NYE HOME OPENER IN MILWAUKEE
Finally, finally, after a seemingly endless 20-month wait, the Milwaukee Wave has gotten an opportunity to play again, although it took just a little while longer than the team had anticipated.
It may seem like quite a while ago, but the Wave captured the 2018-19 Major Arena Soccer League championship, the team's seventh indoor title. The next season Milwaukee had qualified for the playoffs, finishing in second place behind the Florida Tropics in the Eastern Division. The Wave was ready to make its push and try for a repeat.
Through no fault of their own, there were no playoffs after the 2019-20 season as the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and closed down every professional sports league in the United States.
"It was brutal," forward Ian Bennett said. "We were like looking really good. We were hitting our stride at the perfect time to do some good things. Florida had a better record, but we beat them out of three games. So, like we felt like we're ready. We get to St. Louis, and then have them call off the league and the playoffs, It was just brutal. I was so mad. We had a really good team to go back-to-back. So, it's just devastating."
So was not getting a chance to play the next season. The team was forced to sit out the truncated 2021 winter-spring season because its home venue, UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, wasn't available due to pandemic restrictions.
"It was a bit of a double whammy because," head coach Giuliano Oliviero said. "You're up for a full entire season. We all had to pivot and be creative with how we make our living and taking care of families, but not everyone was able to do that."
But the Wave has been ready to go for 2021-22.
“I think our entire organization looks at this season as a chance to defend our championship after an unforeseen interruption," Wave owner Mike Zimmerman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in October.
The Wave's home opener was scheduled for the arena on Saturday, Dec. 18, but was cancelled because several members of the Baltimore Blast were in COVID-19 protocol.
"It's unfortunate," Oliviero said. "It's things we didn't prepare for, but we understand and are moving forward. We just got to turn the page and it changed our focus down to Kansas City."
The Wave dropped a 6-5 overtime decision to the Blast on Dec. 11.
Yet, sometimes there are things just a little bit more important that getting a W in the standings. Sometimes it is an opportunity to compete.
"I'm just really happy to be back, doing what we love what we have a passion to do," Oliviero said. "More than just being back feels like a win.
"It was just a great feeling and just the emotional ups and downs that this game brings you, the highest highs. Most of those things can change in the indoor game and in a split second. ... Our all-time biggest rival is the Baltimore Blast. To open up again against them, it was special. It was a really great game."
Bennett, who finished with four goals, including the equalizer with only 48 seconds remaining in regulation. Slowly, but surely, the Wave got its act together as the match rolled on and almost pulled it out.
Putting together a team that has taken a year's hiatus, especially during a pandemic, has been no easy task.
Two important pieces have returned to the squad - the 38-year-old Bennett, who led the MASL last season in scoring (19 goals and 27 points) while on loan with the Florida Tropics. Indoor legend Marcio Leite, 37, who helped the San Diego Sockers to the 2021 championship as a loan player after playing a vital role in the Wave's run to the 2018-19 Ron Newman Cup, is back as a player-assistant coach.
Other returnees include defenders Stuart Grable and midfielders Luan Oliveira, the 2012-13 rookie of the year (19 goals, 9 assists in 2019-20), and Mario Alvarez and forward Andre Hayne.
Gordy Gurson, another member of San Diego's squad last year, gives the team veteran depth at forward.
Securing P-1 visas for foreign players has been the Wave's off-the-field challenge.
"You don't know if you're going to get approved or not get approved," Oliviero said, "or there's a request for more evidence and it delays it even more. Do you have patience to wait? Maybe it comes through, maybe it doesn't. We've had to move ahead with the mindset that they're not going to get approved. And if they do, awesome. That's a big bonus for us. We've been lucky to have one. We're close to getting another one."
Whether Oliviero has a full team or not, for the first time since an 11-3 triumph over the Orlando Seawolves on March 7, 2020, the Wave is scheduled to host a match - against the Kansas City Comets on Friday, Dec. 31.
"Our fans are the best in the league," he said. "We're fortunate enough to have this opportunity. We're excited. We don't want it to slip through our fingers. It's going to be a great night."
Added Bennett: "We need to get that win. Guys are looking hungry. Guys want to be in that lineup. You're going to get the best Milwaukee Wave definitely."
The start of the season has been a tough one for the Wave, which enjoyed leads in its first two matches before the opposition pulled away. Milwaukee dropped an excruciating 7-6 overtime decision at the St. Louis Ambush on Sunday, Dec. 19.
"It's been it's been a couple of tough results for us," Oliviero said. "We have some new players. We've gone through a lot of changes, and we haven't played in two seasons. We tried to take the positive out of those two games. We had the lead in the fourth quarter in both games. We need to know where we went wrong. A lot of it we put on ourselves in the fourth quarter. We already talked about not beating ourselves and taking penalties at the wrong time has hurt us. That's one part of our game and figuring out how to close games out."
On the positive end, Milwaukee hasn't been chasing the games.
"We're right there, game in and game out," Oliviero said. "There's a lot of the new guys with potential. Now it's believing in actually doing better things in the fourth quarter."
The long break between games has allowed Oliviero to give his team some time off.
"It's the holidays and you want your players to be in a good place mentally," he said. "You want them to have their time with the family and make sure their family life is in a good place so they can put their full focus on the team once they come back ... recharged and ready to go."
The Wave held a meet-and-greet Christmas party at its training facility earlier this week, giving fans an opportunity to talk to their favorite players.
"There's been a lot of good bonding," Oliviero said. "We have a really great group of players. They all get along well. They take care of each other. That's really important."
Milwaukee will play the Kansas City Comets (3-0), the hottest team in the league, in a home-and-home series this week. The Wave visits KC tonight, before hosting the Comets in its home opener on Dec. 31 at 3 p.m. CT. The early kickoff will give fans an opportunity to watch the game and then bring the new year later on.
"It could be a great celebration," Oliviero said. "It could turn the page."
Given the slow start, each game is a big deal to the team.
"We're looking at every game like a must win," Oliviero said. "Every game is a playoff game for us moving forward. We know it's not going to be perfect. It's impossible to play the perfect game [indoor], there's so much chaos. The ball can bounce so many different ways."
The contest will be an emotional one for the Wave, which will honor Brian Sayles, its long-time equipment manager who passed away in February. When he was four, Sayles had a brain tumor and had experienced some cognitive and physical challenges. Yet, he never let that get in the way of his job.
"Brian was an inspiration on a daily basis for me and all the other players on the team," Oliviero said. "I mean, just watching him go about his business and doing what he does at such at such a high level. it's motivation. It's inspirational. I don't remember him really missing a day. He was there day-in, day-out, first one there last one to leave and made all of our lives a lot easier."
Bennett, who ripped the nets for six goals against Orlando in that last home encounter, and a fan favorite during his 11-year tenure with the Wave, challenged the Milwaukee fans to come out and support the club.
"I get it they're sad that we didn't have a season regardless of whatever happens," he said. "You can't make everybody happy, but the fact that we're back. I really want to challenge the fans. Come and support us.
"I think it should be packed every game. There should be 6,000 plus every game. I really want [fans] to come out and support the team."
For the first time in more than 600 days on Dec. 31, Milwaukee fans will have that opportunity to cheer on their favorite indoor soccer team in person.
Outside of winning a championship, it might not get any better than that.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.