From MLS to MASL

by Michael Lewis

When Kevin Ellis dons his Kansas City soccer jersey this weekend, it won't be for the team that signed him to a Homegrown Player contract eight years ago, Sporting Kansas City.

Instead, he will don the shirt of the Kansas City Comets.

Ellis is at the cusp of what Major Arena Soccer League officials hope will become much more common in coming years -- outdoor players, many from Major League Soccer, turning to play in the great indoors.

"My wife and I were talking about this when I was going to make a decision to play or not," Ellis said. "We both grew up and we went to all of the games. I went to tons of games. It was a big family thing for us. I had the rare opportunity of playing for the two teams that I grew up supporting."

Ellis, 27, who performed for Sporting for seven seasons and also for the Chicago Fire and D.C. United, decided it was time for a slight career change this season and perform in another version of soccer.

So, when he put on the Comets shirt for the first time prior to an 8-2 loss to the Milwaukee Wave on Feb. 16, Ellis said it "was really cool."

"At any level that you grew up supporting, going to games and cheering for as a kid, putting that shirt on, to represent that team is a big accomplishment in a very meaningful moment," he said.

Ellis is one of 21 former MLS players who have moved into the arena game, a trend that was given much publicity in recent weeks with the additions of such well-known internationals as Landon Donovan and Jermaine Jones from the U.S. and Dwayne DeRosario from Canada.

All told, eight MASL clubs have players with MLS ties performing these days:

  • Ontario Fury -- Israel Sesay (LA Galaxy), Tino Nunez (Real Salt Lake), Tony Walls (Chicago Fire), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids, Galaxy)
  • Tacoma Stars -- Raphael Cox (RSL), Joey Gjertsen (Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, San Jose Earthquakes), Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders, Montreal, D.C. United), Philip Lund (Seattle). (Note: James Riley – New England Revolution, San Jose, Seattle, Chivas USA, D.C, LA, Colorado -- has been sidelined for the season with an injury)
  • Mississauga MetroStars -- Mo Babouli (Toronto FC), Adrian Cann (Colorado Rapids, Toronto), Dwayne DeRosario (San Jose, Houston Dynamo, Toronto, New York Red Bulls, D.C.)
  • Dallas Sidekicks -- Jose Burciaga (Kansas City Wizards, Colorado), Mike Jones (Sporting Kansas City, Red Bulls) Michel Pereira (FC Dallas)
  • Orlando SeaWolves -- Lewis Neal (D.C., Orlando City SC), Luke Boden (Orlando), Tyler Turner (Orlando)
  • San Diego Sockers -- Landon Donovan (San Jose, LA)
  • Kansas City Comets -- Kevin Ellis (Kansas City, Chicago, D.C.)
  • Utica City FC -- Stephen Deroux (D.C.)

"You're seeing a pattern where the MASL is becoming a bastion of players of ending their outdoor career and continuing their indoor career," MASL commissioner Joshua Schaub said. "It's simply a different game and you can extend your career by four or five years at least in the indoor game. It's just another piece of momentum for this league pushing forward to gain attention, to gain awareness and to really show that the indoor game and outdoor game can work hand in hand to create a good product in this country."

Jones, 37, who made 69 appearances for the U.S. as a relentless defensive midfielder, looked forward to his latest challenge.

“My motivation for coming here was the whole package,” Jones said. “I love and miss the game and I enjoy the challenge of what is ahead for us in the coming weeks.

“I’ve been away for a little while and coming back to play indoor soccer seemed like a great opportunity.”

As it was for the 37-year-old Donovan, the U.S. men's all-time leader in international goals and assists.

"This was an opportunity to check off boxes," he said. "Does it make me happy? Is it enjoyable? Am I passionate about it? Is it good for my family and me? This checks off all those boxes. Why wouldn’t I do that? For me it was a no-brainer.”

While the games both involve a soccer ball, arena and outdoor soccer are completely different games.

Outdoor is much slower as teams try to build up to find a way to solve the opposition's defense.

