AGING LIKE FINE WINE
Way back in the day, there was a saying:
"Don't trust anyone over 30."
Perhaps that can be updated for use in the Major Arena Soccer League:
"Don't trust any forward over 30."
Because there's a good chance that player will be celebrating scoring another goal.
Several 30-something forwards are thriving among the top 10 in goals and points.
Moreover, it seems the older they are, the more productive they are.
Entering this weekend's action, Milwaukee Wave forward Ian Bennett leads the league with 24 goals and 30 points. He's 38-years-old and has shown very little signs of slowing down.
Second is another 38-year-old, Kansas City Comets player-coach Leo Gibson, who has tallied 18 goals (and added 10 assists for 28 points.
The Ontario Fury's Franck Tayou is third with 15 goals. A four-time MASL MVP, Tayou is just at the cusp of the over-30 generation. He turns 32 on April 16.
Another lethal scorer, the Tacoma Stars' Nick Perera, 35, is ninth in the league in goals (13) and fifth in points (24).
"The answer is just the experience," Gibson said. "The game is getting younger, getting faster and getting more intelligent players. It's getting more challenging for older guys. You are just smarter so you can adapt. The indoor game is growing, changing rapidly.
"It's just I'm just blessed to have had developed the experience over the years. It's nice to be in a position to be able to still do it."
Positioning is part of the equation.
"A senior player in front of the goal, they just understand the movements. They understand where the ball supposed to end up," Florida Tropics head coach Clay Roberts said. "They can position themselves appropriately. They've figured out how to play this game. Their systematic approach allows them to be really good at what they do. Like anything, if you're putting yourself in a good place, you're bound to have good success."
Gibson, Bennett, Tayou and Perera are following the path set by other 30-something players years ago.
Perhaps the prime example was achieved by Rochester Lancers player-coach Doug Miller, who won league MVP honors as a 43-year-old in 2012-13. At 51, he came out of retirement to score three goals in two matches near the end of the 2019-20 season.
"It's amazing how long he's played," Gibson said. "He knows physically where he's at speed-wise. He understands the game so much. He knows where to be, when to be there, and where the ball is going to end up. Everybody's like, wow! How did that happen?"
So, what makes the likes of this talented quartet tick, so durable and so productive?
They have learned from experience, and they take care of themselves, on and off the field.
"You get older, you get like a little wiser," Bennett said. "You work smarter."
Fury defender Robert Palmer, a current teammate of Tayou and a former one of Gibson and who has played against Bennett and Perera, gave some insight from the other side of the ball.
"It's a lot to do with experience and the team around them," he said. "You put Leo with runners and give good balls to him and he has quality runs. He's a guy who will find the net. Similar to Nick Perera. They have good runners around them, too.
"In a game, you're not in disbelief because you've seen him in practice so many times. Franck can easily score three goals every game because of his strength and power. Franck's tough. He's hard to mark. He can shoot with both feet. If you give might little bit of space, he can get a shot off.
"The same thing with Ian. He prefers his right side, but he is very clever creating enough space to get shots off. Ian's movement around the box and creating opportunities for himself is key. Sometimes you look right and he's right in front of you scoring. He just has the eye for the goal. He can score at the tightest angle. I don't think he's going to be stopping anytime soon."
So how does a defender stop those scoring machines?
"These guys have been adding stuff to their games," Palmer said. "It's not like you can probably get a scouting report on knowing their tendencies. There are things I know about Leo just because I played with him. He has good vision. He has good people around. He's going to slip those balls, make those passes.
"Same with Nick Perera. He has similar tendencies, too.
"Maybe there's some secret they have amongst themselves we don't know about. Whatever it is, it's working ... It's hard to mark them. Just go in there, do your best and hope it works."
A quick look at these four 30-something goal masters:
A native of Hamilton, Canada, Bennett started filling indoor nets with the Chicago Storm in 2007 before joining the Wave in 2009. He has represented Canada in Futsal and Beach Soccer.
"Ian's the definition of a professional," Milwaukee head coach Giuliano Oliviero said. "He takes care of his body. He's a winner. He wants to have an impact on every result; stuff you can't really teach. He knows his role on the team is to score goals and get points and he prepares himself to do that.
"If you came to our training sessions, you would notice firsthand that he's the first one on the field. He's got 20 balls in front of him. He's taking shots. He's the first one replenishing after a training session, making sure his body doesn't break down. He does all the little things that add up to big things. He's a really just a great overall role model as far as preparation goes, being great in the community, and just exciting to fans."
