by Joseph Reina

**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.**


While the regular season belonged to Monterrey, the Ron Newman Cup Playoffs are up for grabs. All four teams have earned their spot through a grueling 24-game regular season, and now, it’s all for the postseason. The bracket pits Monterrey against Milwaukee and Utica against Kansas City in two mouthwatering ties, both of which will feature home and away legs, followed by a third Knockout Game if necessary, immediately following the second leg. The winners will then face in the Eastern Conference Finals for a chance to go to the Ron Newman Cup Finals.

#1 Monterrey Flash vs  #4 Milwaukee Wave

            24 games and 24 wins. That’s the bar that Monterrey has set. It almost literally could not be higher. After last season’s disappointing end, the Flash returned with a bone to pick and a new conference to do it in. Despite a Western Conference-heavy schedule, Monterrey took care of business at every stop from the very beginning. Now, their task is to keep that momentum rolling and complete the sweep.

            This season’s Western Conference Regular Season Champions also claimed the MASL Shield, with a staggering 69 points from 24 games, 17 more than second-place San Diego. They finished the season just three points shy of the maximum points haul due to their three overtime wins, though I doubt anyone in Monterrey will be losing sleep over that.

            Head Coach Luis Jaime Borrego has, at his disposal, a seemingly endless list of superstars. Thirteen players accumulated at least ten points this season, but none more than the league-leading Genaro Castillo. “La Pantera Rosa” as he’s affectionately known, has taken the league by storm in just his second season, bagging 38 goals and 12 assists in 24 appearances.

He’s a rapid forward with a penchant for scoring and an eye for the spectacular, and if the Wave isn’t careful, he could end their season in a second. In their four meetings this season, Castillo has found the net six times and assisted three goals for a scary 2.25 points per game.

As a team, Monterrey is as clinical as they come. A typical conversion rate across the MASL is roughly 22%. This season, the Flash converted 28.8% of their shots into goals, well above the league average. They also boast one of the league’s most elite defenses, with just 16.1% of their opponents' shots resulting in a goal. Their rock-solid defense and elite goalkeepers allow them to outscore and shut down any team they face.

Their first-round matchup will send them to Milwaukee, where they’ll face the only team to take them to overtime twice this season. The Wave finished fourth in the East thanks, in large part, to their perfect record against non-playoff teams. The Wave played 13 games against teams that did not qualify for the playoffs, winning all 13. They didn’t fare as well against their fellow playoff contenders, however, winning just two of their 11 matches.

Milwaukee has enjoyed several runs of good form this season but goes into the postseason on a two-game losing streak. Not too long ago, Milwaukee was among the most dangerous sides in the league. With Ian Bennett and Marcio Leite firing on all cylinders, the Wave enjoyed a five-game winning streak from Feb. 25 to Mar. 17 scoring 40 goals and conceding just 27. However, the losses of Bennett and Leite to injury have stopped the Wave in their tracks.

A 3-2 defeat to San Diego at home followed by Monterrey’s 15-10 win over Milwaukee in Mexico, dropped last season’s Eastern Conference Regular Season Champions down the standings, but they remain a tough team to beat at the UWM Panther Arena.

Despite their injury issues, it’s impossible to write the Wave off when goalkeeper William Banahene is between the pipes. He’s allowed 4.93 goals against per game, and his 0.721 save percentage is the fifth-best in the league.

During his two games against the Flash, Banahene made 25 saves and finished with a combined save percentage of 73.5%. Monterrey’s opponents this season have finished games with higher save percentages just seven times, and their average goal differential in those games is just 1.429, nearly three goals less than their average across the full season. So, if Banahene can continue his form against the Flash, there’s a chance the game could be close, giving the Wave an outside chance of stealing a win.

For that to happen, the Wave’s offense, specifically the likes of Max Ferdinand, Ricardo Carvalho, and Derek Huffman, will need to step up and produce. Combined, they accumulate 4.6 points per game, meaning an off night for those three will likely end their season.

In facing Monterrey, Milwaukee undoubtedly has the toughest opponent in the playoffs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything will need to go Milwaukee’s way for them to advance. Penalties, coaches' challenges, every kick of the ball will be crucial for the Wave.

At the same time, they’re playing with house money. As heavy underdogs, they can afford to throw everything at the Flash in the hopes that something sticks. We’ve seen head coach Giuliano Oliviero try some bold tactics this season, especially concerning his team’s sixth attacker usage, but it will take some special creativity to beat Monterrey.