Arena soccer usually goes at a frenetic pace and players must think on their feet much, much quicker. Add sideboards, where the ball can't go out of bounds and rebounds, it becomes a different ball game in so many ways.

Translated: transitioning to the arena game can take weeks, months and even a season.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Ellis, a defender, has enjoyed a productive transition, scoring six times in five appearances. He also has a four-game goal-scoring streak.

"It’s a completely different game," he said. "I was lucky enough that I played indoor my whole life while growing up until I started playing in the academy with Sporting here. I basically played indoor all the way until I was 15-years-old. So, being able to have that experience and call on some of that knowledge I had growing up, with some of the rules, it helps the transition.

"The biggest thing was that I understood how fast-paced the game was. It's a much faster pace than the outdoor game because it's smaller, less time. Also, you play two minutes maximum at a time so you're able to go in and give everything you have for two minutes and you have two minutes to rest. The fitness level for me, I was in a great place retiring from the outdoor game. My fitness levels were high and I think helps the transition."

Donovan, the most celebrated U.S. men's player of all time, had a reputation of being at a high match fitness level.

Add his superior skills and extraordinary vision of the game and his switch to arena soccer has been relatively smooth, at least to the arena soccer fans.

Entering this weekend's action, Donovan has recorded three goals and six assists in three matches.

"The only work my brain's been doing lately is changing diapers, so it's nice to have something a little different in my arsenal and it will take a little bit of time," Donovan said when he signed. "But it's nice to sharpen up again because this game, much more than the outdoor game, I think, requires real attention to detail in every moment ... In a second, someone can run by you, and in a second it's off the boards and behind you, and you have to be aware and paying attention constantly."

Schaub has kept his fingers crossed that Donovan and his high-profile colleagues won't see the 2018-19 season as a one-off situation.

"We hope, we hope," he said. "He hasn't signed an extension. This year was kind of a proving ground of what he does, does he enjoy. Is he having fun? I would say the early results, just looking at the field, I would say he's having a ton of fun. I also note that he's made some comments that he's part of a team and it’s not just about Landon Donovan. I think that's important as well moving forward."

In fact, Schaub sees the likes of Donovan, Jones, Ellis, Neagle and company just the start of something big for the league.

"Absolutely, and not limiting us to American players," he said. "I think we're going to see some Mexican stars start coming into the league as well. So far, so good on the economic side in terms of these players coming in, obviously demanding a little more money based on their history, but the tickets are being sold, justifying the spend on those players. I don't think that is critically important to make this continue to work going forward."

Ellis agreed and elaborated.

"It's not over," he said. "I think you're going to see more and more players starting to do it. As you get the opportunity and have some success, and when you close the chapter on the outdoor game, which is such a grind -- it's a full 12-month job -- you have the opportunity to still compete at a high level. For me, it's a perfect balance of competition and being able to be a little more laid back with the guys. That's very appealing to guys who have competed in MLS for a long time. You still want to compete. I don't think that will ever go away, but to be able to compete and to be able to have a little more fun to be doing it, I just think it’s a no-brainer."

While he didn't name names, Ellis has talked to some other MLS players who have expressed interest in joining the MASL someday.

"They've seen how much I've enjoyed it," he said. "I'm doing well in the game as well. I think that interests them, whether that's soon or down the road, when they decide they don't want to play the outdoor game anymore, I don't think that it's over. I think you'll see a trend of a lot more guys coming into the league. Maybe younger guys as well. I'm only 27, so, I think that coming in now, I can play this game for a long time."

It certainly hasn't hurt that the signings of Donovan and Jones have created a buzz about the league. Given their history and reputation, the addition of Donovan and Jones made just about every major soccer website and wound up in many sports sections of online and print publications.

The league produced a media study after Donovan signed.

"I'll tell you, from the media coverage we got out of that, the juice was worth the squeeze in that respect," Schaub said. "Every signing that happens, people are starting to pay attention to us. There's no doubt about it. I think it's just going gain more and more traction, with more eye balls, more attention and more sponsorships. So, this eco-system will start feeding on itself in terms of the attention we are getting and help lift us every day."