THE STOKIC ERA
Second in a series about new coaches preparing for the 2023-24 MASL season
Stefan Stokic was introduced to the speed, rigors, challenges of indoor soccer during his rookie season with the Kansas City Comets in 2004.
"I mean, it was tough. It was really, really tough," he said.
A 19-year-old native of Serbia coming off a stint with Malmo in Sweden, Stokic had played outdoor soccer all his life. But in the United States, indoor soccer presented itself an opportunity to make a living.
"It was a different game," he said. "It's soccer. But at the end of the day, it's a different game. It wasn't easy. But once I got used to it, it became easier. It took me a while. It’s just a small space, the boards, getting used to that. But it was really fun. I love indoor games. I wouldn't change it."
Stokic quickly got up to speed as he forged a reputation as one of the most consistent and dependable defenders in the indoor game over a 12-year career that ended due to a knee injury in December 2020.
Today, he finds himself with many more responsibilities as the first-year coach of the Comets. After spending 3 1/2 seasons as an assistant coach, Stokic was named to that position on May 23, succeeding Comets legend Leo Gibson.
"It's a dream come true," he said, echoing his exact sentiments of when he was hired six months ago. "I always wanted to coach a professional team; I couldn't choose a better place to start my career as a professional coach."
No one has to remind the 38-year-old Stokic of the responsibilities that he shoulders as the boss. He was Gibson’s assistant since late 2020.
"It's very different being assistant coach and now being a head coach," he said. "I feel like the last three years of being an assistant coach for the Comets has prepared me even more for the head coaching job. It has its challenges. Some days are tougher than others, but I'm ready for every challenge. I feel that to a point, I have a little advantage because I know all these players. I've been with them for three years. The challenge is just amplifying my values and the way that I see this team that can be and for the boys to you know buy into that as well."
The Comets open their 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League season against the Milwaukee Wave at Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence, Mo. on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 6:05 p.m. ET.
They have been training twice daily for the last week and a half.
"I'm really happy with everything that's going on at practice, the energy, the quality,” Stokic said. “The boys are buying in. It's been very exciting to see them grow already."
Since the start of preseason camp, Stokic, along with assistant coaches Matt Gordon and Kye Martey, has implemented a new system that he hopes will maximize players' performance. Before each training session, players are required to fill in a questionnaire on an app, Fit For 90, which can track a players' energy level, hydration, sleep cycle, injuries, knocks and mood.
"From there, we can talk to them or just to see how they are and [perhaps] we have to change the session a little bit, tweak it there," Stokic said.
Prior to training, athletic trainer Shawn Dumers can look at the app and see if there are any players he needs to talk to about an injury, Stokic said.
"One of my big things is how to get the best version out of my players," he added. "I feel like this is one of the tools that we can use that's helping us s lot."
It will help coaches to determine if a player can perform at a high-level when teams need to play on consecutive days on the schedule.
"Numbers don't lie. If you have a number or statistics on all these things, you're going to get better and better by each month or each year," Stokic said. "Maybe one player is better at playing back-to-back. Or maybe this player, we should do a little bit less load for him before the back-to-back and maybe he'll perform better. Those are little things that we want to change.”
The score will range from one to 100. There are red, orange (low end), yellow and green zones (higher end).
"Let's just say [defender] John Sosa is at a 95. He's feeling great," Stokic said. “He's in the green, and then you can check the stats and they’ll tell you why he's in the green. Right now, we're doing two-a-day practices. For the most part the guys are in red or orange. When you click on a player, it tells you why they're in that spot. It gives an average of what they had last week, and this week. One day last week, a lot of them were in the red for different reasons. I adjusted my session a little bit because of that."
Stokic said that the team also has a video system that will track the Comets' training sessions and matches that will track several aspects of the game, including how many shots the side places on target and how many passes were completed.
"They will break down the game and we will have stats for the soccer side of it as well," he said.
And how have the players reacted to the new set-up?
"They're not used to doing it," Stokic said. "They've been great. We have to remind them sometimes to do the app because it's very important. So far, we've only heard positive things. Moving forward is going to help not just them, but us as well."
The goal is to reach the MASL championship series and win it, a feat the Comets haven’t accomplished since they secured that 2013-14 Major Indoor Soccer League season. That certainly was a high point of his playing career.
Getting an opportunity to meet and talk with the great Pele was another, after the Comets closed up shop for a couple of seasons.
That occurred on Dec. 1, 2007, when Stokic played with the New Jersey Ironmen in their inaugural home game in the Xtreme Soccer League. Pele was honorary team captain in the match, before 13,249 fans at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
"It was a packed arena," he said. "The best part was meeting Pele. He came to our locker room, and we talked a little bit about soccer. The biggest impact was just meeting Pele and him being there watching that game."
After the Comets brand was revived, Stokic returned to the club in 2010. He has been with the club ever since, whether it was blocking a shot on the field or aiding Gibson behind the bench.
Then 5-9 and 150-lbs, Stokic became quite proficient at sacrificing his body, blocking 120 shots in 108 Comets matches, regular season and playoffs.
"I took pride in defending," he said. "I always wanted to do whatever I could to have my team have success. That’s one of my duties in jobs is to be able to block shots or [whatever] it took me to win a game or my teammates to have success. I would have taken 20 of them at once."
During intrasquad games, Stokic likely got in the way of a Gibson shot or two. Gibson is an indoor soccer legend, having scored 327 goals and contributed 288 assists over 290 games during a 16-year career, the last 13 with the Comets. As a 39-year-old last season, Gibson found the net 15 times and assisted on 16 others.
Like many of his coaching colleagues, Stokic's goals are pretty straight and forward this season.
"Our main goal is to win the conference and the second is to win a championship," he said. "Is it going to be an easy task? No. Both conferences are very strong. I felt like this year, every team has gotten stronger in one way or another. Especially with the schedule that we have, it's going to be very challenging for us. But I believe that if we want to be a championship team, we need to play against the best of the best. Once they gave us the schedule, and who we're going to play against, my first thought was, 'Wow, I mean, they're trying to get me fired the first year.' It was a very tough schedule.
"I went back and looked at it more as a challenge. Now I have to work harder. My players need to work harder to be able to meet our goals. I feel like this league is getting better and better each year. Teams are getting stronger. For us, what's most important is to believe in the process and to build our mentality and the values that I want for the team and hoping that we can achieve our goals."
We'll find out soon enough when the Kansas City Comets tussle with the Milwaukee Wave on Nov. 26.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.