Defending in the MASL - Axel Duarte

In the high-scoring universe of arena soccer, Axel Duarte doesn't get an opportunity to celebrate many goals that he has tallied.

After all, the St. Louis Ambush defender's top priority is defending and denying goal celebrations.

But he certainly gets his kicks on making sure he stops opposing attackers in the Major Arena Soccer League from doing so.

"It is huge for the team. The fans appreciate it as well," Duarte recently said. And you can see all over the league, people can see, especially at the end of the fourth quarter, if you do a huge block for the team, defenders celebrate that almost as a goal."

The 25-year-old Venezuelan native leads the league with 24 blocked shots. Now, shot-blocking leaders aren't usually feted in soccer, but it is an accomplishment of which Duarte is proud.

"I think it's just a matter of how intense I am defensively," he said. "It's something this year that coach ... is asking for from everybody on the team. I feel lucky to be in the right spot at the right time. I am willing to sacrifice my body as well for the best of the team."

When Duarte says body, it can range anywhere from his feet and legs, stomach and even face.

Yeah, especially the face.

That came against Kansas City Comets midfielder Lucas Rodriguez. Duarte produced a personal-best six blocked shots in an 8-5 win the Comets on Jan. 18.

"He had a clear header towards goal," Duarte said. "I basically turned. The header just came right to my face. That was terrible, but it was on goal. So, mission accomplished, I guess."

Duarte had three blocked shots that game.

Due to the fast nature of arena soccer, anyone defending doesn't have much time to react. So it is all about getting in the way of the shot. And players can't pick which part of the body the ball will hit.

"It's just super random," he said. "The main thing is to get down on the floor so you can block a low shot and give our goalkeeper the chance to get a clear view from the shot."

Duarte's favorite blocked shot?


That came against the Florida Tropics at the Family Arena on Jan. 5. St. Louis was clinging to a 5-4 lead with 15 seconds remaining in the match before Duarte knocked away Lucas Montelares' attempt.

"At the end of the game we were winning by one goal and it got nominated as one of the top plays from that week," he said.

Duarte felt his most difficult block came in the 7-6 victory over the host Orlando SeaWolves on Jan. 25. The SeaWolves enjoyed a two-man power-play advantage.

"I think that was the toughest," he said. "It's already hard being a man down. Being two men down was harder and we were able to kill it as well."

Now, while Duarte has been a defensive hero, his most memorable MASL moments have come when no one blocked his shots.

He tallied his very first arena goal against the Cedar Rapids Rampage last season and added his second in that Jan. 25 triumph vs. Orlando. St. Louis had fallen behind 2-0 and Duarte struck for the first goal to spark a comeback.

"I usually don't score a lot, so that's just always great," he said.

As it turns out, Duarte hasn't played a game since due to a strained hip flexor. He hoped to return to the field soon.

"I was being very conservative about the injury," he said. "It was a muscle that I didn't want to try to push and try to come back earlier than I should, especially because I knew we needed a strong end of the season. I just wanted to be at 100 percent to help the team to reach our goal, for sure."

As the second-place Ambush (8-8) strives for the second South Central Division playoff spot -- the first-place Milwaukee Wave (12-2) probably enjoys too great of a lead to be caught -- St. Louis will battle Orlando (5-5) and Kansas City (7-7) down the stretch in the 24-game regular season.

Duarte liked the Ambush's chances.

"A lot of people were counting us out of the competition again his year," he said. "We improved a lot. Our record didn't show it. We lost by one against Baltimore. We lost by one over there in Milwaukee. We had some really close games against some tough teams. The record didn't show how much improvement we had last year. So, this year, I think we have more experience overall. This is my third year in the league and right now this is when I finally feel like 'Ok, I have a better [understanding] of the walls.' I know the players in the league, what their tendencies are. It's a process. We put in a lot of hard work during the preseason. It's paying off right now. Hopefully it will keep going."

Oh yeah, one more thing about the division race. Duarte warned about not taking the last-place Florida Tropics (4-11) seriously.

"A lot of people are counting out Florida, but I wouldn't count anybody out," he said. "In this league, momentum is everything. If you're team is not having a good day, you're probably going to lose. If a team is maybe not doing as well in the season and having a good day, they're going to win. You've just got to be prepared every single game. That's what we're trying to do, focusing every single game. Hopefully, at the end we can clinch that second spot."

While getting himself back into game shape for the stretch run, the 6-foot, 175-lb. Duarte has had plenty to think about what has transpired in his native Venezuela.

There has been much turmoil in the South American country. Nicolás Maduro recently was sworn into his second six-year term as president, but Juan Guaidó, the leader of the legislature, has declared himself acting president.

While his mother, father and immediate family were able to leave the country, Duarte still has cousins, aunts, uncles and family still living there.

"I am hoping for the best that can be resolved as quick as we can, said Duarte," who came to the United States on scholarship to play at Lindenwood University in 2010. Hopefully, something happens. We need a change. The same people have been in power since 1999. Right now, a lot of people are asking me about Venezuela, which is good. But they don't know. They think it is a recent issue. We have been with the same government since 1999. It's been crazy."

A few years ago, Duarte wanted to play in the Venezuelan second division, but decided against it.

"Too risky to play," he said.

"It's a shame because it’s a great country and we should have a lot of opportunities. It’s just not the right time right now."

Duarte said anyone watching news from Venezuela is better informed than his countrymen and women.

"It’s weird because sometimes people outside the country are more informed than the people who are in the country because the government controls all the media even though they say they don't," he said. "When I was there two years ago, after practice it was like chaos. It was almost like a civil war' people protesting all the stuff and if I turned on TV it was like nothing was happening. They showed it was like another day in Caracas. So that's the crazy part.

"I think for a while we were trying to find a leader who was able to create a different movement. I think this guy Guaidó is trying the right thing, has done the right thing. I think a lot of people believe in him, so hopefully it could be a new start for the country."