by Michael Lewis

When the Mesquite Outlaws took the field at the Credit Union of Texas Event Center in Allen, Texas on Thursday night, it was intriguing to see what kind of reception they received from the Dallas Sidekicks supporters.

The teams are about 30 miles apart as the crow flies and it was the first confrontation between the two rivals since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Add to the fact that Outlaws head coach Tatu is a Sidekicks and indoor legend and his two assistant coaches, Nick Stavrou and Sagu also played with Dallas.

And what made the atmosphere more challenging is that seven former Sidekicks players who competed with the club during the 2021-22 Major Arena Soccer League season are now with Mesquite.

"I've never been negative towards the Sidekicks and I never will be against the Sidekicks," Tatu said. "The Sidekicks are still a part of me. Nick Stavrou and Sagu are in the same boat. We are here because we played for the Sidekicks. We love the Sidekicks. We won championships with the Sidekicks. So, the Sidekicks are going to be in our hearts.

"This is the way things happen. This is the how pro sports works."

While there are same-state derbies such as the San Diego Sockers and Empire Strykers in southern California and the Kansas City Comets and St. Louis in Missouri, this is the closest rivalry in the league, in terms of miles.

But don't use that word - rivalry - in front of Tatu.

"I'll be honest with you, to me, it's just another game," he said. "I know people make a big deal of it. We are in a building process. So, every game is to build for the next game and for the next year.

"How the kids react is important because I need to know. Can they dance? This is where do you find out who are the deep players and who are just the passengers?"

On New Year's Eve on Saturday, the Outlaws host the Sidekicks at Mesquite Arena.

Tatu said Saturday’s game had the potential to be "hot" with "some tempers, going crazy and ballistic."

"You definitely don't want to see that."

Mesquite is stocked with many younger players, while Dallas has several veterans.

"We got some new youth, and they have the veterans," Tatu said. "So that's what it makes the games harder for us. It's going to be the energy against the experience and then see what direction we will be going."

So far so very good for the Outlaws, who have returned to MASL action for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign. That's when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown the league and turned the entire world upside down. When that season was called Mesquite (7-14) was in seventh place in the Western Division and did not qualify for the playoffs.

Five games into this season, they have gotten off to an encouraging start at 4-1-0 and find themselves atop the Western Division.

"It's a new start, almost like a brand-new franchise,” Tatu said. “If you were to tell me, 'Tatu, you're going to start at 4-1,' I will say to you, I think you're crazy, especially after playing the top teams in the league. So that was a surprise. But I've been doing this for so long. Any of those games could go in in any direction. So, we could easily be 1-4."

With so many games - 19 - remaining in the season, Tatu knew there is plenty of room for improvement.

"We're still a work in progress," Tatu said. "I'm happy where we are today and I'm excited for the future. We have a talented young group who is willing to learn. The environment is good. They get along well with each other. It's a pleasure to be part. Training is enjoyable because we have a sense of good young talented group, who's anxious to improve and to learn.

"We're a long way from the final product," he continued, adding that the start "has been a tremendous positive surprise, the way it came together as quick as it did. This is what makes me very excited about the future. I like the energy. I like the skill. I think we were technically good. And we have the athletic ability."

Tatu wasn't quite finished.

"We still do not have a full squad yet, which I think eventually will allow us to compete with the big dogs in the league, but I'm happy so far, knowing when we have maybe three or four more additions, I think we can be [among] top three or top in the league."

He wouldn't single out any one player.

"The first 10 players [have] been unbelievable," he said. "I feel like I'm getting more than I expect.

"We don't depend on one guy. Our team is a ball possession with a lot of movement. We stay organized. We'll rotate. What I like about coaching this year when the rules change with a goalkeeper being able to touch only once, it forces you to be more tactical."

Mendez leads the team with six goals, followed by Ortiz (four goals, five assists), Morales (two goals, one assist),  and Chakounte(three goals) . Goalkeeper Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes leads the league in goals-against average (3.62) and save percentage (80.6 percent).

The Outlaws kicked off the season with a 2-1 home win over the Monterrey Flash in a low-scoring indoor affair on Dec. 4 as Cortes won league defensive player of the week honors. They followed that up with a 5-3 victory over the Kansas City Comets on Dec. 11.

During a southern California weekend, Mesquite split its matches, which included a 4-3 result against the Empire Strykers on Dec. 16, before it dropped a 5-4 decision at the defending champion San Diego Sockers two days later.

"It's a learning process," Tatu said. "There's going to be bumps on the road, because we are inexperienced. Our job as coaches is trying to educate them without putting too much pressure on them to believe that they have to win. The only thing I ask for the grou6p is be competitive. The end result is irrelevant because we are in an entertainment business. We have to entertain. By entertaining we have to be competitive."

Tatu will have one more opportunity to see how competitive his squad is against the Sidekicks before the New Year.

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, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.

end it