Still Kicking: 901 FC’s Strange and Disappointing Season Ends 

The early aughts of the 2020 United Soccer League (USL) season held so much promise: a more settled squad full of Coach Tim Mulqueen's preferred players; Tim Howard coming out of retirement to split goalkeeping duties with Jimmy Hague; and a rowdy bunch of fans ready to take in the season at one of the league's best stadiums in AutoZone Park.

While the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to USL for a few months, a return to action saw a familiar pattern emerge. Quick starts and heavy spells of possession would be foiled by late concessions, turning winning positions into draws and losses. Placed in Group G against regional rivals Birmingham Legion, Charlotte Independence, and North Carolina FC, Memphis embodied the Jekyll & Hyde nature of sports. Verve and aggression in the early stages of matches would give way to sloppy defending and calamitous mistakes, with the team racking up one loss after another.

click to enlarge 901 FC celebrates a final day victory. - ERIC GLEMSER
  • Eric Glemser
  • 901 FC celebrates a final day victory.

Coach Mulqueen's high press would work for 45 minutes, but as the game stretched on, it crumbled. Opponents would easily break through the pressure in the second half and create enough high-quality chances to seize a result from Memphis' grasp. The defense was also prone to individual errors at times. Centerback Liam Doyle (later shipped out to San Antonio) was a shadow of himself from last season, while Captain Marc Burch missed a lot of games with back spasms.

Up top, the goals dried up for last season's top scorer Brandon Allen, with the onus falling on new signing Keanu Marsh-Brown to carry the offense through parts of the season. Ultimately, a run of only two wins in 12 matches saw Mulqueen sacked, putting an end to 901 FC's first chapter.

Assistant coach Ben Pirmann acted as interim manager for the team's last three matches, overseeing an uptick in fortunes with two wins. By then, Memphis' hopes of a playoff spot were long gone, but the positive performances should provide a blueprint for next season. But what does 901 FC need to fix?

The emergence of Cal Jennings as a locked-in starter, with nine goals in 14 appearances, means the team has to do everything in its power to retain him for next season. Keanu Marsh-Brown is always an electric presence, and provides incision, hard running, and even a healthy dose of defensive diligence. In midfield, new signing Jose Baxter also missed much of the season, but supplies a level of class and awareness complemented by Duane Muckette's all-around excellence and Leston Paul's steel (it's unknown whether Tommy McCabe will be available for another loan spell).

Defensively, there needs to be improvement. While Memphis' haul of 24 goals scored put it about on par with the rest of Group G (and middle of the pack in the entire Eastern Conference), the defense was another matter. At 31, Memphis had the fifth-highest number of goals conceded in the East, and kept only one clean sheet. Those numbers just aren't good enough for a team hoping to qualify for the playoffs. Pirmann's tweaks, however, showed that the squad already has the quality to tighten things up.

But there are even bigger questions to answer. Who will be the next head coach? Pirmann didn't do his chances any harm, but the sooner the organization can place someone in charge, the better. Burch announced his retirement, while Howard's new analyst role for NBC Sports makes it unlikely we'll see him back in goal. Meanwhile, Pierra Da Silva, Rafa Mentzingen, Jean-Christophe Koffi, and Mark Segbers didn't appear in the squad again after violating unspecified team rules in late September. Mentzingen and Segbers were two of 901 FC's better performers throughout the season, but it remains to be seen whether they have a future in Memphis.

It's not the season anyone wanted. While many of the results were close, the consistency of errors meant that the losses couldn't be put down to luck. The last few matches of this bizarre pandemic season, however, provide a glimmer of hope that this squad is indeed capable of challenging in the playoffs. You can bet Craig Unger, Howard, et al. are hard at work to put the right pieces in place.

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