Utica City FC
Utica City FC head coach Ryan Hall admits he can get quite animated while getting caught up coaching arena soccer games "whether we win or lose."
"That's just my style of coaching," he said. "I'm envious of the coaches who can just sit there, have their game plan set out and they sit back and watch. Unfortunately, that's not me. I often leave the games exhausted and have a headache. I'm passionate about it. Whether it's a game or training, regardless what I do. I'm an emotional person and it carries what I do into games.”
Well, after the opening week of the Major Arena Soccer League season, Hall might have had a less of a headache and a little more spring in his step after leaving Adirondack Bank Center on Sunday.
A 2-0 start after two wins within a 21-hour period can be the perfect remedy for the club.
"Yeah, no question," Hall said. "It was great."
Utica kicked off its season by rallying for a 9-7 win at the Harrisburg Heat last Saturday night, following that up with an even more impressive result, besting three-time defending champion Baltimore Blast, 5-2, in a memorable franchise opener before 3,028 supporters in Utica on Sunday afternoon.
Two wins don't make a season, but it certainly was a boost for the upstate New York side as took the Eastern Division lead as the only 2-0 team in the league.
"Overall, it was an excellent opening weekend," Hall said. "Any time you can start 2-0 it's a great start."
Utica City FC rallied at Harrisburg, overcoming a 7-6 deficit in the fourth quarter by striking for the final three goals. Slavisa Ubiparipovic, Joey Tavernese and Ben Ramin scored two goals apiece and goalkeeper Andrew Coughlin made 15 saves.
"Harrisburg did a great job," Hall said. "Put us under pressure, didn't really know what to expect. Obviously, a bunch of good players. Over the course of a season they're going to be very well organized. They were able to capitalize on our lack of attention and detail. They're much younger than us. They were running at us. It caught us off guard. The first half we kind of took a beating. We were fortunate enough to hold them to four goals. It could have been a lot worse."
The second half, however, could not have been much better.
"The guys, their experience took over, settled down, regained possession and was able to take momentum in the second half," Hall said "Fortunately, squeaked out a win."
Utica City FC rode that momentum into Sunday's game against the Blast. The team was playing its first home game since being acquired by new owners and moving some 55 miles east on the New York State Thruway.
"All the returning players from last year's Syracuse team had been circling that game on a calendar just because we're routinely losing to Baltimore in the playoffs," Hall said. "Playing as a new franchise at that stadium with that crowd, the guys were ripping and roaring. They played fantastic. Complete team game. All five guys were getting behind the ball, all five guys were defending. The shots against really showed that. The team really bought into our defensive scheme. Fortunately, we had a couple of bounces go our way in terms of shots and Andrew some of the defenders made some great blocks and saves and we were able to pull out a win."
Darren Toby snapped a 2-2 deadlock in the third quarter and Tavernese's power-play goal lifted Utica to a 4-2 lead with 1:55 remaining in the period.
"It's a long trip back through the night to get to Utica and then have to turn around and play a day game, it's not always so easy," Tavernese said. "Credit to the guys, they took care of themselves. We kind of came out flying and to be honest, the intro and the pre-game ceremonies with the fans and how everything kind of worked out. The atmosphere was incredible. It was like we were playing with an extra player out there, just having the fans behind us."
There were many heroes over the weekend. Lucio Gonzaga obviously stood out because he scored three goals. Moreover, he brought something else to the team as well -- the ability to calm things down. He was needed after the side lost last year's MVP Kenardo Forbes.
"I thought Lucio did great," Hall said. Kenardo was the one player who really was the composed player on the ball. Never panicked, calmed things down. So, when he left there were some pretty big shoes to fill. So, we reached to Lucio, his experience and he did just that. He's a veteran player of 11 years. He's seen every situation of indoor games has to offer and he showed it especially vs. Baltimore; very composed on the ball. There were times when Baltimore went on a 2-0 run at the start of the second half, and he was the player who stepped up. Just relax. It's a game of momentum, a game of waves. We knew they would come out and push on us. That leadership and experience Lucio really brings to the table."
Utica will play three times on Saturday nights on the road with a quick turnaround for a 2 p.m. Sunday home encounter.
"Usually when we play back to back, we try to run as many as we can in threes to try and save legs rather than running in shifts of two, where guys are running a bit more," Tavernese said. "But injuries happen, other things happen where certain players are not available so it's easier said than done. We've got to be smart on how we deal with it and honestly, it's about trying to take care of the body.
"It's an unforgiving game. Everybody gets banged up. I've been taking ice baths all week to try to get healthy this weekend. I think that's the most important thing; how professional can you be to take care of your body and make sure you're ready for what's most important. It leads to tough weekends like this where you've got back-to-back two games in less than 36 hours or you're lucky where you have one game on the weekend at home and it's a bit easier. Indoors definitely a game and a sport of rollercoaster rides and you can't be on those highs and stay on those highs and can't dwell on the lows. So, we've got to try to ride it as straight as possible and just continue to travel upward all the way to the playoffs. It may seem a far away, but as the players know it goes real quick."
In arena soccer, teams cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Take your foot off the gas pedal and you could be chasing teams in your division for a playoff berth.
The next test is just right around the corner as Utica visits Baltimore at 6 p.m. Saturday before returning home for the Florida Tropics on Sunday at 2 p.m.
"To a certain extent we poked the bear a little bit," Hall said. "I know Baltimore; they've broken down our film from the last game. They're going to be ready and be prepared. Now we have to go into the lions' den and play the champions in their place. ... The whole season's a grind, we've got to keep guys healthy, maintain our discipline and keep chipping away at the pieces we need to fix."
Tavernese agreed and elaborated.
"Hopefully, we can keep it rolling," he said. "It doesn't get any easier. We play in Baltimore, which is a significantly smaller arena. It's never easy to play there. They've never lost there. Its easy motivation going in there. We're not going to rest and go to sleep because we beat them once. We want to be the first team to beat them in that arena and we come home to a very, very good Florida team.
"It's early, so it's only two games, anything can happen. I plan on us winning the next 22, but we could lose the next 22. It's just the way it goes. I think we've done really well this year assembling the team. We have a good mixture of young guys and veterans. ... We're hoping it’s the right formula to finally dethrone Baltimore. As I've told everyone they've been the team that has stood in my way and Rochester's [Lancers] way, Syracuse's way, Utica's way every year. That’s the hump we're trying to get over and hopefully with the group that we have assembled we're going to do that to build and make sure we've got the right roster and players in place to get us there."
So far, so good and perhaps less headaches and more energy for Ryan Hall.