NATIONAL PREMIER SOCCER LEAGUE: Sockers FC looks to familiar face for new season

MIDLAND Heading into the club’s 11th season, Sockers FC has turned to a familiar face to lead the team.
Former player and assistant coach Johnny Clifford enters his first season as the head coach and he always knew in the back of his mind that he would be back in the Permian Basin.
“When I came here, I fell in love with the club,” Clifford said who is also the men’s soccer head coach at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
“I became close with it and I always knew that I would come back and be the head coach here. Now I feel like it’s a great time for this opportunity.”
Clifford, who played for the team in 2014, went on to become the assistant coach in 2015 and 2016 with the last year featuring the club posting its best year in franchise history when the team captured a conference championship and made its first final four appearance.
“First of all, I’d like to say thanks to (general manager) Jeff VanHolle for having me here,” Clifford said. “This club’s been a big part of my career, both as a player and as a coach. I’m very happy to be here and I’m excited about the squad that we brought in.
“We have 18 foreign guys from 10 different countries on our roster. Their desire to play at the next level is what brought them here and its guys that want to be professional players and they have the want to do that.
Sockers FC, which competes in the National Premier Soccer League’s Lone Star Conference, went 7-2-1 last season.
It opens its 2019 season against FC Denver in a US Open Cup matchup at 7:30 tonight at Grand Communications Stadium in Midland.
This year’s team features a completely different team from 2018.
“I think we have a lot of guys with experience,” Clifford said. “We have players who are seniors on their collegiate teams. We have guys who are battled-hardened and are ready to take on anything.”
One thing the team hasn’t had is many opportunities to practice, with just two prior to Tuesday’s unveiling of the 2019 squad.
“We’re not going to know what we have just yet,” Clifford said. “Not even on (Wednesday). We won’t know until a few games into the season.
“I think we have a lot of heart and already, I have tough decisions to make with who will start.”
With numerous players from different countries on the squad, Clifford said one of the challenges is to find where each members’ strengths and weaknesses lie.
“We have guys from South America and guys from the UK who all have played a slightly different style of the game,” Clifford said. “For me, it’s about getting the guys used to all the different styles.
“I want them to play the game that I want it played but for right now, we’re just focusing on getting to know each other and finding out who is the best at what and getting ready for what’s going to be a really tough game on Wednesday night.”
Among the players on the team is midfielder Aaron Bannister from Manchester, England.
“It’s a great opportunity to play on this team,” Bannister said. “It’s a chance that not many people get and so I’m very blessed for it. It’s great to experience a different culture and even though we’ve only had two practices, it’s been very enjoyable so far.”
Bannister, who played college soccer at Holy Cross College, pointed out that practices have been about everyone on the squad trying to adapt to each others’ style of play.
“It’s very diverse,” he said. “You have the Spaniards and the Brazilians who love their ticy-tack play. You have guys from the UK who can play physical at times. It’s tough to adapt to but we’re coming along.
“All the guys want to be here and everyone has something to prove. It’s one of those things that towards the end of the season, that drive will help us.”
The team’s first Lone Star Conference game will be a 7:30 p.m. contest on May 18 against Katy 1895 FC at Grande Communications Stadium.
But while the players on the squad might be new, the goal hasn’t changed for Clifford.
“I think the goal is to win the conference,” Clifford said. “There are good teams in this conference. It’s arguably very difficult but my goal is to win it. ”
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