For the Milwaukee Wave, there's no place like home
There's certainly no place like home, especially when its the championship game of a playoff series.
For most of the Major Arena Soccer League season, many observers felt that the San Diego Sockers would host the final.
After all, the Sockers rolled through the regular season with only one defeat. The Monterrey Flash, however, inflicted an historic loss on San Diego in a conference final week, giving the Milwaukee Wave an opportunity to host the final on their black field at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in its quest for the coveted Ron Newman Cup this Sunday.
"Any time you're at home and you've got home cooking and you're sleeping in your own bed, you know the arena, you've been there all season long, the fans’ support is behind you, it helps you get through tough moments," Wave head coach Giuliano Oliviero said. "If we get off to a great start maybe the crowd will get into it even more.
"I know Monterrey wants to take the crowd out of it, but it helps. One game series maybe not as much. Monterrey is just as good away as they are at home. We know that. If you gave us the choice, our first choice would be hosting the Ron Newman championship."
The Wave (21-3 regular season) and the Flash (19-5) will battle for the title, named after the legendary coach who directed the Sockers to an astounding 11 indoor championships.
Milwaukee lost but once at home this regular season -- to the Kansas City Comets, 7-6, on Jan. 11 -- en route to an 11-1 mark, while Monterrey sported an impressed 8-4 away record, which doesn't include that 5-4 overtime win over San Diego last week.
The teams will try to impose their styles on each other.
"I think there's going to be other factors involved," Oliviero said. "You know the old cliché, that every game has a different personality. So, we know they’re a great possession team. We know they have certain individuals like Franck Tayou, Brayan Aguilar and Chile Farias at 43 years of age that has the skill to do it. they've got players who can make plays at any time. So, we've got to watch out for some of their guys like Damian Garcia coming out of the back with his big left foot. But overall, we play our game, we take their strengths away, we find weaknesses we can expose.
"It could come down to who is better on special teams, power plays, man downs and restarts. We're covering our bases. We want to go in as prepared as possible. Hopefully, having the seventh man with our great fans puts us over the top."
The last time these two rivals met was in Monterrey on Jan. 14, 2018, when the Flash registered a 14-10 victory.
"It was an interesting game," Oliviero said. "We went down early. We went to the half with a 5-4 lead. We lost Robert Renaud right at the end of the half. He was having fantastic season. That was the last game he played that year. ... They came back in the second half and won the game. So, it was a great game. It was in their building. They did a great job. I give them credit that night. I don't think we are the same team we were at that time."
By the way, Renaud will be ready to play for the Wave Sunday.
Oliviero felt that that game had no bearing on what will transpire on Sunday.
"I don't put too much emphasis on that game," he said. "It was good to see the different style of play that Monterrey brings. Soccer is in their blood. They've got a great bunch of individual players. They're in the championship game for a reason.
"It is a lot different than playing the Baltimore Blast. We're going to bring out our game plan the way we play. We're going to stick to it and from there we'll tweak a couple of things that Monterrey does well that we're going to have to take away. Also look at the other side of that and where we can have success. overall. It is about us worrying about ourselves and being ready come Sunday."
The contest will feature the league’s leading goal-scorers -- Monterrey's Tayou (50 goals) and Milwaukee's Ian Bennett (47).
"It's a great match-up. It's exciting," Oliviero said. "I think they are two different types of players. Their size might play into that as well. Franck's big target, he's got a great shot. He's scored some great goals the past few seasons. He's been a pleasure to watch.
"Then I look at Ian Bennett. "This guy does it all. He's the point of our man-down team. He's the first guy back on defense. So, he's just not a goal-scorer even though he's so fun to watch on the attack and has scored some great goals. You know what? He's on everything for us. He's our defensive sixth attack point man. So, I look at these players and wow, Ian truly does it all. In the MVP voting, I hope people look at that. I could be biased, but I get to see him every day. I get to see him working on his defense in practice. I get to see him getting up and down the field in practice. I know what he's put into this season and in past seasons for the fans. They get to watch it on game day. They're spoiled, they're lucky. I think its going to be two great players doing head to head."