Since the 2014-15 MASL season, Bennett has recorded 311 goals and 68 assists in 146 matches. That includes 19 goals and eight assists for the Florida Tropics, for whom he played on loan in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic,
His most productive season was in 2016-17, accruing 53 goals and 11 assists.
Bennett was proud that he plays on both sides of the ball.
"I don't come off like some of the older guys. They have defensive runners," he said. "I don't have a defensive runner. I don't think that's right. I play a man down, which totally kills your legs a lot. I'm not trying to hype myself up, but it's just something I pride myself in."
A native of Monrovia, Liberia, Gibson has been tallying goals since putting on the Detroit Ignition jersey in 2007. He has performed for the Rockford Rampage and Philadelphia KiXX, but Gibson has made his biggest impact with the Comets. Since the 2014-15, he has connected for 205 goals and 199 assists in 137 regular-season games.
"The longer you stay in a game, the more fun it becomes for you," Gibson said. "You can improvise, you can adapt, you can read and anticipate situations. It becomes more fun and less hassle. You understand the simplicity of the game, compared to when you were just learning. You wanted to make everything complicated."
Gibson has some uncomplicated plans to keep going.
"As long as I'm healthy, I think I understand the game to a point where I can help my team to a certain point, and hopefully get them to be effective," he said.
His finest season was his first MASL campaign, when he finished with 48 goals and 45 assists in 20 matches for the Missouri Comets.
"It's kind of a joke among the league where it's man, is he ever going retire?" Tropics defender Drew Ruggles said. "The season ends and he's always in the top five in points and goals. He's literally like the definition of a fine wine. He just keeps getting better and better."
Tayou has put up some ridiculous numbers the past five seasons, scoring at least 47 goals in each campaign. His finest season was with Soles de Sonora in 2017-18, registering an astounding 71 goals and 11 assists.
"It's experience knowing the game, knowing the movements, knowing what [he has] to do to win," Fury head coach Jimmy Nordberg said. "Sometimes the biggest thing is knowing how to manage the locker room and personalities and help make players around you better. Franck is not only a great soccer player and a leader. He's a great teacher. He can communicate with guys and tell them, 'Hey, we need the ball here. I need the ball in this situation here.' He brings along the young guys and makes them better."
In MASL seasons, Tayou has hit the net 323 times in 146 games, while dishing out 94 assists. He also has played with the Las Vegas, Texas and Monterrey.
Even before he became a scoring king, Tayou already had some royal blood running through his veins. Prior to Tayou journeying to the United States, his father, Tayou Taphom, was a king of a small village in Cameroon.
“A lot of people think I call myself king,” Tayou told this writer in 2020. “That’s not the truth. My dad is a king back in Cameroon, obviously, King Tayou.”
So, Tayou decided to use the Twitter handle, @KingTayou as “an homage to my dad.”
“It wasn’t me saying that that I am best in the league or the king of the league,” he said. “It wasn’t really that. The blogs and the fans started running with it. I guess my performance over the years sort of backed up the nickname.”
Perera, who was born in Madrid, Spain and played his youth soccer in Belgium, has analyzed his and veterans' games for years.
"How much do I need to put in to be successful right now and how can I reserve to keep my stores healthy for when I really need it?" he said.
Since the 2014-15 MASL season, Perera has tallied 162 goals and 150 assists in 128 appearances. His career season was in 2018-19, his first with the Stars striking for 39 goals and 41 assists. He has played with the San Diego Sockers, Ontario and Syracuse Silver Knights.
Perera has refined his style, making better use of his energy and time. Not surprisingly, he has become more productive.
"When you're young and impetuous, you think that you've got to go prove yourself on every chance," he said. "As you get older you realize your ability to influence the match is maybe only three moments in the game. For those three moments you need to be sound of body and mind. When I was younger, my whole thing was I'm going to run around and dribble everybody. That's what I always wanted to do.
"So, there was a tremendous amount of effort of what I or maybe what the team got back from. It was pretty minimal. A couple cheers from the crowd and every once in a while, a goal. The older, more veteran, mature players, they understand that. It's not so much about what it looks like and ... being able to really put on a show as much as it is how can I be effective for my team and one of the moments in the game that I can pick to do that, and how do I do that?"
Perera certainly has more than his fare of moments. He has represented the United States in Beach Soccer on 80 occasions, scoring 103 times. He also helped the USA captured the 2013 Concacaf Beach Soccer title, while earning top goal-scorer honors in 2013 and 2019.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.