Go behind the scenes with Utica City FC as a part of our Summer With The City interview series! 

We spoke with Utica City FC General Manager Tommy Tanner and Head Coach Hewerton Moreira to recap the 2023-24 season. While Utica City FC ended the regular season in the second place position in the Eastern Conference with a 16-7-1 record, they fell to the Kansas City Comets in the first round of the 2024 Ron Newman Cup Playoffs.

The 2023-24 season was one filled with a ton of excitement, wins, and progression before coming to a halt in the playoffs vs. Kansas City. If you had to describe the season in one word, which would you use?

Tommy: Exciting. From our home opener all the way through winning our first six games in the month of December, every game we played in was an exciting game that came down to the end. 

Hewerton: For me, it's more bittersweet. I'm with Tommy on how exciting we played— we were very competitive. We improved in a lot of different areas from last year to this year. 

That was great, but obviously, at the end, I still feel that we could have gone further. I know the potential that the team had and how much we grew not only preparing for this season, but in competition.

During the playoff matchup vs. Kansas City, Head Coach Hewerton Moreira, Franck Tayou, and Nilton de Andrade represented the United States as a member of the US National Men’s Futsal team and Emmanuel Belliard with the Dominican Republic National Team. Their absence was felt during the series versus the Comets and some fans voiced their displeasure. Walk us through that experience.

Hewerton: I think the team was prepared for playoffs. I think it's unfair to the entire team and the players that stayed to say that that was the major factor why we didn't win the game against Kansas City. I think that was multiple things— we prepared the team well enough from the beginning of the season to playoffs and were very confident that the team would make playoffs. From the beginning of the season we were saying that we got get better for playoffs because you knew we were going to make it... not in a cocky sense, but more in a confident approach. 

Obviously, missing Franck Tayou and Nilton [de Andrade] especially because they were goal scorers impacted us, but you cannot forget the fact that we had other players that scored our goals. Also, we added Kelvin [Oliveira] which gave us a great look as well and somewhat fulfilled the role of Franck [Tayou] because both are targets. 

Changes are hard. When you make those changes during playoffs, I understand how the team and fans can somewhat feel about all the coaches leaving or the players leaving. But, again, that was planned throughout the season. We knew that would happen. 

Qualification to [FIFA] Futsal [World Cup] is once every four years. And those players that left to represent the United States, their country... sometimes, you never know, it might be the one opportunity in their whole career. I don't blame them for accepting. I accepted myself, my role, because that's my position. Along with Utica, I'm the head coach for the national team. 

It's a privilege to represent this country. So it's something that I don't think is fair to on the players— put it on me, fine. It is my responsibility because I also select the players. Put the responsibility and blame on me for losing in the playoffs. If anybody in the crowd or supporters had the same opportunity, they would have done it. Obviously, it's not ideal, but I left with a lot of confidence that the team would get the result and get it done. We played well both games. It came up to the detail.

Tommy: When Hewerton first came to us last summer to have this discussion about him being the U.S. National Futsal coach, we knew that there could be some conflicts and we tried to work through some of those conflicts during the season. He had a training camp during the middle of the week where none of the players missed it. We didn't know who was gonna be on that team (referring to Franck and Nilton). We actually didn't know when the Concacaf Cup was going to be, so we didn't know how it was going to affect our season. 

To me, it was a great opportunity for him [Hewerton] to better himself. To be fair, our players probably wouldn't have missed games had the season ended on the scheduled date on March 24th. Conflicts came up with other teams not being able to finish in time and we couldn't play our first game until April 15th because of IIHF Women's Worlds. We really could have had that first series over with by that point.

The team was well prepared. We could have won in Kansas City. We had a free kick right there at the end to win the first game. We're up 3-1, we're up 4-2... we had had a three-on-one, so we had plenty of chances to win Game 2 [vs. KC] and it just so happened that we don't finish. They end up getting a power play and now, all of a sudden, instead of the game being 5-2 and the game probably being over, now it's 4-3. This is indoor soccer and crazy things happen... I just think that we were unfortunate with some of the bounces. We would have hoped to do better, but, you know, it's indoor soccer.

