by Lindsay Durham

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints or positions of the Major Arena Soccer League.**


Just two games remain in the 2024 Ron Newman Cup Playoffs, and it’s fair to say they’ve been spectacular. Every tie, rife with unpredictability, has led us here. Kansas City and Chihuahua will face off over two legs for the league’s championship, but before a ball is kicked at Cable Dahmer Arena, let’s look at how these two teams got here.

We’ll start with the Savage and their remarkable return to this stage. Last season's defending champions staged a respectable title defense during the regular season, but their standards meant the bar was higher than they managed.

They lost all six meetings with Monterrey and dropped both games in a weekend road series against the Stars, however, they managed to right those wrongs in the playoffs, beating both Tacoma and San Diego through the Knockout Game, while Monterrey went out in the first round.

During the regular season, Chihuahua finished with the fewest goals against and the second-highest goal differential, despite no Savage players finishing in the top 15 for goals, assists, or points. Forward Hugo Puentes led his side with 34 points in 24 regular season games, but he’s hit his stride in the postseason.

His 11 points in six games lead Chihuahua on the back of a four-goal and five-point performance in game one against San Diego. One of Chihuahua’s biggest strengths is depth, but it’s also crucial to have key players they can rely on to step up in the high-intensity moments.

Against the Sockers, the Savage found different ways to win. They played San Diego three times during the regular season, winning all three contests, but there was little doubt that the Sockers could keep it close.

At Corner Sport Arena, Chihuahua’s style embodied “Fútbol Rápido”, with high-intensity pressing, quick counterattacks, and chaotic play, ensuring that their visitors had no chance to think. They appear to benefit from lucky bounces more often than their opponents, but it’s not luck. It’s skill and ability taking control. Nine Chihuahua players registered a point on the night, including goalkeeper Diego Reynoso, who bagged himself a goal and two assists on top of his already superb 81.8% save percentage in a comprehensive 13-7 win.

On the road, the Savage struggled out of the gates but forced overtime thanks to three clutch goals in the second half. Though the Sockers won 5-4 in triple overtime to force Knockout Game three, the Savage came back in different jerseys and showed exactly why they deserve to be in the Finals. Luis Medrano and Jose Gilberto Lopez put Chihuahua up 2-0 before Brandon Escoto made things interesting with 45 seconds to go. The Savage managed to hang on and beat San Diego on the road in the Knockout Game to clinch a spot in the Ron Newman Cup Finals for the second consecutive year.

Now to the East and a team riding their broom through the playoffs. Kansas City was among the most in-form teams going into the postseason and has kept that going against Utica and then Milwaukee. They swept the former thanks to a healthy offense, but primarily to their spectacular defense, which kept their opponents to just nine goals across the two games.

Against the Wave, that defense stood firm again. Milwaukee only scored three goals without power plays or the sixth-attacker, all of which came in game one. Nicolau Neto seemed impenetrable, with 33 saves across both games for a combined save percentage of 76.7%. His defense helped him tremendously, with 23 blocks including nine from Defender of the Year, Robert Palmer.

On the road, The Comets jumped out to an early lead before the Wave stormed back and looked poised to claim a win in game one with a 4-3 lead and just 1:15 left on the clock. Then came one of two critical conversions from Kansas City.

With the Comets trailing, desperate for a goal, Palmer, adorned in the bright yellow sixth-attacker jersey, sailed a pass to the back post where Lucas Sousa headed home the equalizer. Less than a minute later, Zach Reget’s spectacular volley past William Banahene gave the Comets the 5-4 win.

Leg two followed a unique trajectory. The Comets scored five straight goals through the first three quarters before adding a sixth early in the fourth for good measure. Wave head coach Giuliano Oliviero stuck with his trusty sixth-attacker and soon, Milwaukee found its first goal through Derek Huffman. Then, Ricardo Carvalho and Ian Bennett got in on the act. Pretty soon, the Wave had equalized through Mario Alvarez.

All the work Kansas City had done was wiped away and standing before Comets head coach Stefan Stokic and his side was a team riding a wave of momentum. Max Ferdinand tapped home Milwaukee’s seventh to inexplicably take the lead, on the road, with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter. No points for guessing what happened next.

Out trots the Comets and Robert Palmer, this time draped in blue, attempting to come back in a game they once led by six goals. Kansas City circled possession, allowing Rian Marques the space to send the ball flying off the corner boards and back out between the yellow line and the top of the arc. There, waiting and willing to send the Cable Dahmer Arena into pandemonium, was Palmer. One swift strike off his right foot sent the game to overtime and crushed all of the Wave’s momentum.

In overtime, a rare sixth-attacker error from Milwaukee allowed Christian Anderaos the opportunity to steal the ball with an open net and he made no mistake, dancing his way past Carvalho before calmly slotting his shot past Alvarez in goal to send the Comets to the Ron Newman Cup Finals for the first time.

The Comets are the league’s hottest team, riding a ten-game winning streak. During that stretch, they’ve outscored their opponents 78-51. The last team to beat them, however, was the Chihuahua Savage. The two teams have faced off twice this season, each hosting the contest once. Chihuahua won both games, though it's important to add some context.

Their first meeting on Jan. 19, was Kansas City’s fourth straight loss in what became an eight-game skid. It was also their third consecutive game on the road in Mexico, after two taxing losses to Monterrey. Chihuahua dominated from the start and eventually ran out 8-2 winners though, the Comets were without Neto in goal and hadn’t yet implemented their high-pressing system so take that result with a grain of salt.

Stokic revamped his team’s style of play midway through the season, just in time to host the Savage a month later. Their superb defenses combined for the joint second-lowest scoring game this season which ended with Chihuahua winning 3-2 after overtime. Both Neto and Reynoso put on a show, making 15 and 11 saves respectively, while their defenses blocked a combined 34 shots. Brandon González emerged the hero on the day, with Chihuahua’s opener and the game-winning goal just 26 seconds into overtime.

Going into the Finals weekend, the Comets are, numerically at least, the underdogs. They’re the league’s first-ever Finals representative seeded lower than second in their division, and again, they lost to the Savage twice this season. However, count KC out at your own risk. During their two games against the Sockers, the Comets averaged a +4.5 goal differential per game compared to the Savage’s +2.4 through five games (not including the Knockout Game).

Kansas City can be competitive, but the key will be putting more pressure on Reynoso in goal. In their two games, Reynoso has averaged a save percentage of 86.2%, or 11.2% higher than his regular season average. The Comets should lower that figure by creating better opportunities and capitalizing on them at a higher rate. If that happens, their defense should be capable of holding their opponents, allowing them to steal a win, especially at home.

For the Savage, they need to continue embracing the unpredictability they’ve perfected up to this point. Their defensive shape will be among their chief strengths, but playing through the Comets press and generating as many shots as possible will be imperative. At Corner Sport Arena, turn defense into attack, keep their opponents uncomfortable, and they should be golden.

If a Knockout Game is required, watch for roster alterations and maybe even a wardrobe change. Head Coach Genoni Martinez holds his team to a high standard, and there are few better in these do-or-die situations. They’ll have the home-field advantage and likely will make full use of it, but they’re also capable of winning on the road, giving them a chance to clinch the title during game two in Chihuahua.

You absolutely won’t want to miss a second of the action. Game one kicks off from Cable Dahmer Arena on Sunday, Apr. 28 at 5:05 p.m. EDT before the two teams travel to Mexico for game two on Tuesday, Apr. 30 at 10:05 p.m. EDT live from Corner Sport Arena, with Knockout Game Three to be played immediately following game two if necessary.