**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.**
UTICA’S WAKE-UP CALL
Two games down, and Utica’s road trip has already been a disaster. Losses to Milwaukee and Tacoma put an abrupt end to their reign atop the Eastern Conference and made it abundantly clear that this team still has some work to do. There were bright spots in both matches, but ultimately, the future “Riggies” will hope next weekend proves more fruitful.
Against the Wave, Franck Tayou reached 500 career regular season points, becoming the first player to achieve the feat. His landmark point came on a rebound goal just over three minutes into the contest. Only four players have broken the 400-point barrier, but The King stands significantly above the rest. Due to the water main issue in San Diego, Kraig Chiles will have to wait another week for the chance to join the 400 club, but this leaves him, Ian Bennett, Leo Gibson, and Nick Perera all chasing a new standard for league domination.
Aside from Tayou’s remarkable achievement, Utica kept pace with Milwaukee through the first half before fading as the game went on. Hewerton’s side did well to score not one, but two short-handed goals, but the Wave still managed to convert two power-plays into goals while staying out of the box for most of the game.
On defense, Utica was without the sure hand of Andrew Coughlin in net due to an injury, allowing both Milwaukee and Tacoma to capitalize. Before their road trip, Utica conceded just 5.66 goals per game, but Milwaukee’s nine goals and Tacoma’s ten put a considerable dent in that record.
After eight games, Utica sits dead last in both penalty kill percentage and power play conversion percentage. Seven power-plays and eight cards against Milwaukee and Tacoma didn’t help those stats, as Utica conceded four power-play goals.
So, what have we learned about Utica? Despite the losses, they found a way to spread out their goals, scoring in seven of eight quarters this weekend. They stayed in both games but fell apart defensively in both fourth quarters, a trend that is represented when analyzing the data.
When watching the games, it’s clear that Hewerton’s side is best on the counter. They steal the ball high up the field and create chaos. Players like Ronaldinho Diniz and Gordy Gurson press high and immediately look to goal, which explains why they’ve scored more short-handed goals (3) than power-play goals (2). It’s also a system that emphasizes stamina and high-intensity play, so it feels natural for energy to fade as the quarters roll on.
This game plan may not need to be addressed, but Hewerton should be working with his players on scoring more while in possession. They struggle to connect and create when the games are less chaotic. These passages of play are crucial and can be the difference in tight matches like we saw this weekend.
Utica’s season is still very much on track, but next week will be a chance to rebound from these losses. Their first test will be against the Comets at Cable Dahmer Arena before they visit the Ambush the following night. While two wins may be a bit much to expect, one win should be a bit more realistic. Kickoff in Kansas City is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 12 at 8:05 p.m. EST.
HOW WILL THESE LOSSES TO MONTERREY IMPACT CHIHUAHUA’S SEASON?
Four consecutive losses should be damning. For any other team, it’d be a sign that they cannot compete, but these four games realistically tell us more about Monterrey than Chihuahua. The Savage were amazing against Texas and tested the Flash at times, but just were unable to get the results they so desperately wanted.
Despite 15 players registering a point in their past four games, only Hugo Puentes and Roberto Escalante accumulated more than two points. While it's good to spread goals out, this was a squad stretched too thin in attack, craving a consistent goal-scoring threat. By comparison, Monterrey also had 15 players register a point in the series, but eight players accumulated at least three points, led by Alexis Espinoza’s three goals and four assists.
The defining moment of the weekend series was a 15-second span that saw Chihuahua implode defensively. A converted power play followed by a sloppy mistake in defense handed the Savage’s well-fought lead to their opponents. From then on, Monterrey held the reigns, scoring twice to close out Friday’s game as well as the first four goals on Sunday. Chihuahua needed to win both and failed, but how did this failure impact them going forward?
While it's hard to imagine Chihuahua missing the playoffs, their already low chances of winning the West seem non-existent now. They’re still one of the best teams in the league, but San Diego will not lose four games this season. They’ll be the second seed again if they can get back to winning, but if there are hiccups, the Outlaws are ready to pounce.
There are still a few questions to be answered, namely whether Chihuahua can be competitive outside of Mexico. They’ve played all six of their games this season either at home or in Monterrey. Next is a trip to San Diego for their first of six visits to the United States. Monterrey has only played outside of Mexico once and needed overtime to beat Milwaukee at the UWM Panther Arena. Could we see similar struggles from the Savage? We’ll see this weekend. Kickoff is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 14 at 8:05 p.m. EST at the Pechanga Arena.
DO WE ALREADY KNOW THE FOUR PLAYOFF TEAMS IN THE EAST?
At this point in the season, We’ve had a good look at pretty much every team in the league and can, with some considerable confidence, say the table is taking shape. After seven or eight games, a gap is forming between the top four and the bottom three. There’s a lot of soccer still to play, but is the gap already insurmountable?
At the top, we have Monterrey and Kansas City. The Flash have looked indomitable, winning all seven of their games this year, making Chihuahua seem average by comparison. There are still flaws, like their subpar performance on both sides of power plays or their 3.42 cards per game, but taking those pitfalls into account, this Monterrey team looks seriously good. To make winning feel like a foregone conclusion while making tangible mistakes speaks to just how good they are and how good they could be as the season goes on.
The Comets don’t share Monterrey’s affinity for a penalty. They average less than two cards per game (1.38) and have looked pretty solid on the power play, converting at a rate of 50%. They also are well above average defensively, conceding just 4.38 goals per game. Their only loss this season came at home against Texas, who themselves are proving to be among the best sides in the league. With 21 points from 8 games, the Comets will certainly be fighting for the top spot in the East against Monterrey.
While the past weekend put the brakes on this Utica side’s claim to the Eastern Conference title, they’re still in a great spot to make the playoffs. They play Harrisburg and Baltimore six times each, with three games against St. Louis as well. If Utica can win all of those games, of which they’ve already won six, they’ll earn at least 45 points, which would have won the division last season. With Franck Tayou, Ronaldinho Diniz, and Gordy Gurson in attack, they should be a lock to qualify for the postseason.
With those spots settled, the final playoff position is still up for grabs between Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Harrisburg. The Heat have endured a miserable start to the season and the Ambush have lost a few key games that have taken them out of the playoff conversation, including this weekend’s overtime loss to Baltimore. That same game, however, kept the Blast’s playoff hopes alive, slim as they are.
This leaves Baltimore and Milwaukee in a two-horse race for fourth in the East. Unfortunately for the Blast, the Wave has a seven-point head start, but Baltimore does have a game in hand. Milwaukee’s remaining schedule is far from a cakewalk, with three matches against Monterrey, two against Utica, and games against San Diego and Texas. Alongside those battles, they’ll also face Dallas and St. Louis three times each, with another visit from Harrisburg as well.
For Baltimore, they’ll face the Heat five more times, Utica on four occasions, and then one-off games against the Ambush, the Outlaws, Empire, Kansas City, Monterrey, and Chihuahua. But in what could be a critical game with playoff implications, Milwaukee will travel to face the Blast in Baltimore on Saturday, Mar. 2. With a potential playoff spot on the line, you’ll need to circle this one on your calendar now.
Until then, both teams need to keep winning. Milwaukee has looked better and better as the season goes on, and Baltimore, who has admittedly looked a bit off it this year, may have turned a corner on the back of two consecutive wins. The gap will likely get wider before it closes up, due to the Wave’s busy January, but if the Blast can get a run of wins in a row, they have every chance of catching the Wave.