HOMECOMING IN TACOMA - BY MICHAEL LEWIS
The crowd at the accesso ShoWare Center was buzzing.
The Tacoma Stars were in the midst of overcoming a second-half deficit and avenging a grueling and heart-breaking defeat to the Florida Tropics two days earlier.
Defender Cory Keitz had connected for what proved to be the game-winning goal in the fourth quarter. When the final buzzer sounded, the Stars had themselves a well-earned 4-3 Major Arena Soccer League victory over the Eastern Division champions.
"It was a big win for us. A really emotional match for us, especially playing a super talented and organized, structured team like Florida," forward Nick Perera said. "It was an amazing night!"
In so many ways.
"That was just a huge uplift," said Adam Becker, the current assistant coach who was the head coach at the time. "We were finally starting to hit a little bit of a stride."
The Stars walked off the field to a rousing ovation.
"We felt that we owed our fans some redemption in terms of ensuring that they knew we were there for them," Perera said. "We walked off the field feeling almost invincible."
Little did the Stars or their faithful realize that it would have to wait some 19 months before they could play at home, sweet home again. Slightly more than a week later, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic not only wiped out the Stars' season but for the rest of the league as well.
When the MASL resumed play this past January, Tacoma was one of two teams - the San Diego Sockers were the other - who were forced to play all of their games on the road because of local COVID-19 regulations and protocols.
Finally, after 650 long days, the Stars will get an opportunity to play in front of their fans in their season opener against the defending champion Sockers at 7:05 p.m. PT on Saturday.
"I can't express how excited we are," Becker said. "It obviously was a strange year, all the way from March 2020 until now. So, just to be able to be at home in front of our fans and family and friends, it's just going to be a huge boost to everybody's morale, just being able to play at home, train at home."
Perera had similar sentiments.
"I mean, it feels almost crazy to say it feels like it was a different world," he said. “Last time we had a home game it was a different world. It's going be really important and really fun for us. My family and I moved to Washington so my kids will get to come watch me this season at home, which is really special for me."
Let's put things into perspective. The MASL looked for a way to salvage a season that was supposed to be the 2020-21 campaign. With so many different rules and regulations throughout the country, some teams, such as the Baltimore Blast, Utica City FC, Harrisburg Heat, Milwaukee Wave and Rochester Lancers, could not play at their respective arenas.
Seven clubs decided to give it a shot. The Ontario Fury was forced to play its opening seven matches away from the Toyota Arena. The Stars and Sockers decided to play – all on the road.
At first, the Tacoma players embraced the opportunity of competing again, even if it meant it was away from home and loved ones.
"It was definitely a was definitely a mix of emotions," Perera said. "The first overwhelming emotion was that we were extremely blessed to be able to even play. That's the gratitude to be able to even have a season, which was something special. Emotionally, there was a lot going. The world was a different place. I felt it was a privilege to be out there. I reminded the team every single time I could how lucky we were to even be able to play because most teams, most operations, most leagues were shut down."
But on the flip side, living out of a suitcase for 11 regular-season matches and two playoff games can wear down even a fit athlete.
"It was very difficult because we're traveling," Perera said. "Not just traveling every single game but we're traveling to Kansas City to Florida and Ontario. There were some travels that were really difficult. And on top of that you're traveling with added restrictions with COVID stuff. It really was challenging. As an organization we had prepared for things we weren't expecting."
As head coach, Becker could not help but notice challenges - big and small - that his team needed to overcome.
"It completely disrupts your schedule," he said. "You're having to travel a couple days earlier. You're spending less time with your family. You're not meal prepping the way you normally would. You're not training the way you normally would."
Becker gave owner Lane Smith much credit for reaching into his pocket to pay for the season, despite having no incoming revenue.
"That was out of the generosity,"' he said. “He's a good man. He really tries to grow the sport here in the Northwest region. Just between him and the person who would facilitate our flights and flying guys in and getting the team across the nation, oh my goodness, it could be a nightmare at times for them."
It certainly didn’t help matters when the team contracted COVID-19 early in the season.
"We all got it very quickly," Perera said. "We had to rally very quickly from being ill to playing a tripleheader in Florida. We basically had three to three and a half weeks from contracting illness to kicking a ball. Some players didn't have a massive amount of symptoms and some had some heavier symptoms."
Sensitized by what he endured and wanting to protect his wife and children from contracting COVID-19, Perera took a unique a step further to protect his family.
"I personally was trying to quarantine myself for at least two or three days for observation, usually four or five days every time I came home," he said. "There was a lot of coming and going. I was really absent for a lot of last season for my family at least. It was difficult. It was really challenging. It was a unique learning experience.”
Including two playoff games, the Stars played 13 road encounters. The Toyota Arena in Ontario, Calif. led the way with five contests, including the final five. Next was the RP Funding Center (Lakeland, Fla.) with three games, the Cable Dahmer Arena (Independence, Mo.) and The Family Arena (St. Charles, Mo.) with two apiece and the Allen Event Center (Allen, Texas) with one.
The Stars finished the regular season at 4-7 in sixth place before they were eliminated by the Sockers in the quarterfinals by a pair of 6-5 results.
"It was definitely emotionally draining," Perera said. "In terms of the end of the season, there was an outpouring of emotion. Just the road traveled was really, really taxing. But all of that builds and adds to the overwhelming sensation of excitement, moving forward into what looks to be a new horizon for the Tacoma Stars playing back at home."
That begins on Saturday night.
Becker said that he hoped accesso ShoWare Center will be rocking. The Stars’ reserve team will play its rivals, the Bellingham Hammers, in the first game of a doubleheader.
“I'm hoping it's going to be a packed house," he said. "I'm hoping they're going to be there just louder than ever and rowdy. I know they're going to be behind us. I know they're going have our backs when the game gets tough. They're going help us pick our heads up and keep pushing forward. It's going to be vibrant. Everyone's going to be so excited. They've been able to go to Sounders games or the new NHL team. For them to finally be able to come back indoors with us is, it'll be a special moment, for sure."
In a twist to the 2021 season, the Stars are going to enjoy some home cooking early on. Saturday's game will be the start of five consecutive home matches. Tacoma will host the Dallas Sidekicks on Dec. 18, the St. Louis Ambush on Jan. 7 and 9 and the Kansas City Comets on Jan. 16.
"It's an extremely nice present," Becker said. "It's a tactical advantage for us at this point. We've got five games at home to get our minds right, get some good momentum going forward. Hopefully we can go 5-0."
Things will even out when the Stars hit the road for five successive matches starting at the Kansas City Comets on Jan. 22.
But it is much better than hitting the endless road.
Becker and Perera were optimistic that the Stars will put last season in the rear-view mirror. The assistant coach has seen it in the players' attitude. The team has switched to train in the morning with scrimmages in the evenings.
"We're looking pretty strong," he said. "Everybody's healthy. The guys were buzzing. They're looking more fit than they've been in years past. They're looking healthy and energetic and upbeat. Everybody's just really happy to be back together. We have a lot of people that because of the COVID restrictions whether it had been work or family, couldn't participate [last season]. Most of those guys are all back now."
Perera added that the new training schedule has helped.
"We're physically in a place we haven't been before a season," he said. "Game fitness is really hard, especially for teams coming back after a long pause. It's always good to be fit, maybe in the gym or even in a fitness test. But then when you actually play a game, indoor soccer challenges your lungs, your aerobic capacity, more than anything we can replicate in training most of the time."
The Stars will find how fit and far they've come, starting at home, sweet, home at the accesso ShoWare Center on Saturday night.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.