New on SocTakes: MASL season recaps: Florida, Orlando, St. Louis, Mississauga, Harrisburg

Image credit: MASL

The Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) season has concluded. This was a year of change for the MASL, with Syracuse moving to Utica, new teams in Orlando and Mississauga joining, and the return of the Dallas Sidekicks from hiatus. Attendance dropped for a third-consecutive season, which is worrying, but the league also landed a broadcast agreement with Eleven Sports.

Last time, I recapped the four non-playoff teams in the West. Now, it’s time to cover the five teams that didn’t make the postseason in the Eastern Conference: the Florida Tropics, Orlando SeaWolves, Mississauga MetroStars, St. Louis Ambush and Harrisburg Heat. You know the drill.

Florida Tropics SC – Lakeland, Fla.

  • Record: 6-18, -47 GD, fifth in South Central
  • Attendance: 2,449, eighth, +0.7%

All of the progress the Tropics made on the floor seemed to vanish this past season. The team couldn’t find any meaningful consistency and couldn’t string two wins together to save its life. After opening the year with a convincing win against St. Louis, they were blown out by Mississauga, and that really set the tone. They finished with just a single win on the road and got swept by Milwaukee. Yes, this is a tough division, but last season’s Tropics managed to do better in an even tougher one.

As always, there’s a game that encapsulates their season, in this case, the season finale on the road in Orlando. The Tropics scored first, and then gave up three, and went to halftime down 3-2. They tied it up in the third, and then tied it up again early in the fourth, only to concede twice in the final quarter to end their season with another loss. Not great.

What was great, however, was the rise of Victor Parreiras. He had easily his best season to date, with 17 goals and 13 assists to lead the team in scoring. His goals in four straight games in February helped keep playoff hopes alive for as long as possible. In front of him, Ricardo De Queiroz Diegues posted another strong season, leading the team with 24 goals despite a suspension and missing five games. Antonio Manfut was a great midseason acquisition from the Ambush, who scored 11 goals and assisted eight more after moving to Lakeland. JP Reyes had a fantastic season in defense, with solid performances as well from Caio Ruiz and Anthony Arico. In goal, Hugo Silva was definitely good enough given the issues the team had, and while he’s not likely to make an all-league team, he’s the sort of grinder a team like the Tropics need.

For Florida, the biggest consistent problem was on offense. They conceded 172 goals, which is right in line with Orlando and St. Louis, but their offense was by far the weakest in the division. One more 15-20 goal scorer and they’re within reach of the playoffs with at least four or five more wins from games they ended up losing by a goal or two.

Off the field, attendance is stable, and the Tropics organization at large continues to grow. They’re not just involved in MASL, they’re also in USL League Two with rumors of a professional outdoor team in the near future. They’ve also worked to build one of the largest soccer academies in the state, and as all of this continues to grow, their indoor side will perform better and better.

Orlando SeaWolves – Kissimmee, Fla.

  • Record: 9-15, -32 GD, fouth in South Central
  • Attendance: 1,127, 13th

On the field, Orlando made their “debut” in the MASL with a strong core from the former Cedar Rapids Rampage, including the lethal midfielder Gordy Gurson and tough-as-nails goalkeeper Rainer Hauss. Both of them, plus the rest of their primary starters, had excellent seasons. The problems were everywhere else.

No game illustrates this better than the loss in Harrisburg on March 23. The Heat opened the game with three goals in the first that left Orlando chasing the rest of the night. At halftime, Harrisburg led 8-6, with the SeaWolves still very much in it. An amazing third quarter from Gurson saw Orlando tie things up with barely 90 seconds remaining in the quarter before the floodgates opened. Harrisburg scored five unanswered to win it 15-10.

Gurson led the team in every offensive metric, with 34 goals and 24 assists, including five game-winning goals. He never got sent off and spent just seven minutes in the box all season. Osvaldo Rojas added another 23 goals of his own en route to a 33-point season, and Thiago Freitas managed 14 goals and 15 assists in just 15 games following a move from Harrisburg. That’s the offensive core that any team would die for.

