COFFEE AND HISTORY - Mike Zierhoffer
Before every soccer game he plays, Baltimore Blast goalkeeper Mike Zierhoffer likes to keep up with a little tradition.
He drinks at least one cup of coffee.
"If not two or three or four," Zierhoffer said.
"Not only are you trying to be the best in your position, but you’re also trying to help organize all the guys in front of you. You're the only guy that can see all other 11 players in the field. So being able to help other guys manage their situation or managing your own situation is like holding up 12 spinning plates at once. The best way I can do that is with as much caffeine as possible apparently."
After taking a flight from Dallas to Baltimore to finish a home-and-home series with the Mesquite Outlaws within 24 hours last weekend, Zierhoffer knew he needed more than the normal amount of caffeine in his system.
"Absolutely," said Zierhoffer, who earned the No. 2 star of the Saturday match, after a 14-save performance in a 3-2 victory at Mesquite. "Going off the back-to-back [games} and flying in early, there's definitely extra cups of coffee."
Zierhoffer doesn't know if that extra boost had anything to do with his remarkable performance last Sunday, but it certainly didn't hurt.
Playing for injured No. 1 keeper William Vanzela in only his 16th career start, Zierhoffer pulled off one of the rarest of all goalkeeping feats. The 28-year-old outscored the opposition - in an indoor soccer game.
Not only did Zierhoffer record a shutout, but he also scored a goal in the Blast's 6-0 home win over the Outlaws in the team's penultimate game of the team's Major Arena Soccer League season on Sunday, March 26. Not surprisingly, Zierhoffer was the No. 1 star after producing 18 more saves. Subsequently, he was voted the MASL defensive player of the week.
Now, keepers have scored goals and they have recorded shutouts in 45-plus years of professional indoor soccer in North America, but having both events happen in the same match is as rare as a perfect game or an unassisted triple play in baseball.
It was not immediately known how many times this achievement has been accomplished. We do know it has been done at least once - by Joe Mallia in the Harrisburg Heat's 13-0 home victory over the Wichita Wings on Jan. 24, 1993.
So, Zierhoffer certainly joined an exclusive club.
When the final horn sounded to signify a Blast triumph at SECU Arena in Towson, Md. on Sunday, Zierhoffer admitted he did not immediately realize that he made some history.
"I hadn't really thought about it,” he said. “It made me think that scoring a goal, at least on our smaller field. It's a little easier to throw the ball the full length of the field, but on a smaller field, that generally means it's harder to keep a shutout.
“I thought that was pretty cool.”
It was the Blast's first shutout in more than three years since William Vanzela backstopped a 11-0 win over the Rochester Lancers on Dec. 28, 2019. That was Vanzela's 10th career shutout, which set an indoor record.
Last Sunday's result clinched second place in the Eastern Division and home-field advantage for the Blast in the first round of the playoffs, which will begin next week.
Forty seconds after Jonatas Melo scored to lift Baltimore into a 5-0 lead at 9:27 of the fourth quarter, Zierhoffer accomplished the first part of his feat. Mesquite had replaced goalkeeper Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes with Erik Macias as the sixth attacker.
We'll let the 6-5, 200-lb. Zierhoffer take it from here.
"Nelson Santana should get credit with the assist," he said. "I think it was Josh Hughes battling for the ball in the corner. He was getting double teamed at some point. Nellie faked passing the ball off the boards and got the guy on their heels, so the ball could trickle into me. I picked it up. Their entire sixth attacker offense was forward. It was a heads-up play by Nelly to get that ball go to me to give me the opportunity."
That opportunity was to throw the ball into an open goal.
"As a taller guy with a longer arm, I am able to throw the ball pretty far," Zierhoffer said. "At the end of every warm-up I like to judge the size of the field and throw one length of the field. At that point, it's just another throw, but it's funny. In the run of play when the target sometimes opens up, I'm thinking do I want to throw it to their [teammates'] right foot, their left foot or to their chests? You're picking out such small targets. When you see a big target like the goal, you start to second-guess yourself. There's a little bit of hesitation with trying to sort out a big target but I'm just glad it worked out."
So did the crowd of 2,348, which cheered the goal.
"They were definitely pretty loud and happy for me and the team to be in that position," the keeper said. "It was my first start in Baltimore this year; I think only my third start in both in our home arena for my career. I was so excited to celebrate my teammates, I kind of zoned out at that point."
Making history was hardly on Zierhoffer's mind. There were five minutes to preserve a shutout and clinch second place in the Eastern Division.
But before that, Zierhoffer had an opportunity to score an unprecedented second goal with another open net staring him invitingly on the other side of the pitch.
"At some point, Nelson Santana again passed the ball back to me that I was able to gather my hands," he said. "But I was kind of flat-footed and exhausted at that point. I just launched it the length of field but the sixth attacker was able to get back and stop that one. But at the end of the day, that's not as important. It's just being able to win the game,”
And record and clean sheet as well.
