When 2,500 people showed up for West Chester United’s second round U.S. Open Cup match against Harrisburg City Islanders last May, it sent a clear message to the board of the local club that a higher level of competition was within reach.
Less than a year later, the club has been announced as the latest entry into the National Premier Soccer League.
“It made an impression,” head coach Blaise Santangelo said of the match the club had only six days notice they would be hosting. “It just seemed like the next logical step for the club.”
While Santangelo knows it will be hard to replicate the atmosphere and the buzz of that Open Cup match against a professional USL side, he said being part of one of the top amateur leagues in the U.S. will provide another opportunity for players who have come up through the club ranks.
“Probably about 65 to 70 percent of the players will end up being college-age players,” he said, noting that the rest of the players will come from the elite men’s team and through open tryouts this spring. “It’s another flavor and another level to offer.”
The existing elite men’s team, which won an amateur national championship in 2015, will continue to compete in the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania. The club also has a U23 program it started four years ago.
Club general manager Mark Thomas said adding the NPSL team will “put a cap on the pyramid” of the full-service club, which serves players from ages 5-18 in recreation (1,600 players) and travel leagues (1,000 players) and an additional 250 players in adult leagues. The club joined the Women’s Premier Soccer League last year, under the name Penn Fusion SA, which is also the name used for its travel teams, which count among its notable alumni Philadelphia Union defender Keegan Rosenberry.
“After we saw the structure and the platform that the WPSL program provided for the women, we knew we already had the foundation in place to do the same for the men,” Thomas said.
While not officially in the U.S. pyramid, the NPSL is considered, along with the Premier Development League (home to Reading United, Ocean City Nor’easters and Lehigh Valley United Sonic) as the top amateur leagues in a mythical fourth division.
In the league’s news release about the expansion announcement, Chairman Joe Barone noted the club’s “tradition of excellence and success.”
“We are happy to have them as part of the NPSL family,” Barone said.
West Chester is one of 22 new teams joining the NPSL this season, which lost 15 teams, and goes into 2017 with 95 total clubs. The league formed in 2003 with six clubs.
West Chester will join the Keystone Conference, which has teams from Upper Darby (Junior Lone Star FC), Hershey (Hershey FC), Bucks County (Buxmont Torch FC), Scranton (Electric City Shock SC) and three other teams from New York and New Jersey.
Their natural rival will be Junior Lone Star FC, about 40 minutes away down Route 3 (West Chester Pike). Junior Lone Star president Paul Konneh said they can’t wait to take their rivalry to a new level.
“Having them in the NPSL is great for both our communities and our respective fans,” Konneh said. “Our games against them are always competitive and entertaining.”
The season runs from May through July. The Clarkstown Eagles won the conference last season with a 10-1-1 record. AFC Cleveland are the defending national champions.