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Inaugural Season Comes To A Close

This article was originally written by Tim O'Neil of the Telegraph Herald and published on Sunday, July 29th.

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There’s no telling how high Union Dubuque F.C. could have climbed in the standings with a few more matches.

That feeling leaves a good taste in the mouth of everyone associated with the expansion club, which last weekend finished its inaugural season.

The club certainly went out with a bang, scoring eight goals in its final home match of the season.

That should give everyone involved a huge boost of confidence going into the team’s second season.

“Overall it was a success. I don’t think there’s any denying that,” Union manager Jon Denham said after the team concluded its opening season 5-10 overall and 4-6 in the United Premier Soccer League Midwest Conference Central Division. “I spent most of my time thinking about being 4-6 in the league and knowing we could have had a few more points or a few more wins among those six losses.”

Union won four of its final seven games and tied for fourth-place in the six-team division. All after losing seven of its first eight matches.

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“We’re going to be back better next year,” said club president and founder Cliff Conrad. “The way the season turned around after a couple unfortunate results, to finish strong gives not only hope that the performance will be better next season, but leaves everyone with a good taste, so thanks to everyone who came out and supported.”

Despite a sub-.500 record, Dubuque was much closer to first place than last.

Two of those league losses came to division champion RWB Adria, which erased a 4-1 deficit to beat Union, 5-4, on June 15 at Dalzell Field.

Even though Union lost two of its next three matches — all friendlies — that loss to Adria was the turning point in the season.

Dubuque’s 1-0 win over the Des Moines Wanderers on June 23 kick-started the surge as Union finished the season with four consecutive home victories, including wins over the teams that finished second and third in the division.

“My message to them at the time was that I’m not afraid to play anybody in the second half of the season and I kind of asked the guys to sort of stick with me,” Denham said. “We only had one win at the time and I was trying to make sure they understood how close we were to having some more success on the field in that first half of the season. As a result of that, and then sticking with it, that really translated into a better second half of the season.

“They certainly could have chosen a more negative or a more harmful-to-the-team attitude, and they didn’t do that. I give them a ton of credit for that because that’s something that certainly was an option and we were able to keep everybody going the right direction and turn it into more wins in the second half of the year.”

Increasing the team’s chemistry was certainly a key component in the turnaround after the team drew roughly 30 players from all across the region, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Madison, Wis.; and the Quad Cities area.

They also had to overcome personal rivalries from college. Players from Loras College, the University of Dubuque, Clarke University and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville went from rivals to teammates in a short span.

“We were all enemies at first and coming together, we don’t know our playing styles,” said UW-Platteville’s Logan Rinderknecht, who led Union with five goals this season. “Once we learned each others’ playing styles and once everyone was able to come to every practice and come to every game, we learned how each other played and intensity in practice picked up a lot more.

“Knowing that, ‘Hey, this is our first season, we’ve got to turn this around,’ I think everyone worked harder and harder and everyone was passionate about finishing out this season.”

Now, there’s another layer to the tri-state rivalries when the college seasons kick off in the fall.

“It will be more fun now that we know them,” said Dubuque’s Chris Rigby, who scored three goals for Union this season. “It will be even trickier because we know how they play and even with a couple Platteville guys, that’s going to make it even more fun, too.”

The college coaches see the benefit, too.

“It fills a great void that I think we had, especially in the summertime,” UD coach Brad Johnson said during Union’s 8-1 victory over Joliet United in its home finale. “It’s an opportunity, not only for the college players to come out and continue their training, but also the youth players in the area to be able to come out and watch soccer at a good, high level and a competitive level. So it’s a benefit for the community. It’s great.”

Conrad said the team is in the process of determining its home field for next season. Conrad hasn’t ruled out a return to Dalzell, but the cost of renting the stadium amounted to more than 20 percent of the team’s annual budget.

The only other changes Conrad and Denham foresee for next season will be minor and either aim to help enhance the game-day experience for fans or tweak the on-field product.

Conrad said the team drew roughly 1,500 fans total this season.

“As a whole it went at least as well as I could have expected,” he said. “Especially going into the first game, you don’t know what the support’s going to be like and now that we’re a little way afterwards, the support we have is good. As far as quality goes, it’s great. You always want a larger number of supporters, but the ones we do have are committed … so it’s really exciting.”

As the season progressed, the fans got more and more into the team.

The fan support group, Uncle Julien’s Army, evolved as the season progressed, adding signs, drums and even colored smoke bombs for the final couple games of the season.

“The people that showed up enjoyed themselves and us scoring goals obviously helps that,” Denham said. “The weather didn’t help us in the beginning, but it’s always going to be that way in the spring and summer. Looking around the league, if you had to pick among those six teams, we were probably right at or near the top in terms of attendance on a regular basis and getting north of 200 people to every game is a big deal at this level.

“I hope it just continues to grow. It was always fun to see it progress. That’s something that I hope people catch on to and realize. Having the sign and the smoke bombs and things like that, it all helps. If you can sort of lay the foundation, all of that stuff helps in the long run. The quality of play and players and all that sort of stuff is a good combination for soccer fans who want to be a part of something a little higher up the ladder.”

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With a few expected changes, Denham expects the bulk of the roster back to make a push for the top spot in the division next season.

Graduation and post-college job offers are expected to cut at least a few players from Dubuque’s roster for next season. Denham estimated two-thirds of the players would return next season.

Some, like Rinderknecht — who will be a senior at UW-P in the fall — will have to wait and see where they will be next summer.

“It’s up in the air right now,” said Rinderknecht, a Cedar Rapids native who has been commuting to Dubuque three times a week since the season began. “I hope to be back and hopefully most of these guys are kind of feeling the same. We built a team that we love being around.

“But kind of where work ends up. If I’m able to get something in this area, that would be great so I can come back and play with these guys.”

Denham, Conrad and players all extended thank-yous to fans and everyone else associated with the team.

“I have a tremendous appreciation for the fans and the volunteers,” Denham said. “It’s an expansion thing, we didn’t know how it was going to go and we pulled it off pretty well. That’s the biggest thing.

“I’m thankful for the people who made it work, whether it was Cliff and the board or my wife and his wife and everybody else that sort of volunteers and puts the blood, sweat and tears into it.”

Copyright, Telegraph Herald. This story cannot be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior authorization from the TH.

Cliff Conrad