Syracuse Silver Knights: Rebuilt to win

by Michael Lewis

It's funny how realizations sometimes don't live up to expectations.

Prior to the 2016-17 season, the Syracuse Silver Knights felt they had built a team that would contend for the Eastern Division title, if not more in the Major Arena Soccer League. They did not measure up, finishing in the division cellar at 8-12.

This season the Silver Knights went the opposite route. They signed several younger players and have turned their fortunes around with a 12-7 record.

In fact, Syracuse finds itself on the verge of reaching the playoffs.

"Last year was very disappointing," head coach Ryan Hall said. "From top to bottom, nobody was satisfied. We had a really solid team last year. We did nothing with it. We ended up dead last in the east. The guys coming back this year we didn't want to go through that again. So, we made a decision in the preseason that our goal was to make the playoffs. And once you're in the playoffs, it's anybody's game.

"Indoor’s a grind. They guys stuck to it. They battled through injuries. They battled through road trips. These guys really bought into the system. It is showing. We're thriving right now. Hats off to those guys for not quitting and persevering through a lot of adversity."

The Silver Knights seemingly would have to go out of their way not to reach the postseason as they have four paths. They can do it themselves by defeating the Harrisburg Heat on Saturday or the Milwaukee Wave on Sunday. Or, they can have some help if the Florida Tropics lose to Harrisburg on Friday or if Florida falls to the Baltimore Blast on Saturday.

"Right now, we're in a good run of form," forward Joey Tavernese said. "But we still need another win to get into the playoffs. We don't want to leave it in Florida's hands. We want to get the job done Saturday against Harrisburg."

For the 2016-17 season, Syracuse had bulked up with some experienced players. It did not work out.

"They [the owners] put some money into the team, they tried to recruit maybe more superstar-type players and it doesn't always work," said Tavernese, who is third in the league in points (49) and in assists (24). "There were a lot of egos and different things. The team didn't really jell well for whatever reason. It's nothing against anyone who was part of it. That's just what happens in sports. Sometimes it's works and sometimes it doesn't."

Lesson learned.

This season, new and younger blood was pumped into the team behind the likes of goalkeeper Andrew Coughlin, defender Ben Ramin and midfielder Liam Callahan, among others.

"We were really looking to make a transition," Hall said. "We lost two components last year. We brought in some young guys and they've stepped up to the plate. Andrew Coughlin has been playing excellent in goal. Defender Ben Ramin has really come into his own [as has] Liam Callahan.

"The thing that has surprised me the most is there's no negativity. They'll miss a shot, we'll give up a silly goal, miss assignments, rotations, get a blue card. yet, the guys continue to stay positive. In year's past, that could be detrimental to the team if a guy gets negative or something happens on the bench; sort of a snowball effect. The biggest surprise that I'm most proud of is, these guys they continue to push themselves with one goal in mind, which is to win games and to stay positive and not to get down on each or let egos get in the way. It's great to see it's a true team effort that's occurring right now. And that's a dangerous thing come playoff time."

Tavernese admitted he wasn't certain a turnaround could happen. Before the season some discouraging news.

"I was a bit skeptical, I was in Tunisia with the [U.S. Futsal] national team and we had only three guys signed while other teams were already in preseason. But kudos to Tommy [Tanner, president and general manager] and Ryan," he said. "They brought in some young guys who were willing to work hard. The team just jelled. They brought in a little bit of new life into us."

In so many ways -- on both sides of the field, particularly when the team has had to defend.

"Some of the guys who were a little older and have been around the same system and core, the young guys kind of changed their mentality a little bit," Tavernese said. "We've got guys who are now so-called superstars who are chasing back defensively, throwing their bodies in front of balls, diving on the ground to make blocks. That goes a long way for everyone. I give credit to Ryan Hall for everyone to buy into his system. Coming into the season for guys who had played for six, seven years, maybe it wasn't so sure we were going to have a good year."

The Silver Knights learned right out of the gate that they had the potential to turn things around. In their opening two matches, they defeated the host Turlock Express, 7-6, before falling at the San Diego Sockers on a late goal two days later, 6-5.

"The beginning of the season was a great start," Tavernese said. "Winning in Turlock without having too much time with the team in preseason and playing San Diego, which probably will make the final if not the west coast final, that showed us we can play with the best and grind out wins. In previous years, the team would fold in close games. That is a different mentality with the guys on this team. We got the job down in Turlock and that just set us on the path for the rest of the season."

Especially when the Silver Knights played three road games in the Midwest within 44 hours the weekend of Jan. 19-21. They flew into St. Louis and defeated the Ambush, 9-5, on Friday night. They piled into several cars and took a 5 1/2-hour ride to Milwaukee, where they were blanked by the Wave, 6-0, on Saturday afternoon. They returned to St. Louis and rebounded with a 6-4 win on Sunday afternoon.

"When you get into some of these road games, even if its back-to-back, two different cities, it's tough," Hall said. "It was a grind. We won two of three, which is great. Nobody ever wants to get shutout but it what it is. To come out of that weekend with two wins and a loss, we'll take it any day of the week. These guys, I really take my hats off to them, and staying focused and taking on the challenges that are presented to them."

Tavernese agreed.

"Games like that have propelled us to continue to move forward and keep the positive vibes," he said. "This team is there to battle and grind, no matter who you put in front of them, to the very end."

Now the Silver Knights can make it a bookend regular season.

"We have get the job done Saturday and we start to prepare hopefully for what will be a long grueling, but positive result against Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs," Tavernese said.

The Syracuse Silver Knights can clinch a playoff berth by beating the Harrisburg Heat or the Milwaukee Wave this weekend, or with a Florida Tropics loss to the Harrisburg Heat or Baltimore Blast this weekend. You can catch all of these games on MASLtv