But that’s about it. Their next best forward, Elmo Neto, managed just five goals and four assists. Only three other attacking players managed double-digit points. Richard Schmermund and Joshio Sandoval were great defenders, and Edwin Rojas was solid in his own half, but that was it. Derek Huffman spent more time suspended or in the box than on the field, Drou Goff was just bad, and leaning on Piotr Sliwa to back up Hauss didn’t work.

There are seven or eight players that they need to keep around, and if they upgrade literally everything else, they’ll probably be fine. Probably.

Off the field, for all of the hype of a brand-new team, attendance was just bad. In their inaugural game, they drew a respectable crowd of 2,478, then fell off a cliff. Game two dropped to 1,485, game three to 1,312 and then we saw crowds firmly below 1,000 for much of midseason. Leading up to their final game of the season, they were consistently below 1,000 and only managed 1,315 for the finale. Not good, and potentially very worrying.

Hopefully they survive for another season. There’s a good core here and a strong market that loves soccer. Maybe they need to move from Kisssimee to Orlando proper, to something like Addition Financial Arena.

St. Louis Ambush – St. Charles, Mo.

  • Record: 10-14, -29 GD, third in South Central
  • Attendance: 2,553, seventh, -2%

St. Louis once again finished outside the playoffs, but in all honesty, they’re the most improved team in their division by far. They won more games this past season than in their previous three combined and managed to keep attendance relatively stable. They’re definitely rebuilding, but it looks like the worst might be over.

The game that illustrates their current situation best was the season finale at home against Milwaukee. After trading blows for much of the first half, they went to the break with a 4-3 lead. And don’t think “Milwaukee were resting their starters for the playoffs,” because they simply weren’t. Ian Bennett, Ricardinho Sobreira, and Guilherme Veiga all played. In the third quarter, the Ambush attack ignited to run up a comfortable 7-4 lead, and then the Wave broke all over, leading to a 8-7 overtime loss. Still, though, this team took the eventual champions to overtime in a rebuilding year and that’s definitely an achievement.

Three attacking players deserve a lot of praise and attention. Lucas Almeida ran the offense from midfield with 12 goals and 22 assists, with forwards Zach Reget and Justin Stinson hitting the 20-goal, 10-assist mark. Magui Souza was a spectacular two-way player, leading the team in blocked shots and contributing 10 goals and 12 assists of his own. Douglas Dos Santos and Axel Duarte were defensive studs, serving as the two best true defenders on the team. In goal, Paulo Nascimento proved he’s still got it as he approaches his 34th birthday, with a very nice season between the pipes.

Really, a lot of things went right for the Ambush this season, and they can feel proud of a best-ever record in their time in the MASL. They converted 43% of their power plays, killed half of their penalties and managed to consistently take the fight to Kansas City. Hewerton Moreira is a breath of fresh air as coach, and he even managed to play eight games for the Ambush this past season ahead of retiring as a player, with four goals and five assists. I have high hopes for his future with this team.

St. Louis now has a solid list of 10 players they can build around for next season and I’m confident they’ll continue to improve on the floor.

In the stands, while attendance is down, it’s not down by much, and now that the team is winning and doing things right again, I’m also optimistic that we’ll see that number improve. It’s not in the worrying range yet and given the strong showing in their finale, they’re fine.

Mississauga MetroStars – Mississauga, Ontario

  • Record: 4-20, -64 GD, fourth in Eastern
  • Attendance: 1,020, 14th

Ah, Mississauga. I had such high hopes for Canada’s team in the MASL and it didn’t take long for those hopes to be crushed. After winning two of their first five games, they didn’t win again until mid-February, lost another four straight, beat Utica out of nowhere and then finished with a five-game losing streak. Attendance ranged from bad to abysmal, and even Dwayne De Rosario, Captain Canadia, couldn’t save Mississauga.

