The Flint City Bucks will be undergoing a transition during the club’s silver anniversary campaign this season, but new head coach Andy Wagstaff won’t mind if there is a bit of red injected into the proceedings.
The reigning USL League 2 national champions will be defending their title with Wagstaff, who takes over for Demir Muftari. The 25-year-old Bucks have won four national titles, three on Muftari’s watch.
Wagstaff, who also oversees this area’s Liverpool International Academies, served as an associate coach with Muftari during last season’s title run. He also worked as a Bucks assistant coach in separate tenures in 2010 and 2013.
When his situation is linked to how longtime assistant Bob Paisley took the reins from a larger-than-life Bill Shankly in the mid-1970s at his beloved Liverpool, Wagstaff laughs heartily.
Paisley, who reluctantly took the job, proceeded to win six first division titles, three European Cups, a UEFA Cup, and UEFA Super Cup in nine years.
“I’m OK with that comparison,” said Wagstaff, who grew up in Ashton-in-Makerfield, a suburb of Wigan, which is halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.
“I think Demir definitely set the trend with the success he’s had on and off for the last 10 years and we’re the best of friends and we’ve worked together before … He was the Shankly. Hopefully, I can be as successful as Paisley was at Liverpool.”
Wagstaff and Muftari coached together with the Bloomfield Force, which later became affiliated with the Liverpool International Academy. The pair also worked in tandem at Royal Oak Kimball High School.
Wagstaff, who played professionally for the indoor Detroit Rockers and Detroit Neon, was in line to become head coach of a USL 2 expansion team in Flint before Bucks owner Dan Duggan decided to relocate the then-Michigan Bucks there instead from Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac.
The managerial duo proved to be magic in Year 1 as the Bucks pulled off a late run to make the playoffs and then brought the Vehicle City a championship. The community rallied around the Bucks, culminating with a crowd of 7,198 spectators to watch the team hoist the USL 2 trophy last August in a 1-0 extra-time win over Reading United AC at Atwood Stadium.
Muftari, who was summoned back into the role as head coach after serving as technical director in 2018, was ready to relinquish the head coaching role.
Wagstaff was also in a career shuffle.
In January 2019, he resigned after serving four years as head coach at Saginaw Valley State men’s soccer coach, where he led the Division II Cardinals to a 54-16-10 mark, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018. He cited family demands — he and wife Lindsey have two children, Charlotte, 5, and Drew, 2 — as the main reason for stepping down.
With the Bucks, Wagstaff’s been handed the wheel of a fine-tuned Mercedes-Benz. The club’s quarter-century tradition of winning and producing MLS-caliber players has been the model of USL 2, which operated as the Premier Development League prior to last year.
“I’m inheriting a group and a program that (are) serial winners basically,” said Wagstaff, who has USSF A and UEFA A coaching licenses. “So, I’m entering a program … where everything is in place.
“It’s always a difficult task to go back and repeat. Ultimately, if we go back and win it then great and it has been something that has happened before. And, hopefully, people can recognize that it’s very difficult to go back to back.
“If we don’t win it all, then I still think we’ll be very very successful. We’ll be one of the top teams in the country, and we'll give the fans a lot to be excited about.”
The Bucks front office sees Wagstaff’s promotion as an orderly succession.
"Andy has been with the club in the past and is very well known and very well respected," Bucks president Costa Papista said. "He and Demir worked very well together last year. I think it's going to be a very smooth transition.”
"I have a tremendous amount of faith and confidence in Andy."
USL 2 announced Friday it was delaying the start of the season — which runs from May to July — due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gary Parsons, director of coaching and player personnel, has started assembling a roster, which includes a number of players returning from last season’s championship side.
Among those slated to return include forwards Yuri Farkas Guglielmi (Madonna) and forward Hammam Nasser, midfielders Tanguy Guerineau, Dylan Borczak (Oakland/Detroit), Kevin Buca (Michigan/Rochester Hills Stoney Creek), Alejandro Steinwascher (Sterling Heights Henry Ford II); and goalkeeper Caleb Norris (Grand Blanc).
The Bucks also have several newcomers, notably Michigan State goalkeeper Hunter Morse (Belleville/Ann Arbor Huron), who helped backstop Detroit City FC to a National Premier Soccer League Great Lakes Conference Division title last season.
“As soon as they hear the Bucks are interested or they show interest in the Bucks, it’s already known we are a feeder to the pros,” said Wagstaff, referring to the Bucks seeing former players Nyal Higgins (Toronto FC, No. 19 overall), Patrick Nielsen (No. 23, Atlanta United) and Michael Wetungu (No. 46, Real Salt Lake) go in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. The Bucks have seen 87 players drafted or sign with MLS teams since 1999.
“We always have a high level of coach and high-level teams.
“So the environment is not only professional for them to train and improve, but it’s also a really good opportunity for them to get looked at by some of the top pro clubs in the country.”