SeaWolves' Sliwa lives the unforgiving and humbling world of an arena soccer goalkeeper

by Michael Lewis

After many a Major Arena Soccer League game, parents come up to and talk with Orlando SeaWolves goalkeeper Piotr Sliwa.

"Oh, my son's a goalie," they say.

To which Sliwa replies: "Don't do it. Go score goals. It's a lot easier."

Yes, it is, but Sliwa, like 16 other starting keepers in the league, make a living out of keeping the ball out of the net.

Let's face it, to be a goalkeeper, you must have a tough skin and be mentally strong.

To survive in arena soccer, you might as well double that.

If an indoor keeper allows a mistake to fester like an open wound, it could cost another goal, goals, or worse, the game.

"If you're thinking or sobbing about a goal that you let in, you could let in two or three goals in a short period of time," Sliwa said. "It’s unforgiving."

One play can turn things on its head.

Case in point: About a month ago, Sliwa watched Boris Pardo guarding the net goal for the San Diego Sockers.

"Unbelievable," he said. "He has a shutout going. All of a sudden, he gets the ball in the back and he passes the ball to a forward instead of a defender and there goes the shutout. I think it was the fourth quarter. He played unbelievable the whole game and one split second, you lose your shutout, which is really rare in indoor.

"Whether it's indoor or outdoor, nobody says about the saves you make, it's the mistakes you make in goal. That's the job you have."

Now, Sliwa, an assistant coach with the SeaWolves as well, wasn't complaining, it’s the role and plight of a goalkeeper.

The speed of play in the MASL is like light speed compared to the outdoor game, where a keeper might not see the ball for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

In the arena universe, turnovers and counterattacks can happen so quickly a keeper must stay mentally alert for 60 minutes.

"Oh yeah, as much as physical work we do, it's just mental tiredness after the game because you have to be focused the whole time because you never know when there's a counter happening or a turnover. It's literally a couple of seconds on our side of the field. So, you've got to be focused the whole time. You lose focus for a couple of seconds, it could lead to a goal."

There is little a keeper can control, outside of free kicks and perhaps penalty kicks. Everything else can look like chaos in front of him.

"It's the set pieces because normally you have control of it and you have so many options," Sliwa said. "Other than that, you are never in control as a goalie, especially indoor because you can have an amazing game and indoor is one of the games that can make you look really bad real quick. You can dive and the ball is going to hit off the boards and hit you off the back of your head or your back and go in. So, it's one of those games that can humble you real quick as a goalie."

So, if Sliwa has told parents not have to have their sons -- and daughters -- tend goal, why does he do it?

Well, it is all in the family. His father played professionally as a goalkeeper in Poland. The Sliwa family moved to the U.S. when Piotr was eight-years-old.

"Growing up, I was always between goal and forward, so that's why every goalie thinks he can score goals," he said. "I just took to it. My dad taught me a lot. I liked the pressure of it. It is literally on you. As a forward, you can miss 10 shots and score one and you're the hero. A goalie can make 10 saves. You screw up one and it’s on you. I do like the pressure of it."

So, Sliwa's father didn't tell his son not to be a goalkeeper.

"I think he liked it," he said.

But playing arena soccer, well, that's a different story.

"He told me, 'I played goalie for 20 years. I would never play indoor. I don't know how you like it. I would never play indoor,' " Sliwa said.

The 6-1, 190-lb. Sliwa has enjoyed success at several levels of the beautiful game. He played for the nationally renowned A.A.C. Eagles in Chicago, for Taft High School in the Windy City before earning a business degree at Dominican University. He decided to try his hands at indoor soccer in 2014, competing for the Seattle Impact and Ontario Fury before joining the St. Louis Ambush and then the SeaWolves.

His heroes?

A pair of legendary goalkeepers -- Denmark international Peter Schmeichel first and then Germany national team keeper Oliver Kahn.

"I wasn't a big Manchester United fan, but I was definitely a big Peter Schmeichel fan. Oliver Kahn and those guys, they were just crazy in goal."

During the MASL offseason, Sliwa is head coach of the Triton College men's and women's soccer teams.

"It's actually perfect," he said. "Our spring season starts at the end of March, April. So I have my assistant running it for two weeks. I come in and then it starts from August until Halloween, end of October. Once that's over, I can go to preseason here."

He doesn't know how long he will control to play. He's thirtysomething, which we all know is prime time for goalkeepers.

"I am 33 right now and they say you get better as the older you get," he said. "I honestly do feel that. I am probably at the prime of my career at this point. A couple of more years, at least, 35, 36.”

At Triton he has told his young goalkeepers that they will improve as they get older.

"Oh, what are you talking about?" is the response he usually gets. "I'm athletic."

"Yeah. Later on in your career you develop basically a second sense. You cut off angles. You don't dive as much. They watch me play. 'Coach, you don't dive a lot.' I'm like, I don't have to. I cut off the angles, so I don't have to dive. You basically read the game. You know where the ball is going. You know where those players are going, so you cut off the passes and stuff. It becomes a lot easier when you get older."

As we already know, arena goalkeepers will dive and flop dozens of times a game. Sometimes it takes it toll on the body, just about every part.

Sliwa has known that in more ways than one.

"Oh yeah, you're getting hit all over the place I mean especially indoor," he said. "Not a lot of teams travel with two goalies or dress two goalies because they want that extra spot. There was an incident last year when I got hit in the head with the ball twice in the same game. I didn't come out because we didn't have a backup. It happened in the first half. So, you're stuck in that goal. It happens a lot. You see guys all over the league get banged up early in the game and they have to stay in."

In some respects, arena goalkeepers are like hockey players. They can get knocked around, but they keep coming back for more.

Last year Sliwa played with a fractured bone in his wrist the entire season.

"I literally taped my wrist up every game," he said. "The trainer taped it up so I couldn't move it. It was basically wearing a cast during a game. It still hurt. Once you got in the game, you'd really feel it. After the game, it was painful. It took almost four months to heal after the season.

Sliwa, who has a .7.32 goals-against average in five games this season, is not unique. Every keeper has endured his share of injuries.

"So, your hips, your knees, shoulders. You all feel it," Sliwa said. "It probably takes a good couple of months to get in good shape after the season to recover."

The SeaWolves, 6-6 entering this weekend's action, are in the midst of a three-way race with the Kansas City Comets (8-7) and Ambush (9-9) for the second-place berth in the South Central Division. The first-place Milwaukee Wave (13-3) is considered too far ahead to be caught.

Orlando must play 12 games over the final 2 1/2 months of the 24-game regular season in its quest to reach the postseason. The squad hosts Milwaukee on Friday at 7:35 p.m. and the Florida Tropics in a derby match on Saturday at 7:05 p.m.

"It's going to be difficult but they're mostly divisional games," Sliwa said. "So as long as we take care of business, I think we can actually get that second spot. With so many games in so little time, it's basically injuries. As long as we stay healthy. We're a young team that is hungry. We had so many byes. Guys are just tired of playing against each other."