"We're just different," says Ocean City Nor'easters Sporting Director Tim Oswald, reflecting on the particular challenges a club like his faces every year.
He is not suggesting those challenges are necessarily greater than those faced by other teams, nor even that they are unique. But the Nor'easters are certainly different from, for example, the New York Red Bulls U-23 team - a direct competitor in the Mid Atlantic Division of PDL.
For RBNY's U-23s, the annual task is to combine former Academy players now at college with other college-based prospects the club believes might have something to offer its pro teams in future. And RBNY can offer not only professional-grade facilities and coaches to their PDL players, but also the guarantee that they will spend their summer inside a pro club that has the ability to offer contracts to anyone it believes has the ability or potential to succeed as a Red Bull.
The Nor'easters operate on a different model. The club remains independent, without affiliation to any pro team. That means it cannot offer quite the same direct connection to the professional game as the likes of the RBNY U-23s. It also means it is very often rebuilding itself almost from scratch for each season. This year's roster, for example, features just three players from the 2016 squad.
The club's ambitions are the same as any other: it wants to be consistently successful. But that is a difficult trick to pull off when the team is a stepping stone rather than a destination, and even more difficult because it is not a stepping stone on the most direct path to the professional contract most players who opt to summer in PDL are hoping to win eventually.
So the Nor'easters - in common with other independent clubs in PDL and NPSL, the two primary summer league options for players from the college game hoping to win the attention of pro clubs - must look outside the pool of the top-rated college recruits, most of whom will get snapped up by MLS Academy teams (like RBNY U-23s) or their affiliates (like Reading United AC, affiliated with Philadelphia Union).
Ocean City has got quite good at making the best of its circumstances. In the last five years, it has won the Mid Atlantic Division in PDL twice (in 2012 and 2013) and made the final four of the PDL playoffs twice (in 2013 and 2016). Last year, its top scorer, Chevaughn Walsh, was the PDL's MVP - and he was promptly snapped up by Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
To find a certain consistency of results under the circumstances in which it chooses to operate is no small achievement for Ocean City. It is a compliment to the Nor'easters' scouting and recruitment efforts that they regularly unearth pro-level talent, despite fishing in increasingly unfashionable parts of the national talent pool. Walsh came to OCN from Missouri's Jefferson College, for example.
And there is some evidence it is getting better at building a successful roster, despite the perception that the growth of the MLS Academy system makes it harder for teams like Ocean City to land players. In the last three MLS SuperDrafts, 10 former Ocean City players have been selected - almost half the team's all-time total of 21 alumni drafted to MLS squads.
Oswald says the Nor'easters measure themselves by two primary metrics: results and the players they see progress from the club to the pro game. Or as he puts it: "we want to win games in PDL and Open Cup, and we want players signing pro contracts". Consistent with both those ambitions is the desire to play "attractive soccer that puts our players in the limelight."
Ocean City doesn't quite have the luxury afforded RBNY by its Academy: part of the reason the Red Bulls were able to quickly align their entire organization to one playing style in 2015 is because the club has a deep and well-stocked Academy supplemented by its U-23 team, feeding a pro reserve squad in USL and first team in MLS. There is the possibility of continuity for RBNY's best prospects - from the club's youth teams to summers with the U-23s to pro deals with the USL and MLS squads. For OCN, there is the expectation that its best players in a given season aren't coming back: they'll turn pro or pursue opportunities with PDL teams closer to pro clubs in future years.
To compensate for continuity of personnel, the Nor'easters focus their attention - as you might expect - on finding the best all-around players available to them, those who exhibit strong overall aptitude for the game. Per Oswald, that means players who are "tactically savvy, who understand the game; technical players, who can keep the ball; athletic enough to change the game".
PDL teams play a short season: start in May and finished by early August (if they're lucky enough to make the national championship final). Most sides don't play even 20 competitive games in a season, and those that get to 20 or so have enjoyed long playoff runs and some success in US Open Cup. As such, a successful summer would seem to rely heavily on having the right mix of players on the roster from the get-go, and having them gel quickly.
