**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints or positions of the Major Arena Soccer League.**
CHIHUAHUA’S ROUGH WEEKEND
In such a young season, these litmus tests often feel like finals. Add in two wildly dominant teams and a fierce rivalry, and you have this weekend’s home-and-home series between Chihuahua and Monterrey. The Flash came alive in the second half to win 10-6 at Corner Sport Arena in Chihuahua, ending the Savage’s perfect season, and then followed that up with a second victory, this time at home by a score of 3-2.
Both teams exchanged
Both teams exchanged penalties about as often as they scored on Friday, but Chihuahua found itself in the penalty box four times during Sunday’s contest. Their final trip to the box proved decisive as Monterrey converted the resulting shootout for its third goal of the night. Chihuahua earned 40% of their season's total cards in the match as the Flash finally found a way to address its own evident penalty problem, accumulating just one penalty late in the fourth quarter.
In addition to their abnormally numerous trips to the penalty box, Chihuahua was up against one of the most dominant goalkeeping performances we’ve seen all year. 22-year-old Christian Hernandez got the start ahead of Berna Valdovinos and made an instant impact, recording a staggering .926 save percentage with a whopping 25 saves on the night.
So, for Chihuahua, this was a punch in the mouth. A time to look in the mirror and reevaluate what they did right and what they didn’t. It’s clear from what we’ve seen so far that these are two of the best teams in the entire league, so with that in mind, two losses, though devastating at present, are far from a damnation for this Savage side. They’ll have the next two weeks off before a second home-and-home series against Monterrey, with redemption on their minds.
It will come down to whether Everardo Sánchez’s side can stay out of the penalty box and convert power plays into goals more frequently. Currently, Chihuahua has converted just 29% of its power plays into goals, which is below the league average of 39%. Their opponents so far have not been superb penalty-killing teams either, with an average of just over 60%.
Power plays are a unique tool in indoor soccer and not utilizing them is wasteful. Chihuahua had four power plays this weekend and only capitalized on one. Bump that up, and the Savage has every chance of beating Monterrey on Friday, Jan. 5 at 9:00 p.m. EST.
STRYKERS STRUGGLE WITH FABIÁN
The MASL’s newest blockbuster signing, Marco Fabián, made his debut for the Empire Strykers this weekend, as his new team returned to their early season form with a pair of frustrating losses.
First at home against the struggling Baltimore Blast, the Strykers never led, despite a goal and two assists for Fabián, and then on the road against San Diego, Empire was held scoreless for three of the four quarters.
Finding the net has been difficult for Paul Wright’s side even before Fabián joined and while creating good attacking opportunities can be difficult, it’s vital, especially for a team that concedes an average of 7.6 goals per game. Excluding their 8-7 win over the Ambush last week, the Strykers have scored just 11 goals in four games, placing them squarely in the middle of a Venn diagram representing teams with both scoring and defensive challenges.
Fabián has shown that he can make an instant impact, but change doesn’t happen with an individual. It happens within a unit. The entire system needs to come together or change completely if the Strykers are to reach the playoffs, and based on the team’s first five matches, it seems the latter would be prudent. We’ll see how they respond when they host the Tacoma Stars on Thursday, Dec. 28 at 10:05 p.m. EST.
DALLAS CONTINUES ITS STELLAR POWER PLAY RECORD
On the surface, Dallas is having another tough campaign. One win in four games with 42 goals allowed is a tough look for any team, but there's something strange about this Sidekicks side that deserves attention.
Ed Puskarich’s team has taken advantage of every single power play they’ve been given this season. This isn’t just one of one or even two of two. The Sidekicks have found the net during all four of their power plays this season, including one against Monterrey, two against Texas, and one in San Diego this weekend. That’s 100%. For context, no other team has broken 70%.
Defensively, they’re also well above average, killing their penalties at a rate of 80%, the third-best in the league. Dallas is one of just two teams that are above average in both categories, along with the Milwaukee Wave, but the Sidekicks blow even them out of the water by comparison. Altogether, this strange amalgamation points to a team that is unable to compete talent-wise but is extremely well-coached and excels in discipline. They think with one brain, all players in sync, knowing exactly where they need to be and what they need to do.