The Flash, on the other hand, know their game plan. They love scoring later in games with 57% of their goals coming in the second half. If they stick to their morals, don’t panic, and let their talent make the difference, they should be able to stave off any threat of an upset.

The first leg will be in Milwaukee on Friday, Apr. 5, at 7:35 p.m. EDT, before the two teams travel to Monterrey for the second leg on Sunday, Apr. 7, at 5:35 p.m. EDT.

#2 Utica City FC vs  #3 Kansas City Comets

Utica’s rise this season has been meteoric. Last season’s tenth-best team now sits fourth overall and second in the East. They’ve been a tough nut to crack at every step, thanks to a unique gameplan and crucially, the tools to implement it.

Head coach Hewerton Moreira utilizes a system that emphasizes creating chaos and turning defense into attack as quickly as possible. Utica presses high and hard to win the ball back further up the field. When they win the ball back through an interception or tackle, players sprint downfield with one task: Get a dangerous shot off.

This strategy leads to high-percentage opportunities that their opponents don’t get a chance to prepare for. A mistake is made, and within seconds, Utica creates a chance to punish them. It’s perfect for the likes of Franck Tayou and Ronaldinho Diniz, who are extremely clinical in front of goal.

           Speaking of Tayou, the King will finish this season as the league’s fourth top goalscorer and third in points behind only Marco Fabián and Genaro Castillo. After a slow start during his first season in New York, he found his footing while adding a new dimension to his game. Tayou bagged 19 assists this season, good enough for his best-ever MASL tally. That newly acquired trait, combined with his ruthless finishing, will make his partnership with Utica’s new signing, Kelvin Oliveira, truly frightening.

            Third-seeded Kansas City are among the hottest teams in the league at the moment. Fresh off a 6th straight win, the Comets have turned their season around thanks to a sound defense and a newly found attacking gear.

            In their last four games, Kansas City has scored 40 goals and conceded just 24. They’ve only lost one game since Feb. 10 while demonstrating they can win games by any means necessary. Head coach Stefan Stokic’s side now employs a higher pace of play that involves more running and pressing.

It plays to their strengths, especially for Zach Reget, who has scored in nine consecutive games. This season’s joint-top goalscorer has enjoyed a fruitful campaign while cementing himself as an MVP frontrunner, but for this tie, I’d like to give Ramone Palmer and Ignacio Flores their flowers.

Palmer and Flores took off this season, thanks to their spectacular defensive contributions. Palmer leads the MASL in blocked shots with 86 in just 19 games. That’s 4.526 blocks per game. For context, when looking at our goals-per-shot metric, we know that each shot is worth roughly 0.22 goals, meaning Palmer has likely prevented as many as 19 goals this season.

By the same logic, Flores has prevented roughly eight goals this season, while accumulating an impressive 31 points. His impact on both sides of the ball is invaluable, and without this defensive pair to protect Nicolau Neto and Phillip Ejimadu in goal, the Comets might not have made it through their mid-season struggles.

The two sides met three times this season, with Utica taking the first two before Kansas City dominated the third meeting to win 11-6. While Utica played without both Tayou and Nilton de Andrade, Zach Reget scored four goals and shifted the momentum in the series.

Having these stars will be important, Utica will likely be hit, at least for the second game, by Futsal National team call-ups. The 2024 CONCACAF Futsal Championship is Apr. 13–20 in Managua, Nicaragua, with the top four finishers qualifying for the FIFA Futsal World Cup later this year.

Hewerton, who also coaches the United States Futsal National Team, called up Tayou and de Andrade to represent the US at the tournament. With their second leg scheduled for Monday, Apr. 15, it is almost guaranteed that Utica will miss their star players for that game and the following knockout game, which I expect to be necessary.

For Utica, the key will be to make Kansas City uncomfortable and let their stars take the reigns. Their defense isn’t strong enough to keep scoring low, so Tayou, de Andrade, Diniz, and Oliveira have to find a way to outscore the high-flying Comets.

Kansas City, by comparison, needs to win their home game. With that momentum, focus on the defense in the away leg. Keep it tight at the back and take a chance at winning a low-scoring game in Utica, especially if Reget isn’t able to make the trip. Their offensive aptitude will ensure they have a good opportunity, but they need to capitalize.

Kansas City hosts the first leg on Monday, Apr. 8, at 7:30 p.m. EDT and will travel to Utica a week later for the second leg on Monday, Apr. 15, at 6:05 p.m. EDT.ea