Tacoma Stars...playing for the playoffs
At the beginning of the week, the Tacoma Stars had not reached the Major Arena Soccer League postseason just yet.
Their mentality, however, said something else altogether.
"We started playing in the playoffs three weeks ago because there wasn't a lot of room of air for us," head coach Darren Sawatzky said. "The guys delivered but we still have work to do."
Little room, indeed.
The Stars went to the edge of the cliff with 9-4 loss at the Ontario Fury on Feb. 15 but bounced back with a 5-3 win at the Turlock Express on Feb. 16 before an 8-6 home triumph over Ontario on Feb. 23.A loss last week would have eliminated Tacoma. Now, a home victory over the Kansas City Comets can clinch a postseason berth on Friday night, although an Ontario loss to the visiting San Diego Sockers on Thursday night would do the trick as well.
"The reality is that Kansas City is another playoff game for us," Sawatzky said. "We have to win it and we know that."
That the Stars are in a position to keep their championship hopes alive is somewhat remarkable because they stumbled to a 3-6 start. It certainly didn't help that they had faced two premier clubs in the Sockers and Milwaukee Wave twice in the opening six weeks of the season, which turned into four defeats.
Not exactly the start Tacoma had in mind.
"We started the season really slow. We didn't play particularly poorly," Sawatzky said, noting the Stars had lost games by a goal to San Diego and Milwaukee.
Still, Sawatzky, who is also general manager, felt the team needed a boost as he arranged two trades.
On Dec. 20, the Stars acquired forward Nick Perera from the Syracuse Silver Knights for future considerations.
"The team was 3-6 when I showed up, obviously looking to change things up and get back to winning ways," Perera said. "They had a very tough front end of a schedule. So, their results and standards were not indicative of the quality of the group. Since I've been on board, we've had some great times, some not so good times. It's been really interesting to see the transition on how we've been playing and how well we've bounced back."
On Jan. 16, just prior to the league trading deadline, the Stars acquired forward Taylor Bond from the Cedar Rapids Rampage for future considerations (we'll get to the reasons for those future considerations in a minute).
Since joining the team, Perera has 19 goals and eight assists in 11 games, while Bond has seven goals and one assist in eight appearances.
"We had some growing pains, but both of those guys have paid dividends for us," Sawatzky said.
Since that slow start, the Stars are 7-5, good enough for a 10-11 record and an opportunity to turn that stumbling beginning into a satisfying regular-season ending.
"Adding quality is definitely a positive piece," Sawatzky said. "And I don't disagree with that. There are times when you are running training and you see a change in your team. About the second week of February, I kind of saw the switch go off. It's time to put up or shut up. You've got to put points on the board. Having those guys come in definitely helped us, but in terms of the change of the season, we have fought and scraped for every point we've gotten this year. We're still fighting and scraping in the back alley."
There may be a reason for being a scrappy team. The Stars identify with the Tacoma community.
"The realities of our league. We're a growing league. We're an entertaining product," Sawatazky said. "People definitely when they come [to games], they want to come back. But you also have to think about it in a way where you need to get entrenched in the community. You need to be an asset to the community you live in."
The Stars train at 9 or 9:30 p.m. weeknights because several players have day-time jobs.
For example, defenders Chase Hanson works at the Boeing Employee Union and Troy Peterson is a high school Algebra teacher.
"We're not only ingrained in the community, we are in the community," Sawatzky said. "Most of our roster has Washington zip codes for these guys and where they lived most of their lives. In order for teams in leagues like ours to succeed and be attached, there has to be a connection to the community."
Which brings us to those future considerations.
When Sawatzky needed to trade away players, he could not find anyone who wanted to leave, despite the team's struggles.
"The way I look at it is this: sport and pro sports in general there's a culture that's created in teams that win things," he said. "If the culture is right, the amount of money doesn't matter. Everybody would like to make millions of dollars but if you're part of a culture created by the people involved, that culture draws people in.
"When I went to start talk about trades at the midway point of the season, I didn't have one player who wanted to leave. And that's hard because when you bring in players, you to trade [away some] to improve your team. They chose to stay because they wanted to stay a part of it. We're not 15-3, but we're definitely in the hunt. The guys show up in that culture every night because you can't find that anywhere else in life."
As it turns out, Perera hasn't trained with the team as much as he would like with the rest of the squad. He flies into Tacoma a couple of days before games to train due to job commitments in San Diego.
"Everyone's got their own jobs and their own lives," he said. "It's just the way indoor soccer is scheduled and set up. Everybody else has responsibilities. I've got two kids and my wife obviously and I've got a fulltime job. A lot of it is a balancing act. The fact they train late at night obviously means you can continue to make career moves and life moves and accommodate that. It works out pretty well."
Of course, there might be a slight downside or two.
"When you finish training around 11:30 or midnight its usually not the most fun to wake up in the morning with kids," he said. "But it’s the reality of life sometimes."
Tacoma's reality is that has its destiny in its own hands and at its feet, with two scenarios to reach the playoffs on the final weekend of the season.
Perera, who has represented the U.S. at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, felt that the Stars were just peaking, that their 8-6 victory over Ontario was the team's best all-around performance of the season.
"I'd say that's the pinnacle," he said, "in terms of importance. Lose, we were done. If we lost, mathematically, it was over. The manner in which we played, we displayed incredible passion [were]very level headed, very calm, especially in the face of it potentially could have ended our season. The best match I've been involved with them since I've been aboard."
While playing for Ontario last season, Perera helped eliminate Tacoma from playoff contention. Now, as they say, the soccer boot is on the other foot.
"I've never been on a team that hasn't made the playoffs in my professional career," he said. "For me, personally it would be nice to continue that stretch. I like to think of myself as somebody who takes great pride in ensuring that I would do anything possible to win. That follows suit with ensuring that any team I play for does the best possible. Making the playoffs is the first step towards that.
"If Ontario beats the Sockers, obviously we've got work to do on Friday night. Being at home, playing against the Comets, who are eliminated, gives us a huge motivating factor. The way we played on Friday night, the passionate fervor that we showed in that game, is super motivating for the team moving forward."