Championing the Underdogs

by Michael Lewis

When the Tacoma Stars walk onto the accesso ShoWare Center field for the first game of their Pacific Division playoff series on Thursday night, forward Nick Perera is confident his team can overcome the favored San Diego Sockers.

Some big hopes for a team that finished the Major Arena Soccer League regular season at 11-11, while the Sockers, one of indoor soccer's most storied franchises, forged the second-best record in the league this season at 19-3.

But that doesn't frighten Perera one bit.

"It's less about sitting there and thinking about 'Oh crap, we've got to play against these amazing teams,' " he said. "It's more thinking about the fact it's still soccer, it's 6 v 6, it's still only one ball. When you realize that it's still soccer and not David vs. Goliath, then you start to realize that the games are winnable and there's no real boundary except for the ones you set yourselves."

The Stars-Sockers clash is one of four series that will be held Thursday through Sunday. The Baltimore Blast (17-5) take on the Syracuse Silver Knights (13-9) in the Eastern Division, the Milwaukee Wave (17-5) meets the Cedar Rapids Rampage (11-11) in the Central Division and the Monterrey Flash (20-2) knocks heads with the Sonora Soles (15-7) in what is the league's Mexican derby in the Southwest Division.

Each divisional series is a two-game affair with a mini-game to decide the winner if the teams split the matches. The conference finals are set for next weekend -- a one-game, winner-takes-all setup -- before the two surviving sides meet in the Ron Newman Cup and the MASL championship the weekend of March 24-25.

Many times the team with the better regular-season records prevails in the postseason, but the so-called underdog teams have dreams and hopes of going deep in the playoffs or even winning it all.

Regardless what a team's record is, the rest of the league is chasing the two-time defending champion Blast, which also reached the final series in 2015.

"Dan Kelly [the head coach] is highly organized," Silver Knights head coach Ryan Hall said. "Regardless of what personnel they have, it's a machine they have down there. It definitely will be a difficult challenge. Baltimore is always the heavy favorite."

It seems every time Syracuse has reached the postseason, Baltimore has been in the way.

"They've certainly been our Achilles Heel," Hall said. "We've lost to them several times in the first round of the playoffs. This year we've actually fared well against them."

"At the end of the day, for me, just making the playoffs isn't enough," forward Joey Tavernese said. "I have lost to Baltimore year after year. I just think it's time that someone moves on."

Hall hoped that this year will bring a different result. If the regular-season tussles are any indication, it should be one memorable series. The first three matches were one-goal Blast wins with the Silver Knights recording a 6-4 victory on the final day of the regular season on March 4.

Those games, especially last Sunday's result have gone a long way to build up Syracuse's resolve.

"I think the guys have the confidence they can go toe-to-toe with them," Hall said. "Losing three tight games to them, knowing that they're there. They just have to get over that little hurdle."

Stars head coach Darren Sawatzky is another one of those optimistic souls, emboldened that his team has beaten San Diego in the past and played Monterrey tough in Mexico before losing on what he considered a questionable call in the fourth quarter.

"Any team in this league can beaten any team on any given day," he said. "So it will be interesting to see what happens."

Sawatzky said the league's 16 teams can be broken down essentially into three groups. His divisional foes, the Sockers, are among the elite sides.

"If you take this whole thing up to 10,000 feet, there's really two things to talk about," he said. "One is the haves and two is the have-nots. In the MASL, there are teams that spend more money and all play on a higher professional level. There's a group of teams in the middle and we fit in the middle group somewhere. Every year we've been involved in the MASL, San Diego's been the class of our division. They qualify early and then Ontario and us fight it out to the last two games."

While playing for the Ontario Fury last year, Perera remembered the teams traded huge results (an 9-4 San Diego win and a 8-4 Ontario victory) in the first two encounters of their playoff series before the Sockers secured the mini-game, 1-0, to move on.

Understanding the history of the teams and indoor soccer, Perera has respect for those aforementioned four favored sides -- up to a point.

"I think obviously those teams are there for a reason," he said. "The name on the front of their shirts says something. There's a rich history in terms of how long the franchise has been around, what leagues they participated in previously and how they fared in those leagues, the direction of ownership group and how much financial investment. There's a lot more than just hey, they're really good soccer players.

"I think when you forget those teams are something, you kind of remove that mystery around those teams. Then you start to realize it's just a soccer game. There's way more that you can do."

Perera hopes that the Stars will be able to pull off a surprise or two.