FEVER ON THE PITCH Playoff race heats up for Tacoma Stars

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Tacoma Stars’ Nick Perera fights for control of the ball. Since acquiring the veteran in a trade that involved later considerations, Perera has been lights-out for Tacoma. In the seven games he has suited up for the Stars, Perera has tallied an incredible 16 goals, while adding seven assists. After dropping four goals and an assist against the El Paso Coyotes on Friday, Feb. 2, Perera was named to the Major Arena Soccer League’s “Team of the Week.” Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

When it comes to the world of sports, nothing really compares to the fever pitch of an exciting playoff run. As the regular season winds toward the final contest, if one’s team happens to still be in the mix for a postseason berth, that fan base is usually reaching new heights of euphoria. The atmosphere in the arena becomes more electric, and the level of play by the teams involved tends to heat up like never before.

This is the state of affairs for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Arena Soccer League, as well as their fans.

Philip Lund has also had a sensational first season with Tacoma. The Dane has scored 15 goals, including a hat trick against the Coyotes. Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

With just five games remaining in the regular season, Tacoma sits within prime striking distance of a playoff berth. Standing in their path is the Ontario Fury, a team that in these three short years, has easily become the Stars’ most heated rival. With only two tickets to the playoffs available from each of the four divisions in the MASL, it looks as though the race for the second spot in the Pacific Division could go down to the last weekend of the season.

Sure, Tacoma (8-9) has topped the Fury (9-8) twice this season, but Ontario still has a one-game cushion in the standings. The two teams will do battle on Thursday, Feb. 15, in Ontario, and again on Friday, Feb. 23, at the Accesso ShoWare Center in Kent. The two games could make or break it for either team, and fans should expect two of the fiercest matches of the season when the opening whistles blow in these contests.

Goalkeeper Danny Waltman has kept Tacoma within striking distance all season. Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

Both teams have a difficult road to close out the regular season. Besides their two matches with Ontario, the Stars will host the San Diego Sockers (12-3) on Friday, Feb. 9, will travel to face the Turlock Express (2-16) on Friday, Feb. 16, and close out the season at home against the Kansas City Comets on Friday, March 2. The finale with the Comets could be for all the marbles for both teams. With Cedar Rapids in the midst of an apparent free-fall in the MASL Central Division standings, the Comets sit just 2.5 games behind, and well within striking distance. That final game against the Stars could be an absolute dog fight. Snatch up your tickets now for that one.

On the flipside, Ontario will host the undefeated Monterrey Flash (15-0) on Thursday, Feb. 8, followed by a road match against El Paso the following night. After two dips against Tacoma, Ontario will host San Diego on Thursday, March 1, to close out the season.

Former Stadium Tiger Jamael Cox has been mixing up goals and assists to go along with his blazing speed this season. Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

Tacoma was able to keep pace with Ontario in the standings with an exciting 10-7 victory over the El Paso Coyotes on Friday, Feb. 2, in front of 2,981 fans at the ShoWare Center. What began as a runaway blowout turned into a much-closer game than the fans expected after a dominating first half by Tacoma.

Before 10 minutes had ticked off of the scoreboard, the Stars led the Coyotes by a score of 3-0 and it looked as though there were no brake lights in sight.

Tacoma head coach Darren Sawatzky works to keep the troops focused on the plan. Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

The Stars kicked off the night’s scoring off a sweet goal by Trevor Jensen. Taking a feed from former Stadium standout Raphael Cox, Jensen put a left foot on the ball and snuck it inside the left post for the 1-0 Tacoma lead. Less than two minutes later, Philip Lund would catch the El Paso defense out of position. A long pass into the corner careened off the edge of the wall and bounced into the middle of the top circle. Two El Paso defenders had a chance at the ball, but were unable to get off their heels. Meanwhile, Lund flashed into the picture and slapped a low burner straight into the back of the net for a 2-0 Stars’ advantage.

With 5:21 remaining in the first quarter, Tacoma’s newfound leader got into the act. Now playing in his seventh game for the Stars, Nick Perera continued his torrid scoring pace as he took a feed from Troy Peterson and made a quick turn near the top of the circle. Without hesitation, Perera planted the ball into the upper-left corner of the goal to give Tacoma a 3-0 lead.

Taylor Walter Bond, Evan McNeley and Perera return to the bench following a goal. Photo by Quinn Width / goalwa.net

El Paso finally got into the act off a goal by Jorge Rios just 30 seconds later. Perera would answer again just 27 seconds later off a left-footed blast to give Tacoma a 4-1 lead. Rios would answer the bell for El Paso just over two minutes later to narrow the score to 4-2. With just over a minute left in the first quarter, Raphael Cox found himself out in front of the Coyotes’ defense and he slipped one past goalkeeper Eduardo Arevalo, leaping over diving keeper following the blast.

Tacoma would tack on two more quick goals in the second quarter. Lund scored off a rebound blast from Perera to make the score 6-2 just 47 seconds into the period. Perera would then earn his hat trick after taking a cross-field pass from defenseman Evan McNeley to make it 7-2 Stars with just under 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Rios would than earn his own hat trick off a goal just over 30 seconds later to make it 7-3 Tacoma.

Following a hard foul, Perera would score on a penalty kick to earn his fourth goal of the night and gave the Stars an 8-3 advantage going into the half.

El Paso would strike twice midway through the third quarter to close the score to 8-5 Stars. Lund would then earn his own hat trick after taking a feed from former Wilson Ram Joey Gjertsen, sliding full-bodied into the El Paso goal and Tacoma would take a 9-5 lead into the final period.

Former Stadium Tiger Jamael Cox would deliver a cannon shot from deep on the wing into the upper-right corner of the goal to give Tacoma a 10-5 advantage with just over 13 minutes remaining in the contest. El Paso would tack on two quick scores two minutes later to make the score 10-7, but were unable to gain any further ground on the Stars as the Tacoma defense stiffened and put the rest of the night on shutdown.

In seven games with Tacoma, Perera has now scored 16 goals, while adding seven assists. His addition to the team, along with newcomer Taylor Walter Bond, has turned the tide for the Stars, making them much more potent on the offensive end.

Tacoma hosts San Diego on Friday, Feb. 9, at 7:35 p.m. The Tacoma Stars Reserves open Western Indoor Soccer League play the following night at the Tacoma Soccer Center against the Olympic Force. It is a single-elimination game, with the victors heading to the WISL championship game the following weekend. Tacoma won the inaugural WISL championship three seasons ago, only to see Bellingham take the next two trophies.

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