, March 22, at Ted Mackorell Stadium, kickoff time TBA.
Other NPSL teams include El Farolito, FC Motown, Tulsa Athletic, Crossfire Premier, Cleveland SC, and Hartford City FC.
The first round is just an early step in a potential path to playing against professional teams. The first round “open division” winners will be joined in the second round by the full field of non-Major League Soccer professional teams. All of the 14 first round winners are guaranteed a second round matchup against a professional opponent.
ABOUT THE LAMAR HUNT U.S. OPEN CUP
Now in its 108th edition, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – U.S. Soccer’s National Championship – has crowned a champion since 1914 in every year except 2020 and 2021. The history-filled tournament is conducted on a single-game-knockout basis and open to all professional and amateur teams affiliated with U.S. Soccer. In 1999, the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the United States was renamed to honor American soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt.
The 2023 U.S. Open Cup winner will earn $300,000 in prize money, a berth in the 2024 Concacaf Champions League and have its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy – one of the oldest nationally-contested trophies in American team sports – now on permanent display at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas. The runner-up will earn $100,000, while the team that advances the furthest from each lower division will take home a $25,000 cash prize.
Orlando City SC are defending Open Cup champions, having earned the club’s first tournament title thanks to a 3-0 victory against second-division (USL Championship) side Sacramento Republic FC on September 7, 2022 in a Final played before a capacity crowd at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium.