Homegrown Talent: Pirates to Comets

Sometime prior to the 6:05 p.m. CT kickoff of the Kansas City Comets home game against the Milwaukee Wave tonight, Park University men's soccer coach Efrem Shimlis will settle into his seat at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, Mo. 

Shimlis will root for the home team to do well, but he probably will hope for as many as seven players that he is quite familiar with to excel against the defending Major Arena Soccer League champions. 

And for good reason, he coached those players at the university. 

"It's fun to watch them," he said. "It's good to see familiar faces and support the local teams here." 

That includes midfielders Kiel Williams, Lucas Sousa, who is an assistant women's coach at Park, and Ignacio (Nacho) Flores, defenders Mirko Sandivari and Roberto Palmer and forwards Stefan Stokic and Ramone Palmer. 

"It's so good to watch these kids you know personally for a long period of time," said Shimlis, who played one season with the Kansas City Attack indoor team. "You see them day in and day out in different aspects. I can't even begin to tell you the feeling of pride that I have inside to watch them play. Some of them have kids and families. There's nothing like that for a coach. 

"There are times when you see three or four of them on the same line playing. It's a beautiful thing to watch. When they played here, some of them played together on our Park team. When they won the championship a few years ago, [I was glad] to see how happy they were. Although we haven't won any championships here [recently], we are a decent team. I was just so happy to see them to be successful as far as winning a championship." 

The Comets returned in 2010 and captured the last MISL championship in 2013-14 before joining the MASL the next season.

Park University, which competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), has helped stock the Comets roster for years. 

It was not known exactly how far back the Park-Comets connection goes or when it exactly began, although he probably had its roots back in the day. Former Nigerian international Ben Popoola played for the Kansas City Comets during the 1981-82 Major Indoor Soccer League season and became coach of the men's and women's soccer teams at Park. That probably didn't hurt relations between the school and indoor club. 

Erik Bergrud, associate vice president for university engagement at Park, estimated there have been at least 15 players who have competed for both teams. 

"As the MISL and MASL evolved in the 2000s, they were looking for new talent and saw schools like Park as an opportunity because of the quality technical players that we recruit," said Bergrud, who has been a color commentator on its TV games. "So, we became a natural pipeline here." 

It has worked out quite well because Shimlis has liked "very technical players," Bergrud said, and those type of performers usually transition well and quickly to the arena game. 

"When everyone's done with their eligibility, they're looking to do something and some would like to exhaust the options of playing the next level," Shimlis said. "The comets give them the opportunity and once the opportunity is given, they step up and take advantage of that opportunity." 

There are some obvious advantages of having players from the same college playing for a nearby pro side.

"One advantage is pride in the community and team," Bergrud said, "especially for people who grew up in the community, but also people played college in the community. There's a sense of loyalty and commitment that I think that is an intangible for these players on some of these teams. You get this notion of players you see on TV that kiss their crest, which may or maybe not a legitimate feeling or not. I think some people would legitimately do that in sense of pride in their team, but these players really believe it." 

Lucas Sousa, a Park University graduate and former Comet, has been the assistant women's coach at the school for four years. 

While he didn't play soccer at the school, current U.S. women's head coach Vlatko Andonovski earned his Bachelor's Degree at Park in 2008 and used former Park players when he guided the Comets from 2013-16 His assistant coach on the Comets and the USWNT, Milan Ivanovic earned a degree in international business at the school and played six seasons for Andonovski before becoming his assistant coach with Reign SC (National Women's Soccer League) as well. 

So, he also knew the value of the college team. 

"There are multiple ties that have help us together over the years since the comets returned 10 years ago," Bergrud said. "Vlatko is a very gracious guy. He would just show up to games kind of incognito while he was Comets coach and later as FC Kansas City coach. I don't know specifically what Vlatko and Efrem discussed, but I would bet you there were quite a few referrals during that time." 

Flores, a native of Santiago, Chile, reached the Comets through Park University. Shimlis traveled down to the South American country to watch a showcase and was impressed with Flores, who was offered a scholarship for the 2012 season. 

"It was between staying in Chile playing for a second division team or this opportunity," Flores said. "I decided to come because I thought studying and playing was a good opportunity for me." 

It was and then some. 

Flores was invited to participate in a few kick arounds with Comets players and during his senior year he got noticed by Andonovski, who attended Park matches on a regular basis. The MASL team offered him a contract and a visa. 

"I thought it was a great chance for me to stay here and play soccer because I really didn't want to go back home," Flores said. "I liked it a lot here. So, I decided to take that opportunity and stay." 

Of course, it didn't hurt that he already knew some of the players from having those kick arounds. 

"It's a little easier," Flores said. "It makes the player feel comfortable. We have one right now that is waiting for a visa and his progress [on the field] through this month has been amazing. Je is learning so quick. He's doing so well in practice and I think he's going to make a big impact when he starts plays." 

Leo Gibson, the Comets' player-coach, liked the fact the transition process starts before a player joins the club. 

"It helps a lot," he said. "A lot of times these guys are in the summer they play with a lot of our guys around, just to stay in shape. When we start our kick around, they are working out with us. It builds a little of chemistry, getting to know each other. It's always a fun transition when some of them make that transition from college to the Comets." 

Gibson hoped that the Park connection will continue for years to come. 

"It has been really good for us," he said. "Hopefully we can continue this relationship. It's been a wonderful program in terms of the players we have gotten from them." 

Gibson said he was open to any former area college player to help the team, whether it is from Benedictine University, Baker University or the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

"There are a lot of schools that have players that are promising," he said. "I look forward going to more Park games in the future." 

The Comets aren't the only MASL team that is utilizes local players. For example, the Tacoma Stars have and the Rochester Lancers, who returned to the league after a four-year hiatus, is utilizing players who have performed for the club before or grew up in the Northwestern New York city. 

"There are numerous players who have played not only at Park but at other schools in the Kansas City area," Bergrud said. "That seems to be what the league is doing right now, looking for pipelines in an MLS world. They are looking for ways to grab quality technical players who can play at high level pretty quickly in the arena." 

So coaches such as Efrem Shimlis can watch a game with a smile or two.

Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, writes a weekly column about the MASL. You can follow him on Twitter at @SoccerWriter