On days when talent is enough to compete, their coachability will be the difference. The Sidekicks may not be competing for a playoff spot this season, but they are absolutely worth watching. They do the little things right, and in a game with so many variables, controlling the controllable moments makes a difference, and Dallas is showing exactly that.
HEWERTON-BALL IS IN FULL EFFECT
From one coach deserving of praise to another, we shift our focus to Utica where head coach Hewerton Moreira’s vision is becoming more and more apparent every time his side hits the turf.
High-tempo offense combined with clinical finishing is just how Moreira likes it, and with his new signings, his team now has the players to fit the system. Utica currently has 11 players averaging a point or more per game and is led by Ronaldinho Diniz with six goals and three assists in three matches.
That’s all without mentioning Franck Tayou who has accumulated just six points in four games. That is by no means a bad return, but for Tayou it's an indication that he hasn’t yet found his footing, which is bad news for the rest of the league. If this is what an out-of-form Tayou looks like, it’s impossible to imagine the highs he’ll hit with the likes of Mohamed Ndiaye, Nilton de Andrade, and Gordy Gurson feeding him the ball.
Defensively, Utica leaves a bit to be desired, but when they’re scoring ten goals per game, they can afford to concede six. The issue will present itself when their attack is threatened. When a defense capable of slowing this side down faces Utica, will the defense be able to spare their blushes? It is still way too early to tell, especially given that Hewerton’s side has only faced Harrisburg and Baltimore thus far.
January will test Utica with trips to Milwaukee, Tacoma, Kansas City, and St. Louis on back-to-back weekends, but until then, they will face Baltimore and Harrisburg, both at home, to continue their undefeated start to the season. Kickoff against the Blast is Friday, Dec. 22 at 7:05 p.m. EST live on Twitch from the Adirondack Bank Center in Upstate New York.
TOO EARLY TO DISCUSS MVP CANDIDATES?
In a word, probably, but it’s been tough to ignore the thought as the weeks have rolled on and individuals continue to steal the show from what is, by definition, a team sport. There’s a solid chance a name just popped into your head, regardless of what team you support, thanks to just how many superstars call this league home. So let’s name some names and discuss who we might see singled out at the end of the year.
We’ll start in Kansas City with the league’s points leader and joint-top goalscorer, Zach Reget. It’s hard to make a case against the Wisconsin native’s stake at the award given his ten goals and four assists in five games, but those fortunate enough to have watched him play will be quick to point out that it's not how often he puts the ball in the net, is how he does it. Reget’s play is rarely forgettable and he has a unique ability to stand out on a field laced with superstars. He has a habit of finding the impossible and making it happen, as we saw this weekend against the Outlaws. With a team capable of competing for an Eastern Conference title, it would be a shock if Reget is not in the conversation for league MVP.
Down in Texas, Luiz Morales has been setting the field alight during his third season in the league. A former league Rookie of the Year, Morales has only improved during his young career, but this season has been completely different. The 24-year-old scored 23 and 25 goals during his first two seasons, but this year, he’s already up to ten after just five games. His output has nearly doubled, and with the likes of Sebastian Mendez and David Ortiz, that doesn’t look like dropping anytime soon. It would no doubt be a surprise based solely on his age, but if he continues at this rate, he will be more than deserving of the accolade.
The Sockers are no stranger to the upper echelon of talent, and once again, they’ve found an MVP-caliber player to run their midfield. Charlie Gonzalez has six goals and six assists in four games this season, and much like Reget, quality supersedes the already remarkable quantity. Gonzalez plays with an ease rarely found in the indoor game. Part of that is due to his remarkable teammates, but it also means he’s standing out from the best. As San Diego continues to march through the season, it will be hard to ignore their star man as he continues to climb the scoring charts.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Other players deserving of shoutouts are José Antonio Medina, Nick Perera, Nicolau Neto, and the aforementioned Ronaldinho Diniz, along with so many others. We’ll revisit this conversation throughout the campaign, but for now, these were the three players who most stuck out during the first four weeks of the season.