Business as usual
When the Milwaukee Wave started preseason training some three weeks ago, it was business as usual for the Major Arena Soccer League champions.
And that probably wasn't necessarily the best of news for the rest of the league.
"The guys know they're the champions, they know they've got a title to defend," head coach Giuliano Oliviero said earlier this week. "They know they're going to be getting everybody's best game. So, they're really focused. They're working hard to build their fitness. The new guys are working hard to learn our system of play, how we go about things. The guys who have been around for a while it's kind of just that refocus and going through things again. It's 'Oh yeah, that's what we did last year. I got it.'
"Just revisiting the things we did well last year piece by piece so when Nov. 29 comes around we're ready to go."
That would be his team's season-opener at the St. Louis Ambush.
Oliviero's only message to the team was:
"Now, you know what it takes."
So, the head coach wasn't about to change a system what worked so well last year.
"We've got a formula," he said. "We think it works. We know it works. And our players know what it takes now. They believe in it and they saw the reward that they got last year in buying into things that we were doing. So far so good. They have started really well."
Many of the players who made Milwaukee's seventh arena/indoor championship a reality return, although the team lost a couple of key players to the Florida Tropics in the offseason -- defender Drew Ruggles and midfielder Ricardinho Sobreira. They will be difficult to replace, but not impossible.
"It was almost like a bittersweet thing," captain and forward Ian Bennett said. "We lost two key people. It was going to happen. When you win a championship, people are going to be coming after all your players. We kind of bonded together. People are like, you know what? This is my time to shine. Some of the younger guys know it's time to show up. So, I think we have some all-stars, some new guys stepping up. They're ready to capture the moment."
"We're a championship team," Oliviero said. "You obviously don't want to make too many changes. We made some slight changes to our roster so far. We want to create that healthy competition. ... For these new players it's a time for them to learn how we do things with the Milwaukee Wave and we know they have the ability. It's about them and how well they're going to grasp not just the arena game but how we go about it as a team."
Oliviero admitted there were some fears of complacency prior to preseason, but that was wiped away on the first day of training.
"What they brought from day one I couldn’t be happier," he said. "I'm very impressed and it just shows their professionalism."
Not surprisingly, the Wave has set the bar high, very high
Let's face it, it's not easy winning back-to-back titles in any sport, although the Baltimore Blast was three-time MASL champions before the Wave broke its streak last year.
Milwaukee will try to emulate its Eastern Division rivals.
"Baltimore set the standard," Bennett said. "That's what we have in our head. They three-peated. They set the bar. Honestly, we want to be a dynasty now. Can we go back-to-back? Can we get maybe three-peat? Can we get that four-peat? And can we be that dynasty? That's a challenge. We're willing to accept it. We're ready for it. We have a target on our backs."
At the present time, the Wave is focused on its season opener in St. Louis on Nov. 29. But it is difficult to ignore its home opener against the Tropics on Dec. 7, which is Championship Ring Night. A sizable crowd is expected at the UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena as the players will receive their rings and celebrate the title one more time.
"We're looking forward to Championship Ring Night," Oliviero said. "We're playing the Florida Tropics, who on paper, have put a great team together. They have a great group of players and everyone is waiting to see how that team fares on the field. We know they have the players that can get it done."
And yes, before you ask, Ruggles and Sobreira will receive their rings that night, even though they will perform for the enemy this season.
"They were a big part of it," Oliviero said. "Beyond deserving. They were huge for us all season long. Super proud of them."
Oliviero has been in arenas when teams have received their rings on opening night -- in Kansas City and Baltimore and he has received rings of his own.
"I've been on both sides of it," he said. "We're really going to need to be focused. There's going to be a lot of distractions and a lot of excitement at the same time and how quickly can we refocus and be ready for the opening whistle."
That will be Game Two of a 24-match schedule that can have many twists and turns, ups and downs and surprises that starts in the fall, meanders through the winter and is decided in the spring.
There are so many ways a team can motivate itself to win another title. One obvious method is the desire to repeat history to grab that special championship feeling again.
"We partied for a couple of days straight with the fans and everything," Bennett said after winning the MASL crown. "I was taking the cup home for a couple of weeks. I had a real good time. I want to do it again."
Michael Lewis writes a weekly column for MASLSoccer.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @Soccerwriter.