The first-ever club announced in the Evergreen Premier League back in the summer and fall of 2013 was Bellingham United FC. The “Hammers” came over from the Pacific Coast Soccer League, now a Canadian-only enterprise. BUFC are seen as leaders in community involvement, fan support and running a semi-pro operation.
This Sunday July 31 the Hammers host the Seattle Stars at 3 PM at Civic Stadium in Bellingham. A win for United would clinch their highest-ever finish in the EPLWA. They finished second in the PCSL in 2013.
The 2016 performance marks a drastic increase in wins and form over the disastrous 2015 EPLWA campaign when Bellingham suffered through a last-place finish on a 2-11-1 record. It could have been even worse. The Hammers did not win a match until their 11th contest. In 2014 BUFC finished fourth in the EPLWA table with a 6-6-2 record.
2016 has been an entirely different story. It started indoors in February when the Hammers won their first trophy by taking the Western Indoor Soccer League (WISL) championship. Players from that squad carried over into outdoors and new faces such as Richard Henderson and Thiago Novis (Montana State Billings) gave the club a boost on offense and helped make up for all-time Hammers (and EPLWA) leading scorer Tyler Bjork’s move to Seattle Stars. Kyle Witzel (St. Martin’s) leads the club in goals with six.
Where the Hammers have really progresses is in the back. Last year they gave up a whopping 46 goals. This year after 13 matches, only 25.
“This year we have benefited from a lot of depth, which we found out as the season progressed was really needed to get results,” says BUFC Head Coach Lance Calloway. “From the beginning we had strong additions that strengthened our back line with Jon James, Trevor Bartels and Sawyer Preston (Western Washington) at centerback as they all are quite experienced and strong players. Uche Ugwoaba (Western Washington) was back with us as right back, albeit he had to leave in early July to start his career in the real world as he took a job in Connecticut. Christian Caro (St. Martin’s) has been a very consistent presence as our left back. Christian was out last season as he had broken his leg in a college spring match but he returned quick and strong as ever.
A 14-match season can still see plenty of player changes. It’s how you handle then, says Calloway. “When Uche departed it was nearly a seamless transition as Nick Ulowetz (Gonzaga) stepped into the right back role. In early June we lost Trevor to a knee injury and Jon took a professional engineering position in Tulsa OK. Fortunately we were able to move Jeremiah Lee (Western Washington) right into the left center back alongside Sawyer. Jeremiah was a great surprise for us as an 18-year-old he played with incredible composure and athleticism and stepped forward as a leader. Caley Powers (California Baptist) was another great addition to our squad this year as he has given a lot of quality minutes as an outside back as he is a very strong and fast player. With the crew of great capable defenders we have had this season we’ve been able to make changes and basically remain solid. We had a key core for a majority of the season with Ugwoaba, Preston, Lee and Caro which was great for the consistency.”
You can’t stop your opponent just at you back, you’ve got to make them work for it in the middle of the pitch as well. “Our midfield was also another huge factor to our improved defending,” Calloway reveals. “Brendan Quilici (Western Washington), Elie Gindo (Trinity Western) and Rene Caro were consistent in our midfield all season long and they all made an impact of the defensive make up of the squad.
“However I think the biggest addition to our squad defensively was having Tyler Visten (Western Washington) stepping in between the pipes for BUFC this season. Tyler is a very solid keeper who makes very few mistakes and made some key saves throughout the season when called on. We have had some solid keeping last year but Tyler raised us to another level.”
On Sunday against Seattle, United have a chance to finish on 28 points with a 9-4-1 mark. If they do they will clinch second place no matter what the Spokane Shadow do against South Sound at Spokane Falls. Bellingham’s improvement this year included sweeping the 2-time champions.
Whatever happens, the Hammers will conclude 2016 with their best-ever Evergreen Premier League point total and finish, rebounding from 2015 and re-establishing themselves as worthy of praise both off of the field — and on it.
“It means a lot to the players and the coaching staff to finish as high up in the table as we can,” Calloway says. “Our players have put in a lot of quality work and I am proud that they are getting the results this season. I know all of them have talked about how we have let a couple matches get away from us as we made mistakes that we know we shouldn’t, so that shows to me the hunger to be better. If we can go out and play the way I believe we can secure second place in the table.”
“Regardless of what happens I am extremely proud how this squad played and performed this season.”