"It's a pretty big combination of both really good play from the guys and from me,” Zierhoffer said. “Obviously, I have to play well, as well. And then some good fortune, a couple of balls bounce off the post here. The stars have to align a little bit but to be fair, we also have to work pretty hard to put ourselves in that position as well."
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Zierhoffer and his teammates had weathered the storm and had their shutout.
Zierhoffer admitted that thinking about getting a shutout and a goal in the same game, but he couldn't lose his concentration down the stretch.
"Especially on our field, you have to be so hyper focused at all times," he said. "Any little ball can create such imbalances. You're so worried about the moment to moment, trying to put yourself in the best position to be successful that you sometimes lose track of the overall storyline, which I think definitely helped me out being able to stay in the moment.
"Then you look up and realize there's 10 seconds left. 'Oh man, this actually happened.' There's a pretty good sense of relief and pride being able to see the clock tick to zero and go over and celebrate with the team again."
Asked if he preferred to record a shutout or score a goal, Zierhoffer replied, "I got to say shutout because that means that not only did I have to play well, but the team had to play really well, too."
Which explained a lot about his mentality.
Growing up in Arnold, Md., just outside Annapolis, 18 miles south of Baltimore, Zierhoffer was always on the larger side for his age. He took his turn in the net as his youth team used revolving goalies. He then attended a few Blast games and became enamored with Blast goalkeeper Edilson Xavier - better known as Sagu to indoor soccer aficionados.
"This must be the best goalkeeper in the world," Zierhoffer said. "I want to be able to do that one day. As my soccer career developed, I was playing a whole bunch of other sports as well. My hand skills were getting better and better and some of the other guys on the field were getting better and better. I realized my best asset would be as a goalkeeper."
An intriguing aside: Sagu is the Mesquite goalkeeping coach, who watched Zierhoffer limit his team to only a pair of goals last weekend.
"It came full circle," Zierhoffer said.
"It made it pretty cool being able to have these back-to-back games with Sagu on the bench. When we were in Mesquite, I told him that I remembered when I was a kid, and he was on the field with the Blast. It's pretty cool being able to wear the same jersey he wore a few years ago. For this accomplishment to happen in front of him, and of course with William helping me out along the way over the last few years, was pretty special."
Zierhoffer, who became a full-time goalie at the age of 12, played two years at Broadneck High School, captaining the squad as a senior. He attended Clemson University, first with the club team before joining the varsity as a sophomore. As a senior in 2017, he earned the Coaches Achievement Award for "going beyond what the coaches asked of them to unite the team." He graduated with a degree in civil engineering.
Playing professionally wasn't on Zierhoffer's radar until the 2018-19 season.
"I figured my soccer career was done, except I would just constantly complain to my girlfriend, 'Man I miss competitive soccer.' She said, “I’m tired of hearing you complain. Did you think about trying out for the Blast?' And I was like, 'Oh, how did I not think of that?' "
Zierhoffer attended a tryout. Current head coach David Bascome, then an assistant to Danny Kelly, noticed he could throw the ball "pretty darn well."
"That year was the first year they took away the rule that allowed goalkeepers to throw more than three lines," Zierhoffer said. "I think his thinking was this guy's got a pretty good frame. He's got a good arm. He can be valuable one day.
"I just came by as a random tryout and the rest is history."
The Blast signed him as a third goalkeeper, and Zierhoffer has been learning the intricacies of the indoor game from Vanzela since he's "not only a starting goalkeeper, but basically our goalkeeper coach. He's taught me so much over the years."
Working with Zierhoffer or the two other Blast goalkeepers, Zach Haussler and Quantrell Jones, is second nature to Vanzela.
"I try to teach them everything I know about this game," Vanzela said. "I'm very happy with them and the work they put in, day-in and day-out, knowing that they don't get much playing time but it's a great relationship, we're friends. I couldn't be more happy for Mike over the weekend."
Despite his recent success, it’s not about him. It's about winning.
After pulling off a MASL championship threepeat from 2016-18, the Blast haven't been to a final since. That is something that Zierhoffer would like to see remedied.
Baltimore (12-7-3) visits Utica City (12-10-1) in its season finale at Adirondack Bank Center in Utica, N.Y. tonight at 7:05 p.m. ET.
If Zierhoffer is on the bench for that game or the playoffs watch Vanzela save the day, that is fine with him.
"At the end of the day, we want wins, and we want a championship. The best way to do that is to push each other in practice every day," he said. "If my role can be doing what I can to keep William as healthy as you can, I'm happy to do that role. My role is to step in and do my best and win games. I will 100 percent step on the field and do my best to do that. All of it is secondary to being able to bring our team a championship. William is the best goalkeeper in the league. I think our team and especially William are so singularly minded getting that done. It's a really cool environment to be a part of."
Winning it all would be the ultimate for Zierhoffer. He would be able to drink his traditional coffee before the final match and celebrate with champagne afterwards.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk. His new book, Still Alive and Kicking: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers, will be available soon. The book includes many stories and features about indoor soccer.