Oswald, however, betrays no hint of feeling any such pressure where OCN is concerned: "We focus on getting better every day," he says. "The goal is to be better at the end of the season than you are at the beginning," he continues, "We want to keep pushing the envelope to be one of the best teams in PDL."
Results in recent years suggest OCN is some distance toward that goal, despite needing almost a brand new roster every season. Oswald stresses that roster-building has been a collaborative effort for as long as he has been associated with the club, including five seasons as head coach from 2012 to 2016. This season, the brains trust behind the team on the field is led by Head Coach John Thompson, Oswald as Sporting Director, and Technical Director Dave Castellanos.
Thompson is considered one of the Nor'easters all-time greats as a player, but 2017 is his rookie season as head coach. That said, he has a long association with the club, and he and Oswald were both assistant coaches for OCN back in 2007. Castellanos was head coach of Reading United from 2013 to 2015, and head coach of Lehigh Valley United last season - both Mid Atlantic Division rivals of the Nor'easters. And Oswald is the winningest head coach in Ocean City's history. Collectively, there is almost a decade of experience of head-coaching in PDL and decades worth of experience of OCN specifically.
If there is a secret to OCN's success, it is surely the depth and continuity of experience of its technical staff. For his part, while insisting the Nor'easters must and does have a collaborative technical team, Oswald does admit that he focuses on "the experience of the player, the quality of the technical staff" - the aspects of the club that help to convince recruits Ocean City has the resources to advance their careers to the pro level.
Founded in 1996, as a pro team - South Jersey Barons - the club moved to the (mostly) amateur PDL in 2003. It is as an amateur side that the club has established its reputation for upsets: knocking off professional opponents in US Open Cup - the only regular event in American domestic soccer that allows amateur and pro teams to test themselves against each other in a competitive setting. The Nor'easters have upset pro opposition five times in their history, starting in 2005 when they beat Long Island Rough Riders (a pro team at the time, now also in PDL) in the second round of USOC. Ocean City's most recent Cupset came in 2013, when the team beat USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the second round and came close to forcing Philadelphia Union into extra time in the third round (Conor Casey scored in the 93rd minute to secure a 2-1 win for the Union after the Nor'easters had equalized in the 91st).
Oswald was Ocean City's head coach from 2012 to 2016, and remembers the 2013 Cup run very well: "To be level in stoppage time with an MLS club at their stadium - with a team that was only three weeks together - is an experience I will never forget, or the players either."
"Only three weeks together" is perhaps the most important part of that memory of OCN's run: US Open Cup is not ideally timed for PDL teams - they tend to start the tournament in May, just as they are getting their rosters together. In this year's first round, OCN played Junior Lone Star, technically a lower-league opponent but in practice a side that had been playing together for several weeks prior to the USOC match on May 10. For the Nor'easters, it was their first competitive game of the season, and they'd had just four training sessions to prepare for it.
After a hot start which brought two goals inside the first 15 minutes, the Nor'easters were becalmed - and Lone Star trimmed the score to 2-1 in the second half. But Ocean City scored a late third to settle any anxiety and assure passage to the second round of the tournament.
"Lone Star really competed," Oswald recalls, "They did a great job of making life difficult for us. At 2-1, the game could have gone either way." The game went OCN's way: "It's a great start to Open Cup and a great start to the season for us," says Oswald.
The win brought the Nor'easters a second-round match against professional opposition: USL's Harrisburg City Islanders - a team that includes a former Ocean City player: Shawn McLaws (also a former New York Red Bulls player, drafted by the MLS team in 2015 and a regular for NYRB II that season).
"We'll be firing on more cylinders," says Oswald of his expectations for the match. More cylinders, certainly, but no team that is still counting its time together in days rather than weeks or months can claim to be at its best. The Nore'easters might be Cupset specialists and will be the home team against HCI, but they will also very much be the underdogs on the day.
But Ocean City is a club that values the Cup, and knows the current roster likely only has a brief time to shine as Nor'easters. The Harrisburg City Islanders match won't be the last game this year's team plays, but it could be the highest-profile match the current squad gets during its summer of soccer on the Shore. As with their predecessors in Nor'easters jerseys, expect the 2017 Ocean City players to do their best to leave a mark on USOC.