CRAIG'S CORNER WEEK 12
Welcome back inside the corner, where we maintain the drop ball is under-used. Drop ball!
Line ‘em Up; Let’s Go
The decisions were made, the playoffs are set. Let’s have a look.
#1 Florida: bye
The Florida Tropics earn a week off, and will have that much longer to see if big stars Drew Ruggles and Guilherme Dos Santos can return to fitness and the lineup. Florida’s had so many imports, they certainly have the depth to cover whatever comes, and have had the practice time to integrate the outsiders into the system.
The flip is, Florida will take the field for the start of their semi-final playoff series having only played two real matches since February 21, and none since March 11. Have the Tropics had too much time in the cabana? We won’t know until Easter weekend.
#2 Ontario AT #7 Dallas
It’s crazy how things work out sometimes in pro sports. Arena availability and the Major Arena Soccer League have rarely been friends, and often enemies. TV exposure has been often absent, and always desired. The intersection makes an opening series upside-down.
Ontario has earned their #2 seed with a 7-3 record, and they earned the right to choose 1-10 Dallas, knowing the scenario they would face: the Sidekicks have a March 28 TV game that’s been on the schedule since before the league’s season was shortened by a month. Based on playoff scheduling, that means it has to be the return leg of the series.
But will it matter? Ontario is clearly superior to Dallas. The Fury will be making hay in the MASL awards this year, with guys like Maicon de Abreu a virtual shoo-in for First Team and all-MASL defender. I’ll have my eyes as always on Franck Tayou, wondering if he’s still a little nicked up and working as a hard-nosed and smart teammate on both sides of the ball (but not the dominant attacking force), or if he’s back to Hat Trick Franck. Either way, Ontario’s attack now goes just as much through Charlie Gonzalez, and he’s tough to mark.
So, the Fury *should* make easy work of the ‘Kicks at Toyota Arena on Wednesday, as Dallas hasn’t been competitive on the road all season. And Ontario *should* take care of business on the road Saturday; the Sidekicks have won four matches in two seasons! But if…if, if if…if it comes down to one mini-game, one quarter, it will be a quarter on the road with fans and pressure. I’d still take the Fury. But TV is our ultimate mistress.
#3 Kansas City vs #4 St. Louis
In a COVID world, why travel? I figured at least one selecting club would make this decision, and it turned out to be the Comets. They’ll have a series on their hands.
The Ambush have won four of five, doing so with some imports taking the place of needed veterans. I still don’t know if I can select St. Louis with any confidence if they don’t have Max Ferdinand out there at full health. Duduca is out for the season, and is also an impact player. New acquisitions Patrick Thompson, William Essay and Jerjer Gibson have all contributed. St. Louis was one of the teams hardest hit by COVID, and yet they’ve stayed together.
The Comets, meanwhile, have won six of seven and would be the statistical pick with home field advantage, a +25 goal differential and the more recent win in the 1-1 head-to-head series, a 9-5 victory on February 12. You know Leo Gibson will do his part; the question is if the younger performers on Kansas City are ready to rise to the occasion, like standout rookie Lucas Sousa and second-year keeper Nicolau Neto. I look at Neto and his counterpart Paulo and see an identical .706 save percentage…tells me this one’s gonna be close. I think we see a mini-game in this series! KC’s the pick, but I would be shocked if the Ambush don’t make it interesting.
#5 San Diego vs #6 Tacoma (in Ontario)
When I joked on Sockers Overtime last week that the Sockers “failed upward” into their playoff position, it was in no way a knock on the competition. Anyone who saw the 2019 classic double-OT marathon between these two clubs knows what Sockers-Stars can look like, and that was before Tacoma fortified mightily from the outside for the mini-season.
The point was, here’s a 4-6 San Diego club that has struggled (until last Saturday) to score any goals, and instead of facing a hostile crowd on the road as they’ve done all season, they will be in a neutral site in Southern California, while Tacoma has to travel south. For the two nomads of the West Coast, the Sockers get to feel more like home.
I have already anointed St. Louis as “Team Interesting” this season, but as In the Box’s Adam Granatella noted, the Sockers could really have taken the crown late. San Diego’s struggled and while the club is reliably rugged defensively, watching them play offense can sometimes be offensive to the senses. Tacoma has the goalkeeping to make for an All-Star matchup every game, and neutralize one of the Sockers’ biggest strengths. Both clubs have big boys, like to slow it down, and have the know-how to come from behind, but neither have lit up the scoreboard, personnel be damned.
These clubs know each other, and there are many Stars who once were Sockers. Both clubs were smacked by COVID this year, and forced to play without home fans or support. To see them with losing records isn’t shocking. I’m not going to render a pick on a series I’ll both be announcing, and involving the club I work for, but I do expect it to be a good one.
If you haven’t, make sure you jump in for the Ron Newman Cup Playoff Pass, on the MASL Facebook page. A $39.99 rate for a guaranteed 12 playoff matches (with who knows how many mini-games!) is the lowest rate the league has offered all year. As we’ve said all year, with these fortified lineups, there are six teams that could take it all…and one other that has home-field advantage in the first round.
Enjoy the games, everyone!
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Craig’s Corner is a weekly opinion column in which Craig Elsten looks at the good, the bad, and the funny in the world of arena soccer.