Milwaukee has caught the arena wave; can it capture an MASL title?

by Michael Lewis

There's just nothing like having that championship feeling, nothing near it at all.

Just ask Milwaukee Wave head coach Guilliano Oliviero and forward Ian Bennett, who have celebrated multiple titles in indoor and arena soccer.

"I will tell you, there's no better feeling than winning a championship with a group of men you work alongside and respect, day-in and day-out," said Oliviero, who won Major Indoor Soccer League titles as a player with the Wave in 2005, 2011 and 2012, the last two serving in dual role as an assistant coach "I think any player who has won a championship will tell you that any individual accolades in the world don't matter. Winning a championship is the most memorable thing of my professional career."

The same went for Bennett, who was a member of those the 2011 and 2012 sides.

"You know your team's the best, you deserve it, and you want to make everything goes right," he said. "It was a big weight lifted off our shoulders, but also a feeling of a bunch of 15 players came together and put it out for one game. We got it done. There's no better feeling in the world than doing that.

"Then going back-to-back, then you're on cloud nine, nothing can stop you. You feel like you’re going to Disneyland. You feel like you're the man of the city. It's amazing when you win a championship. It doesn't matter what it is. If you be the best of your sport, it's an amazing feeling."

Perhaps the Wave will end its seven-year championship drought with a Major Arena Soccer League crown this year.

Entering this weekend's action, Milwaukee has positioned well, atop the South Central Division with a 15-3 mark and the second best winning percentage in the league (.833) with six games remaining in its 24-game regular season. In fact, the Wave is close to clinching the division title.

"Honestly, not getting to the championship is going to be a failure this year," Bennett said. "I thought the last couple of years we had a really good team and just for some reason didn't put it together, even it was just injuries, or the team couldn't be as sharp as it could be. If we don't go to the big tent, it’s going to be a failure. I don't care how well individually we are, stats or whatever happens."

There is a different vibe with the Wave this season. Instead of making the scoreboard operator work overtime by scoring tons of goals, the team has played a much more balanced game with the fourth best defense (76 goals conceded).

Now, don't think Milwaukee has given up on the attack as it has tallied a league-leading 129 goals.

"What we changed from last year was our mentality, on and off the field," said Bennett, who leads the league with 31 goals and is sixth in points (37). "Our training sessions have been more intense. Some of our training sessions have definitely been tougher than some of our games.

"And really focusing on our defense. Last year we scored a ton of goals. We were in some shootouts last year and we wanted to get away from that. Maybe we scored less, but we wanted to make sure we defended and keep teams at four or two goals. In our last couple of games we've been doing that. We've been really paying attention to that detail with Jules .... Take Baltimore for example. Baltimore is three-peat champs. Technically, they don't have the best scorers. They've got a couple of good [ones]. Defensively, they've been the best the past three years and that's why they have won so many championships. If we can emulate that and put our own Milwaukee Wave swag on it, I think we're going to do just fine."

Added Oliviero: "When the opportunity presents itself to join the attack, they recognize it and do a good job of it. Their commitment to defense this year has been better than in last year. To win a championship, you've got to be good on the defensive side of the ball, not just the offensive side."

Oliviero has liked what he has seen this season, especially with several third-year players who has matured as players. He mentioned the likes of goalkeeper Josh Lemos, defenders Daniel Chamale, Chad Vandegriffe and forward Robert Renaud.

"We made some tough choices a few years go," he said. "We brought in some players. ... We have a lot of players who are really understanding the arena game. You add that with the veteran leadership and the quality play of an Ian Bennett, a Marico Leite and a Max Ferdinand, it's a really nice mix. The guys have jelled really well together. Just their work ethic day-in and day-out has been a fun ride for me this season."

The other key to the Wave's success has been its depth, which has allowed the team to forge a 6-1 home record and an impressive 9-2 road mark.

"We've had a lot of guys miss games," Oliviero said. "We've had a lot of guys step up and really step into key roles and perform while other guys were out. That's been a big part of it. I know the championship teams I’ve been around. I can tell you not one championship was won without going through some adversity at some point of the season. We've seen that. We lost three games I thought we responded really well to every loss. We played with players out of the lineup. We want to keep a steady ship and keep it going and just monitor what we need to do down the stretch right here."

Oliviero certainly hasn't been counting any postseason chickens or wins before they hatch. He realized that winning a championship won't come easy, not with the opposition the Wave must overcome.

"It's going to come down to a few teams," he said. "You look at Utica City FC and the improvements they've made and the atmosphere they’ve created in their arena. You look at the Baltimore Blast. They're the three-time defending champions. They're the team still to beat. They know how to win."

Established as an American Indoor Soccer Association team in 1984-85, the Wave struggled during its early years, finishing out of the playoffs in its first three seasons with a combined record that was 50 games under .500.

Man, talk about being underwater, but the ownership and team persevered and the club eventually became an indoor powerhouse, capturing the National Professional Soccer League championships during the 1997-88, 1999-2000, 2000-01 seasons, plus the aforementioned three titles, all under the leaderships of Keith Tozer, now U.S. national futsal head coach.

The Wave also became one of the most reliable arena clubs around, on and off the field. It led the MASL in attendance in 2017-18, averaging 4,101, and is atop the board this season with an average of 4,013. It certainly hasn't hurt that the Wave has produced a unique atmosphere at UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena with its all-black field.

"You've got the fan support," Bennett said. "They understand the game, which is kind of cool. They love the game and they want to come out and support the team. That's obviously huge. If we didn’t have that, it wouldn't stay. Then you have the owners, probably some of the best ownership [currently Mike Zimmerman], general managers, the staff has always been fantastic. their top-notch, high level, world class. Then you have the coaches. First you had Keith Tozer. I don't have to say anything when you bring up the guy's name. Keith Tozer, indoor soccer, the guy's a living legend. And then to put Giuliano into those shoes, it's amazing because those are big shoes to fill. I think he's been doing it well. He's making history on his own. If he can definitely get that championship, it's going to be another thing for his story."

Wave players have a history of going out into the community with camps and clinics to sell the team and the game.

"In general, they get indoor soccer here," Bennett said. "They love it here, i think that's why it has been growing and has been a No. 1 sport here. It's the fan base, it's the culture. It's been here forever. It's going to be here when I'm gone, and other guys gone. It's something that you have to come to Milwaukee to understand it and live the culture. ... That's why its been my second home. I can't leave even if I wanted to."

Added Oliviero: ""Our office staff does a fantastic job of creating a game theme every home game. And you know what? We're an exciting product on the field."

Oliviero and Bennett would love to reward those fans at least one more time for their patience and support.

"That’s our ultimate goal," Oliviero said. "we just don't want to look past today. we figure if we can put the work in every day, keep working hard and keep getting better, come playoff time, come championship time, that we will be able to give our fans in the city of Milwaukee what they deserve and that's a seventh championship.

Bennett agreed. That's my goal -- to bring one more championship back to Milwaukee before I retire, man," he said. "Obviously, I don't plan on retiring soon. We've got to win it, man. We've got to get another ring."