Both semifinal tussles last week were close encounters.
The Flash escaped San Diego with that overtime triumph while the Wave held off the three-time defending champion Baltimore Blast by a rather unusual 2-1 indoor result at home.
"I'm in my 25th season in the arena game and honestly it was the lowest scoring game that I have been a part of," Oliviero said.
What the game lacked in goals was made up in excitement and drama. Regardless of how many scores there might be in a game, nursing a one-goal lead certainly can provide much drama.
"Absolutely," Oliviero said.
"It was a very tough task last Sunday. You play the three-time defending champions the Baltimore Blast is a team that knows how to win away from home just as well as they know how to win at home. When the game become more meaningful it seems they always are at their best. To our team play the way they did and commit to the defensive side of the ball the way they did and really just really gutted it out to the last play of the game says a lot of character and how much we've grown in the past couple of years."
Holding any arena team to only one goal, especially when so much was on the line in the postseason, is virtually unheard of.
"This goes back to the commitment and the players buying into the defensive side of the ball," Oliviero said. "This didn't happen in the last two weeks. This is something that we had in our first preseason meeting on Nov. 1, what it was going to take to get to the top and have a chance to win another championship. This has been six months of the players working hard. Nobody sees that, the preparation part of it. I give the players full credit in their work ethic on the practice field starting back on Nov. 1. To see them reaping the rewards against the Baltimore Blast and see them have a chance to win the organization’s seventh championship, it speaks volumes of their character and competitiveness and how badly they want to accomplish the goal of winning an MASL championship."
Oliviero praised the entire team for its defensive effort but felt that goalkeeper Josh Lemos truly stood out.
"It was the entire team committing to it," he said. "If you ask me what Josh Lemos' biggest strengths are, it would be workrate, possession, team. Josh Lemos is a great decision-maker. He's probably the most skilled goalkeeper with his feet in the entire league. Looking at that part of it, if he adds something more as far as his shot-stopping skills, he's the best in the league. To see his goals-against average go down and his save percentage go up, not only in the regular season, but especially in the playoffs, when it matters most it, tells you about the work he's put in this year. And Rafael Dias, he played a big role as well. Not only did he play in nine games this season, he's also our goalkeeper coach, so you've got to give him credit as well. And from there, I think it just stems out to the guys in front of them and their commitment to blocked shots and really discourage and take belief away from our opponents that they're going to score goals on us."
Milwaukee has an incredible arena soccer tradition. Every Wave fan knows that the team is gunning for its seventh title. But here's an interesting tidbit, which says a lot about the consistency of the team: Milwaukee hasn't had a sub-par season since the 1992-93 National Professional Soccer League season. That's 26 years ago, more than a generation ago.
Now, that's pretty remarkable.
"When you look at it like that, it just tells you that it's a very special organization," Oliviero said. "It's committed to excellence and a winning tradition. To be back in a championship game. I think our last one was back in 2012, we're absolutely excited for the organization, the city of Milwaukee couldn't be happier. When you look back at the early 90's -- I got here in the mid-90's -- it’s an organization from day one that has been committed to winning. To see it still happening in 2019, it just speaks volumes for the organization and the owners over the years. So, our goal Sunday is to bring another championship to Milwaukee."
Now, the Wave is 60 minutes away from adding another piece of hardware to its trophy case.
"It would be an extremely special moment when you see your hard work and see the team's hard work and everything they put into it," Oliviero said. "You expect nothing less. I want it for our players. You look at our organization and our ownership and Mike Zimmerman and [COO] Dan Kuenzi, giving us the tools and everything to make it possible. I want it for them as well and just for the city of Milwaukee. It's a fantastic sports town. It has it all and the Milwaukee Wave just adds to that Milwaukee being a great sports city."