Speaking of Franck: after his offseason acquisition, Franck Tayou settled in nicely for UCFC. He tallied 49 points (second in the league), 30 goals (fourth in the league), and 19 assists (eighth in the league) to average 2.2 points per game (eighth in the league). How much of an addition was he to the offense and overall makeup of the team?

Tommy: It's crazy when you give me Franck's stats because early on in the season... I wouldn't say he struggled, but he hit the post numerous times. There were so many times he could've had four or five points and he had one or zero. 

Franck settled in really well at the end of the season. He was in a groove and I think the game against Monterey, he really played out of his mind. He scored, what, six goals at home vs. St. Louis? Unbelievable.

He's a really, really good person and we're hoping we have him back next season.

Hewerton: It helps a lot having a player on a caliber of Franck's level on the team. Two seasons ago, we didn't have a target player on Franck's profile that could be dangerous in multiple areas.

Sure, there might have been some defensive liabilities at the beginning of the season, but that was him adapting to our style of play. On our team, everybody must defend. Everybody has to be a two-way player. 

It's not that I don't believe in a defensive runner for a player like Franck, I just believe that I can help Franck to understand his role. If I have a player on the field that is dangerous, I want to have him on the field multiple times. I want to help Frank to understand how to defend an offense third and generate his own goals out of a turnover, right? 

It's not at all that he didn't produce— it just didn't show on his stats at the start how much of a dangerous player he is. Sometimes, he's drawing attention and other players on our team will take advantage of it. Keaton [Woods] was scoring, Nilton [de Andrade] was scoring.

Also, having a player like Franck helps to raise the level of professionalism on the team. 4X MVP but he's one of the first ones in [the Utica University] Nexus [Center]. Always working out, one of the last ones to leave. He kept bothering me or Tommy to come back to the building because he wanted to do something extra or go to the gym again, or use the ice bath and hot tub. 

That helped other players to go to the same level to raise up their standard. Sometimes, players in the past were taking everything the organization provides for granted. And then, you see a player that decorated that wants to win a championship... he comes in with a standard of like, "that's just what we've gotta do."

It was very important for us to have Franck for the process. Like Tommy said, I feel excited to have him back next season. I think next season he gonna produce off the bat because now he understand the system, he knows the players and everything.

We saw a more consistent rotation in goal this year between Andrew Coughlin, Brian Wilkin, and Julian Rodriguez. Talk about their performance this year, how Wilkin and Rodriguez stepped up, and what that meant to have multiple viable options in backstopping the team.

Tommy: Obviously, Andrew had a few injuries there. Coach [Hewerton Moreira] had a lot of confidence in Brian [Wilkin] and Julian [Rodriguez]. 

In my opinion, they can be starters in this league. They've played well enough and the goalkeeping situation in our league is difficult. We were confident in all three of our keepers and they all played very well in their own right– they all do things a little bit differently. 

Hewerton: When I got to Utica last year, I tried to get a goalkeeper coach, but it's hard to find one that's available to move just for the season or find someone local.

We come [in to practice] early in the morning and they wake up earlier than the players. They come here and they work out two to three times a week with goalkeeper sessions with me. I’m not a goalkeeper trainer, but I try to offer a goal-scorer’s perspective. I tape the sessions and send them to friends that are more specialized in that and they’ve given great feedback. 

You could see how well all three of them were progressing this year. I think Andrew had a fantastic season. Brian was great when he was utilized– I think he saved a solid amount of shootouts. Julian was solid when called upon. 

I think we're very fortunate with goalkeepers, more so than the majority of the teams because of the talent of those three keepers that we have.

Who impressed you most this season, both on and off the field?

