Sweat Thanks Time in NASL for NYCFC Success

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By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

imagesWhen Ronald Matarrita sustained an ankle injury, the left back position turned from an asset to a potential liability for New York City FC. The attack lost a vigorous overlapping fullback, the defense was suddenly inexperienced on its left side. Any fear of dysfunction has not panned out thanks to Ben Sweat, who has effectively replaced Matarrita in his return to Major League Soccer.

Sweat joined NYCFC after an impressive preseason trial. A left back and left center back, Sweat went from a first-round draft pick in 2014 with the Columbus Crew to the second-tier North American Soccer League within a year. His path from promising MLS prospect to second-division player is common in this country, but after spending more than a year with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Sweat said he is more confident of success in MLS.

“I was upset leaving Columbus,” Sweat told EoS. “I thought they had more plans for me but actions speak louder than words. That changed real quick in 2015 so I searched for a team. It happened to be my hometown team and I got 35-40 appearances there. Without that, I don’t think I would be in the situation or scenario that I’m in now. I built up my confidence in that league, was a good player in that league and I think that set me up for success this year with NYCFC.”

Along with Ugo Okoli, Sweat used his stint in the a lower league to gain experience that eluded him at the MLS level. They both started against Columbus, with Sweat assisting on the game-winning-goal. Sweat will likely remain the starting left back for City’s game at FC Dallas on Sunday night and Okoli also has a strong chance of being involved during the team’s road trip. Coach Patrick Vieira credited sporting director Claudio Reyna and technical director David Lee for mining the lower tiers for reliable depth.

“There is talent in every league and every division, it’s just about some of the kids just knowing their roots,” Vieira said. “When you look at Ben, who’s been really unlucky with not having chances and not being in the team where they may not play the way that suits his game. There is a lot of things that can stop players from making it. We’ve been really lucky with our scouting and Claudio and David are doing are really good job finding those players because they are fitting really well with the way we want to play.”

Sweat said he almost immediately picked up on what Vieira wants from his left backs. Since Matarrita’s injury, Sweat has been playing exclusively in that role. But Vieira and Sweat know that he can be used as a left back in a three-man system. Sweat’s first moments at left back were shaky as he picked up a yellow card after being caught out of position, but he’s been steady since then in the wins against Columbus and Atlanta United.

“It seems a little more natural for me now,” Sweat said. “I know I can compete at a high level, I can start, I can play at a high level. I’m not worried about that phase. I’m worried about being good, performing every game, continuing to get confidence and to be in the rhythm and keeping good form going.”

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Sweat played for the Rowdies last year.

For 2017, there are two professional leagues with provisional second-division status. The NASL has eight teams (down from 12 last year, which includes the Rowdies’ move to the United Soccer League) and announced plans to add a ninth in Orange County, Calif., for next season. The USL has 30 teams with plans to add at least two more for 2018. A third of USL teams are owned and/or operated by MLS teams. At the end of the year, both leagues will have to prove to U.S. Soccer that they are meeting minimum standards to maintain their current sanctioning.

Instability in lower-division soccer is not new, with contentious owners and league officials, and financial issues clouding the game’s over all progress for more than a decade. Should the disputes again lead to a reduction or dissolution of a league or leagues, Sweat said that players like him would lose the opportunity refine their games and get a shot in MLS.

“It’s most important [to have a strong division], especially for young guys,” Sweat said. “So many young guys get drafted, come to the league and next year, they’re gone or not playing in two or three years. Their style of play changes, they lose confidence and they lose love and passion for the game. It takes a toll on you when you’re not playing and just training, training, training, waiting for a chance. To have NASL or USL now being the second top league and have really good competition, a lot of big guys, a lot of MLS guys. The mix is huge for development.”

Sweat will be with NYCFC for the rest of the year before the team decides whether to exercise its option. He said he wanted to continue to develop within the team’s setup and he will challenge Matarrita once he returns from his injury.

“I know that I can play in this league and start in this league so I just have to keep being all in with this club and this organization and give them my all,” he said. :Hopefully after this year, I would love to re-sign but that’s way ahead. I can’t look ahead, I just need to worry about the right here and now. I would love to stay with a top-tier club, an organization like this in the league.”