by Pete Richmire

Welcome back into the Corner, where I’m looking up to see if I can chip Paulo from here…let’s look back at what happened this past weekend, and what’s to come.

The Art of the Lead

The Kansas City Comets are a club in transition, with a couple of aging stars (player/head coach Leo Gibson, John Sosa) from their championship past, a couple of key role players in their prime (the ascendant but currently injured Kevin Ellis, Ray Lee), and a large group of young players who are rising in stature while learning on the job.

Watch the Comets, and you can see the talent coming together. Nicolau Neto is an exciting shot-stopper in net, though his decision making with his feet is still a work in progress. Rookie midfielder Lucas Souza worked his way through a Stars triple-team on Friday night before setting up an open chance; he’s got foot skills and a great shot, and is an All-Rookie Team candidate. Forward Rian Marques is a load, and was denied a hat trick last week only due to a Magui kick-out.

Watch the Comets, and you’ll usually see this young talent take the lead. After falling behind in their season opener to Dallas 3-0 early, Kansas City rallied and won 8-5. In Florida, they led the Tropics 3-0 and 6-3. In St. Louis, a 6-3 lead in the second half. At home against Tacoma, a 5-2 lead in the third quarter.

But here’s the thing: watch the Comets, and you’ll see there’s a tail to this story. KC is treating a three-goal lead like a teenager treats his parents’ car; carelessly and with little regard to the consequences. With an opening weekend win and three other three-goal leads, the Comets are 1-4.

There’s no one reason why. Sometimes, head coach Leo Gibson’s high pressure style winds up cutting both ways, as his players don’t have the juice left in the fourth quarter to keep up the attack. Occasionally, it’s been a flurry of cards that have collapsed the Comets’ lead. This weekend, it was a short-handed goal against, while on a power play in the final two minutes.

Kansas City is halfway there. They’re great at gaining the lead, and pretty good at building it. Holding onto a lead, though…there’s an art to it, and the kids are still fingerpainting in that class.

Paulo Paulo Paulo

We’ve had some intriguing matchups in net already this season, with the aforementioned Neto doing battle, Gamboa in a shooting gallery down in Dallas, and Hugo Silva authoring the first shutout of the season (with a lot of help from his friends). Tell me though, has there been a matchup more fun that St. Louis’ Paulo battling Tacoma’s Danny Waltman?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Danny play live and in person, when the Sockers visited the Missouri Comets in 2014. Late in the second quarter, my jaw hit the table as I saw Waltman spot an open seam along the right wall, come all the way deep into the attacking zone, and cross a pass for an easy goal, tapping the *opposite* goal wall to his own as the ball was scored.

On Sunday, Danny watched as the same scenario played out in reverse. In the fourth quarter (in the MASL, keepers can’t cross midfield until the final stanza), Paulo worked a two-man game of possession until he crossed the center stripe. Spotting an open right win, he charged in. Two touches later, a right-footed volley caromed off Adrian Gutierrez in front of the net and put St. Louis ahead 3-1.

If anyone knew the potential payoffs and pitfalls of such a move, it was Waltman. Less than two minutes later, the same situation presented itself. Paulo saw a seam, and made a run. Again, two touches and a shot on goal. This time, Waltman was standing in the middle of the crease to secure the ball strongly with two hands.

If you watch the clip back, you’ll see a moment—just a split second—where Danny looks at Paulo, like, “I got you.”

An immediate outlet distribution, a push of the ball to near midfield by Nick Perera, and there was Douglas Lima, ready to chip. Into the net the ball floated, with Paulo hopeless to the result.

Paulo got my vote for Team of the Week for his daring goal, and a handful of terrific saves. The lesson, though: you can make the daring run…once.

The Next Test

It’s one of those old sports axioms: one match at a time, every match is a new test. This year, the concept of the “next test” must be taken both seriously and literally, as regular testing for the COVID-19 virus can and will lead to disruptions. Our first and most cogent example came this weekend, as one positive test (following multiple negatives on the same person) led to four Tacoma players being held out due to precaution against St. Louis. It certainly wasn’t an ideal outcome for the second game of a weekend set, and the Stars’ 5-3 loss was certainly influenced by the lack of available personnel. If you don’t believe me, consider that MASL Goalkeeper of the Year Chris Toth was suited up as a forward on Sunday, just in case.

The league demands negative tests before leaving for a match, once arriving in the host city, and prior to the match, appropriate protocol in a pandemic. One issue: the rapid-response tests are generally around 60-70% accurate, while the more accurate PCR tests are slower to return results. The hope is that a preponderance of testing will overcome the test’s inherent flaws, casting a wide enough net to capture COVID positive results before they infect the rest of the club.

This is going to inevitably lead to inequal and capricious results, all during a season where some clubs will play no home games to begin with. Fair to say, a forgiving playoff structure may be The Next Test for the MASL front office.

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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.