Tommy: To me, I think it had to be our most valuable player as voted by the players, Nilton de Andrade– I think Nilton had just a terrific year, especially offensively. He really took a big leap forward. 

Dylan Hundelt also had an amazing year. Logan Roberts, for sure. Truly, many guys had amazing seasons.

I’d also like to spotlight Gordy Gurson who battled a lot of injuries this season. His work outside the team, in the locker room, and in the community doing appearances and all the things that you’re supposed to do as a pro. I nominated him for the Joseph Cairel award for that reason because he really gets what it takes to be a professional player in our league.

Hewerton: I couldn’t agree more with Tommy about Gordy. He does such a fantastic job as a professional, especially off the field. Franck [Tayou] impressed me because you never know what’s going to happen when someone with so many individual accolades has to fit into a team-oriented system, but he fit in well both on and off the field. 

Nilton [de Andrade] had a tremendous season. He was amazing and I don’t even think he’s reached his full potential yet. I think he's still learning the game and getting experience within indoor soccer. Just by playing, you feel the pace and the boards… it makes you better with time. Nilton is going to be one of the best midfielders and second forwards in the league. He’s already very solid in every aspect: offensively, defensively, creating opportunities, finishing, speed… he has them all.

I was very impressed as well with Dylan [Hundelt]. He had a very solid season. Logan [Roberts] had an amazing season as well. He score like goals that teammates were asking, “you’re a a defender, how are you scoring so many goals?” He scored crucial goals this season. 

Juan [Alava], for sure. We’ve moved him around from midfielder and second forward to become a defender– he’s really solid defensively and when you give him a job, he’ll get it done. Keaton [Woods], too. There's a lot of guys that had a great season, but Nilton was the one that was shining a little bit more than anybody else.  

Several key players on the roster will be free agents. Do you expect to see the makeup of the team shift or stay relatively the same?

Tommy: Every season comes with decisions you have to make with players... you have budgets and you have other free agents that are out there in the market. I think the makeup of the team will be similar, but we're always trying to add.

We didn't get out of the first round again. Obviously, we need to add to continue to build upon what we're doing here. There'll be some additions and obviously if we have to add something, there's gotta be some subtraction— that's part of the job.

Hewerton: It's funny: sometimes people come to me and say “hey Coach, we should get this player, you should get that player.” And I'm like, "all right, cool. Who are we cutting?" 

They'll turn around and say, "No, but we can't cut him!" We'd have 50 players on the roster and we can't do that. 

We're trying to get better and I think the team is getting better. You can see that by the numbers. If you want to continue to get better, you have to continue to develop the players that you have. 

Free agency always helps us bring in talent. I can see us adding a few more talents to the team. 

Are we going to try to keep the majority of the core? Obviously. You can't lose an identity that you're creating. The team right now is creating an identity and a culture and you can’t lose your core. If you lose your core, you have to start it all over again— you just can’t do that. 

I think we're on the verge of winning a championship and we have a team that’s always gonna be expected to be in the playoffs fighting for a championship. It's inevitable to sometimes to lose some players in a high-performance sport. Sometimes, that decision has to be made more with the head than the heart. 

After several Utica City FC players helped guide Newtown Pride FC to the million dollar prize in last year’s inaugural TST 7v7, more players from UCFC and the MASL at large will compete in the tournament. What does that say for the caliber of talent currently in Utica and the league that they can compete (and win) at that level?

Hewerton: I was very proud. I was there [in North Carolina] watching last year. For me, not trying to be biased, but being a little biased, it was awesome to see indoor soccer guys winning the million dollars. 

You could see the difference in the style of the play. The competition was high and having Utica players, UCFC players, playing on that team that won it with us, it proved that to the league that we do have good players, right? And it's just going to keep going up from here. 

In this season of TST, more indoor soccer players will be competing. I myself am going to be coaching [with Kwik Goal FC]. Now, teams in TST are looking for indoor soccer players because it's a small-size game and a high compete level. I probably need a couple more [MASL] players for my team and we can't get any because so many are already gone! It's a great feeling to see because I'm a lover of the MASL and of indoor soccer, so I'm proud of that.

