by Michael Lewis

Over the last two seasons, the Florida Tropics forged the best regular season record of any Major Arena Soccer League team (28-6). Yet. they have no trophies to show for their superb play and results.

The Tropics were ready to enter the 2019-20 playoffs as one of the favorites after capturing the Eastern Division crown with an impressive 18-3 mark before the COVID-19 pandemic turned everyone's lives upside down and shutdown the league.

During a truncated schedule earlier this year, the Tropics finished atop a seven-team table at 10-3 before losing in the playoff semifinals to the eventual champion San Diego Sockers.

"Having been in those positions and having gone through all the ups and downs of a season and still been at the point, you feel it's only right to end that kind of season with the trophy, with some hardware," standout defender Drew Ruggles said. "So, it was frustrating."

Perhaps the third time will be the charm for the Tropics, who kickoff their sixth MASL season this weekend.

Despite falling short of the brass ring, the fire still burns for Ruggles and his teammates.

"The goal has always been to win the whole thing and I don't think that's changed," he said. "That's been the underlying tone of everything we do - getting to that final game. We haven't finished the job. As athletes, that's what our job is - to win championships. We're still just as hungry as the day we started this project together."

Head coach Clay Roberts said that the team hasn't needed a trophy to remind itself on what it had achieved the past two campaigns, particularly in 2019-20.

"We look at that season as being a championship season," he said. "What we accomplished was fantastic. I would never take away what those players accomplished."

Last season was a challenge and a half. Several teams couldn’t participate, due to COVID-19 restrictions in their cities and communities. That wiped out the Eastern Division and made scheduling difficult.

"Obviously, last year was such a different season," Roberts said. "Up until literally days before announcements of yes, we're going to play and still not knowing who was actually going to play and the kind of dynamic of how the season was even put together. Essentially, you're piecing together a schedule, based on week-to-week who can participate. We just said we're going to operate as normal. The goal is to win the regular season, to be in a place to compete for the Ron Newman Cup.

"Whenever you go into a season and you don't even know a playoff format, you feel a little bit cheated, unfortunately. But last year was the nature on what was going on around the world."

Roberts realized how fortunate he and the players were, having jobs, working at something they love while a good portion of the country was suffering.

"I challenged the players from day one that we need to be grateful that we're playing," he said. "We were blessed to be competing. We wanted to be safe, but we also wanted to take on a bigger role for humanity and let people feel normal again. Sports has always been the thing that lets people come together. We wanted to take on that idea and be really good at what we do. It was a fantastic effort from them."

This season, Roberts has wanted to ensure the Tropics remain at the top of their game as the club brought back its core, signing key players to long-term contracts.

"We had a lot of guys out of contract," he said." You're making decisions if you do you move forward with those guys or do you need to go and try again. We've had a good thing going over two seasons with a combined 28-6 record, where we feel like we didn't need to change too much. Actually, let's find a better way to motivate those guys."

The returnees included:

Captain and midfielder Victor Parreiras, an All-MASL honorable mention pick last season, has become the face of the franchise as the team's all-time scoring leader (71 goals, 61 assists in 96 matches). He accumulated 21goals and 15 assists last season, third best in the league.

Defenders Chad Vandegriffe, an MASL third team selection, and Ruggles, and goalkeeper Hugo Silva (4.43 goals-against average, third in the league), an MASL second team selection, form the defensive core and Ricardo Carvalho, another honorable mention pick, is an important part of the midfield.

The Tropics had to say goodbye to MVP and league-leading goal-scorer Ian Bennett (19 goals, 27 points), who was on loan from the Milwaukee Wave. But they added veteran forward Andrew Hoxie, who has a reputation of filling the net (148 goals and 81 assists in 198 games) and helping the Baltimore Blast to three consecutive championships.

"The championship pedigree and experience that Hoxie provides as a target player and more so as a teammate is a great addition for us," Roberts said.

Ruggles, a student of the game and the league, has seen what continuity has meant to the success of other teams.

"It's crucial to have that core back, guys that have been important to our team," he said. "We added pieces here and there. Those are guys that we feel can jump in and fit the mold that we've established as an identity for ourselves. It's priceless to have the core group of guys come back.

"Clay did a great job, being behind the scenes and convincing these guys once again to buy into what we're doing. That's kind of special. A lot of teams like Baltimore, winning three in a row, we can all point to five, six guys on that team who were prominent fixtures over those three seasons. That's the model that you want to go for."

The Tropics will begin their quest for indoor glory when they meet two Eastern Division foes this weekend. They visit the Blast on Saturday at 6:05 p.m. and travel to Utica City FC for a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee.

Playing back-to-back games on the road has been around indoor soccer for decades. Having it at the beginning of a season is another matter.

"We didn't get any help at the start of the season," Roberts said. "We've got a tough task ahead of us. That's a lot of details that a lot of people don't understand. These players are about to play a game, drive five hours, arrive at a hotel very early in the next morning, get a few hours sleep and then be expected to perform at a high level against both opponents who only have one game on the weekend. They're both home openers. We're thrown into a pretty tough spot. But we're going to do our best."

With life getting back to normal, the 12-team MASL has returned to a division format. The Tropics will vie for a playoff berth along with the Harrisburg Heat, Baltimore and Utica, who sat out last season. Division winners will earn an automatic berth while the five next best regular-season finishers will book a postseason spot.

Using the 2019-20 season as a barometer of how difficult the East could be, this is how those teams finished: first-place Florida (18-3), third-place Utica City (14-6), fourth-place Baltimore (15-8) and fifth-place Harrisburg (13-8). Someone will miss out on the playoffs this year. The Heat had a .652 winning percentage.

"We have the toughest division in the league," Roberts said. "That's no disrespect to the other to the other divisions. It's just the pedigree that's comes with these teams, which is pretty outstanding.”

Roberts then did a quick analysis the division, starting with Baltimore and its new head coach David Bascome, who was an assistant under former boss Danny Kelly.

"Those guys have run the machine there for years and we expect no difference this year with him at the helm,” he said. “Utica making the impact they had in their first year, and [head coach] Ryan Hall leads such a great program. They have a very strong team. They returned a lot of their core players. Then you have Harrisburg. Pat [Healey, the coach] has done a tremendous job."

The team that finishes atop that quartet will have made a statement.

Ruggles welcomed the challenge.

"It'll definitely be a tough division," he said. "It's an opportunity for us to display what we're capable of. You respect those clubs. You don't go into any game thinking you've already won but you have to be confident in what you can do as a team. We're getting to that level. We know that if we execute the game plan, we can compete with the best. The focus can be shifted from worrying about the opponent to what they've got to worry about."

The season couldn’t start soon enough for Ruggles, who wants to show the indoor soccer world that the Tropics haven't missed a beat.

"We go this weekend to Baltimore and Utica and play back-to-back to start our season," he said. "It's excitement all around, man.

This is my livelihood. It's what I do for a living and it's what I love. So, to be able to have the opportunity to do it again and do it for a club that I have a lot of passion and support for, is awesome. It's what we all have been waiting for."