by Michael Lewis

When Utica City FC faces the Kansas City Comets in the Major Arena Soccer League Eastern Division semifinals tonight, head coach Hewerton Moreira won't be behind the bench.

He will be in Managua, Nicaragua, preparing to coach the U.S. Men's Futsal National Team at the Concacaf Futsal Championship.

When Utica visits Comets in the second game of the series a week later on Monday, April 15, the team will be without its two-leading goal-scorers, Franck Tayou and Nilton de Andrade.

Both players will be in Nicaragua, competing for the United States for an opportunity to play in the FIFA Futsal World Cup in Uzbekistan from Sept. 14-Oct. 6.

The timing of the competition was far from perfect for the MASL, which has started its playoffs.

When he took over as USA head coach last year, Moreira figured the tournament would be held in late April or May. Instead, the powers that be at Concacaf decided to hold it at a rather inopportune time.

"It's a unique situation," Moreira said. "It's crunch time for the MASL. But we just have to go through it and make sure that that we do well on both scenarios."

In his stead, assistant coach Casey Murphy and general manager Tommy Tanner, who directed the Syracuse Silver Knights, will guide the team.

Moreira felt that he would be leaving the team in good hands with a game plan, as well.

"My job is to shine in practice," he said about training the team. "It's my job to provide every tool possible for the players to succeed in the game. I already have all the plans necessary for a practice session for next week. And Tommy and Casey, they know what I like."

This did not come out of nowhere. Moreira had Plans B, C and D in his back pocket, just in case that scenario became reality.

"Since we started the season, the entire time we've been preparing ourselves for playoffs," he said.

Moreira added that representing the USA "is not a right. It's a privilege to be there. I've got to go to the Concacaf championship, and I've got to do everything I can in order to qualify United States for the World Cup."

Of the 12 teams competing in Nicaragua, the four semifinals will represent Concacaf in the World Cup.

“It happens once every four years,” Moreira said. “From the beginning of this season, I've been trying to be very organized with them and prepare them for the crunch time, prepare them for the playoffs."

When he isn't directing the U.S. squad, Moreira will keep an eye on Utica back in the states, and even give the team some halftime instructions during games.

"We've developed a system for me to interact at halftime, to be on conference calls and talk to the team prior to the game,” he said. “I definitely will be involved in the game the entire time for the playoffs."

Seven MASL players are on the 14-player U.S. roster. Besides de Andrade and Tayou, Raphael Araujo is representing the St. Louis Ambush and Erik Macias, Sebastian Mendez, Luiz Morales, and David Ortiz are from the Texas Outlaws.

All-star defender Marcio Leite (Milwaukee Wave) was selected but an ACL tear sidelined him for the rest of the season Kansas City Comets forward Zach Reget was asked to join the squad, but he turned down the invitation, Moreira said.

Moreira took the top two goal-scorers for Utica City - Tayou and de Andrade, who finished with 30 and 29 goals, respectively.

Tayou, a four-time MASL MVP, embraced the invitation. He will turn 34 on April 16 and he knows that he doesn't have many more opportunities to wear the Red, White and Blue of the USA. Prior to the season, he played for the U.S. at the Minifootball World Cup in Dubai.

"We have to remember this is professional sports," he said. "The Concacaf competition and Futsal World Cup happens every four years. So, in life sometimes you have to make tough decisions. And this is one of those moments. This is professional sports. It's the next guy up at the end of the day. Some of us train our entire lives to get an opportunity to play in the World Cup. Some of us train our entire lives to get an opportunity to make the playoffs.

"When I spoke to the coach, he basically said it's a tough situation. It's everybody's dream. It's every four years. When you get an opportunity to represent your country, you don't turn that down. You just don't. Opportunities are far between. You work for four or five months, including the offseason, to prepare yourself for the season and also running the risk of maybe not finishing what you started. Yeah, there's a bit of frustration there. But we are living our dream, and we have a job to do. The best thing to do now is focus on the game on Monday and then after that focus wholeheartedly on Concacaf."

With he and de Andrade gone after the opening playoff game, Tayou said that he has espoused the next man up philosophy for Utica.

"Here's a chance. It depends on whoever wants it bad enough in order to solidify their role and position within the team," he said.

Utica City are visiting the Comets at the Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence, Kansas tonight with game time set for 7:30 p.m. ET. 

"I think in these kinds of scenarios, typically when you win the first game, you are in the driver’s seat," Tayou said. "So, if you can win the first game on the road, even though we won't be there for the return leg, you have that cushion to settle into the game and figure out how to address some of the pieces that aren't there anymore. That will give [the team] enough time to prepare for the mini-game, if we have to go that far."

On paper, it could be one memorable series. Utica (16-7-1, 48 points) finished second in the East, three points ahead of the third-place Comets (14-6-4, 45).

"I've played against the Comets before in the playoffs, especially at home," Tayou said. "They're very resilient, have a lot of energy to come out flying. If you're not careful, you go down by two to three goals and then it becomes harder for you to get back in the game. I think Kansas is probably one of the hottest teams going into the playoffs. They beat the San Diego Sockers. They've had a lot of good wins."

Utica hosts the Comets at the Adirondack Bank Center in the return leg on Monday, April 15 at 6:05 p.m. ET.

Tayou has participated in enough playoffs to know how unpredictable they can be.

"For us, it's a matter of not only being composed but also not losing ourselves in the chaos, because the playoffs are chaotic," he said. “Teams do whatever they have to the change tactics on the fly and whatever works on that day. At some point, I'm pretty sure everyone throws tactics out of the window. It is about grit, heart and determination. … I have full confidence in our coaching stuff. And I know that they'll get us ready for the game."

As for the Concacaf Futsal Championship, in group play, the USA meets Trinidad & Tobago on April 13, the Dominican Republic on April 14 and Guatemala on April 15. If the Americans qualify for the knockout round, the quarterfinal are set for April 17, the semifinals for April 18 and the final and third-place match on April 20.

"I believe in the team that coach Hewerton put together, I believe in the staff," Tayou said. "Hopefully, if we don't get any injuries, we can do something special."

If Utica is still alive in the MASL playoffs, Tayou said that he and de Andrade would return to the team.

"Absolutely," he said. "As soon as the tournament is over, we fly right into whether we need to fly, whether it be Mexico, whether it be back in Syracuse, wherever we need to be with the team. We have to take it one day at a time. We have to focus on KC. They are a very good team, especially at home. So, we have to find a way to go out there and put our best foot forward. ... You're going to need a little bit of luck and hopefully you use that luck to the best advantage. And hopefully the soccer gods smile on us."

Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on X (formerly Twitter) at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at socwriter@optonline.com. 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.