Tommy: People really don't realize that our players are very good players. I've already talked to a couple of our guys who have played indoor for the first time this year and now they've gone outdoor— they talk about how easy it is [playing outdoor]. 

In 1996, there were around 14 indoor players who hadn't played outdoor soccer in at least five years because there was no outdoor league. It was the first year of the MLS and the [Rochester] Rhinos went to the U. S. Open Cup final, beating three MLS teams. In '99, a bunch of those indoor players won the whole U. S. Open Cup, beating all the MLS teams. 

People don't give the indoor players credit as to how good they really are. Kenardo Forbes is someone who's playing in Pittsburgh [Riverhounds SC] and is on the all-star team every year. There's so many more of our guys that could go play outdoors, but just don't get that chance because of the change in how the seasons overlap now.

The level of our league is really, really good. It's a top level and, you know, last year at TST, it showed. I think you'll find that the indoor players, the MASL players this year at TST will again shine the brightest.

What’s some of your favorite memories from the 2023-24 season?

Hewerton: I think the first win that we got against Baltimore was pretty good. It's tough to win there— it's a small field and they're very used to it. It was early in the season and they played with confidence and swagger... it felt good to beat an Eastern Conference rival early. 

How about the 6-5 win over Milwaukee?

Hewerton: Late goal, right? I don't know, in my head, it was expected. [laughs]

Maybe the OT winner vs. Kansas City?

Hewerton: Yeah, and it was huge to beat KC and St. Louis back-to-back. Everyone was saying that we we're going to lose and that we couldn't win those games because it was away. It was big for us because we were down, came back, and won it in overtime. Great memory for sure.

Tommy:The New Year's Eve game [vs. Harrisburg] was our biggest crowd of the season, I loved that game. We started the season really well. Going to Baltimore and winning in Baltimore for our first [road] game set us up for success and gave confidence to the players.

The game against Monterrey... even though we lost the game, I think showed the team that we're right there at 5-5. It was a learning experience. 

I think we have the best fans in the league and every one of our home games, the atmosphere is fantastic. My memories are really all the home games. Sure, you get to go travel on the road, but my favorite memories are every time we play at home.

What are your expectations for UCFC in the 2024-25 season?

Hewerton: The expectation is for us to continue to grow from where we left off. For me, personally, the first year coaching here was the most difficult one. You're trying to change things, adapt things, the players are still learning about you and your systems— it was hard. 

Starting this season, it was a little bit easier because players already knew what to expect. Next season, I believe the identity and the culture of the team is going to start to show even more in the competitiveness of the players. We've been to the playoffs for two years in a row, so we're obviously progressing. 

I like to set high expectations, so I can work hard for it. I'm always going to get in a competition trying to win and win a championship. That's our goal: to win a championship in Utica with UCFC.

I think we're getting close to it. We are very close to having a championship caliber team in every season. There won’t be too many ups and downs. It's gonna be solid— that's my expectation for next year. 

Tommy: It's cliche, but you always start the season with the goal to win a championship.

I think in year one with Coach [Hewerton Moreira], you change things. It was our expectation to make the playoffs that year and we did. It ultimately came down to the mini game [in 2023] versus Milwaukee and we had a 1-0 lead to advance. Last year, although we didn't go as far, that series could have gone either way.

Had we got past Kansas City, we would have ended up getting Milwaukee. I think this year's team was good enough to play for a championship, whether we could have won it all or not. I think with a few more additions that we'll make in the off-season, we’ll be in better shape going into next year.

With the playoffs, you never know what the league's going to do and how the playoff format is going to be. It could change next year and it may only be four teams that make the playoffs. So it'll be even more difficult to make it, but we're looking forward to putting a team out there that's going to compete and win every game.

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