One of their best performances in an ultimately losing effort came in their first game of 2019 at home against Baltimore. De Rosario opened the scoring early in the first quarter, before conceding three unanswered to Baltimore to go to halftime down 3-1. Mississauga rallied with three more goals to open the third, before conceding twice in the fourth to end up trailing by a goal again. Marco Rodriguez got an equalizer with six attackers to force overtime, where Baltimore ultimately prevailed. All of this action, and an announced crowd of just 695.

Molham Babouli was consistently the best player for Mississauga, and without his 21 goals and 15 assists, things would have been even worse. Damion Graham formed a potent strike partner to Babouli with 19 goals and 12 assists of his own. Matthew Rios only played 17 games, but was electric in that stint with nine goals and 12 assists. Marco Rodriguez ran the midfield, and posted 11 goals and nine assists. Dwayne De Rosario managed just 11 games for the MetroStars, although he was good for eight goals and eight assists in less than half the season.

From there, there was a substantial drop-off in production down the Mississauga roster. There’s no way to sugar coat it: This was an incomplete — at best — roster even at the end of the season. Mississauga rotated through three different goalies, none of whom impressed much, and save for some good work from Josip Keran, didn’t have much of a defense either. Sacking Phil Ionadi might turn out to be the answer to some of these problems, but there’s only so much a change in coach can accomplish.

Honestly, of all the teams in the league, Mississauga is the most troubling. They had a lot of time between the initial announcement and the start of play to get things right, and they simply didn’t. The attendance numbers are very worrying, and the on-field results speak for themselves. They’re gonna need some help to make it back next season, be it new sponsorship, a relocation closer to Toronto proper or some serious overhaul in the front office.

Harrisburg Heat – Harrisburg, Pa.

  • Record: 11-13, -12 GD, third in Eastern
  • Attendance: 2,194, 11th, +50.4%

Harrisburg hit a bit of a renaissance this past season, looking much, much better on and off the field. They won 11 games for the first time and finished with their second-best record to date. Attendance was way, way up from last season and the club looks to have found some much needed stability. They took the fight to Baltimore and Utica this season, and even without making the playoffs, this was a very good season indeed.

One game that stands out to me was the penultimate home game, against Baltimore on March 30. Baltimore had already secured a playoff berth ensuring Harrisburg couldn’t, and while there wasn’t really anything left to play for, both teams played full strength. Harrisburg charged to a 3-0 lead early in the third, holding Baltimore to just six shots in the first half before Baltimore responded to tie the game with less than a minute remaining. It only took 75 seconds of overtime for Tavoy Morgan to give the Heat the win in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000.

Ricardo Carvalho posted a career best 30 goals and 19 assists and spent just two minutes in the penalty box, Tavoy Morgan had a breakout rookie campaign with 23 goals and 10 assists, and Daniel Villela found his footing and reached 11 goals and 18 assists, a career high. Offensively, Harrisburg was pretty much fine, even though they relied heavily on four primary attackers. There were some questions about the power play, but compared to last season things were visibly improved.

Defensively, Nelson Santana, Patrick Thompson and Danny DiPrima took care of as much business as they could handle given the shifts they played. They had issues killing penalties, and in some games had to stay on the floor much longer than they would have liked, but it’s a solid start for a team that was dreadful just a year ago. One or two more defenders capable of 15 minutes a night and they’ll be fine.

In goal, we saw Matt Perrella and William Banahene platooning, and while Banahene finished with a better record, I actually think Perrella is the man moving forward. He’s better at stopping shots and playing with his feet, both of which he used to keep Harrisburg in games late. That said, keeping both of them is the smartest possible move, as having someone as good as Banahene as a backup is a very comfortable position.

In the stands, attendance is up more than 50% and there’s nothing more left to say other than great work, Harrisburg.

This concludes the second part of my four-part recap coverage of the 2018-19 MASL season. Next time, we’ll take a look at the four teams eliminated in the best-of-three divisional series: Tacoma, RGV, Kansas City and Utica. We’ll conclude with the final part that’ll look at the final four teams and 2019 Ron Newman Cup champion.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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