It felt as though you could power the entire town from the electricity in the air at the Bellingham Sportsplex on Saturday, Feb. 17. The two-time defending champion Hammers from Bellingham United would be hosting the Western Indoor Soccer League’s original champions from Tacoma, and it was the sort of championship match that no one in attendance will likely ever forget. With more than 800 fans packed tightly around the playing field, the resulting 60 minutes of play felt akin to a fight scene from the movie “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”
While the Tacoma Stars Reserves and the Bellingham United have not always been the friendliest bunch to each other over the years, this match was incredibly physical, yet fairly clean. A couple of calls were costly for Tacoma in the waning minutes that turned the tide for Bellingham, giving the home side their third straight WISL championship by a score of 6-5.
Throughout the 60 minutes of play, neither team led the other by more than a single goal.
Bellingham’s Sawyer Preston would break the scoreless deadlock in the first quarter, slipping a shot past Tacoma’s legendary goalkeeper Aaron Anderson. Tacoma would answer in short order when Mark Lee would gather in a long pass at the top of the circle, spin to his left and cracked a blast into the upper left corner of the goal to even the score at 1-1. Former Pacific Lutheran University standout Eddie Na would then give Tacoma the lead. The two-time NWC Offensive Player of the Year fought for control of the ball in the corner, came away with it, and quickly sent a low dribbler that Bellingham goalkeeper Riley Liddle was unable to get a bead on. Tacoma took a 2-1 lead into the first quarter break.
Tacoma would suffer an unfortunate bounce to give Bellingham the equalizer in the second quarter. Anderson would make an exceptional kick save on a shot that was heading toward the inside of the left post. The ball ricocheted out to Bellingham’s Kurtis Pederson, who wasted no time, catching the ball in the air with a swinging right footer that found the back of the net. The score was tied at 2-2.
The ever-dangerous Nate Ford had gathered defenders around him near the wing in front of the Bellingham goal. The veteran saw Na heading toward the top of the box and sent a toe-pass that Na delivered into the upper right side of the goal for a 3-2 Tacoma lead. Tacoma’s momentum was building, but was again tempered by some nifty work by Bellingham. With only one defender in front of him, veteran Nic Cashmere made a rush down the left side of the field with the ball. Cashmere hesitated and went to his right, just as another Stars’ defender entered the fray. Cashmere snapped a right-footed blast that split the defenders and found the far side of the net.
The teams would enter halftime tied at 3-3. It felt as though there was a 12-round heavyweight championship fight going down.
Another unfortunate bounce would hit Tacoma again in the third quarter. Cashmere was rushing down the right side of the field with the ball, and somehow pushed the ball through the defense of a flashing Danny Minniti. As Cashmere approached the box, Anderson came off his line and got his foot on the ball. The ball knocked around quickly like a pinball, and then went off the back of Anderson’s heel deeper into the corner. Cashmere quickly put a toe on the ball and Bellingham had regained the lead at 4-3.
As he has often done over the years, Ford was in the right place at the right time to even up the score. Lee sent in a smoking shot toward the left post that looked to be a touch wide. Before Liddle was able to recover to that side of the goal, Ford slid in for a right footed touch into the back of the net and the score was tied at 4-4.
The fourth quarter began with its fair share of controversy. Na drew a penalty on what was ruled a breakaway. It would setup a shootout attempt by Na against Liddle with just 30 seconds expired in the final stanza. Na would move the ball to his right as Liddle charged out from his line. As Na sent one in, Liddle had crept just outside of the goalbox and got a hand on the ball. The ricochet found Ford out on the wing, and he blasted the ball into the back of the net.
The whistle blew and the goal was disallowed. There would be a blue card assessed to Liddle for a hand ball, and it would be up to Na to take a penalty shot and regain the goal that was just wiped off the scoreboard. After a short hesitation approaching the ball, Na sent a blast into the back of the net, while Liddle was cheating the opposite direction. It would be a hat trick for Na, and the large gathering of Tacoma fans who made the trip north were in major celebration mode as Tacoma would take a 5-4 lead.
Bellingham would answer off the left foot of Eleazar Galvan. An outdoor star, Galvan showed his skills off with a juke to the right that put his Tacoma defender out of position. He would follow it with a cannon shot from his left that snuck inside the upper-left corner of the goal. The score was now 5-5 and the level of play was speeding up and getting even more physical.
A questionable foul was called on Tacoma just outside and to the left of the goalkeeper’s circle. With less than four minutes remaining, Bellingham’s Richard Henderson approached the free kick and found a path straight through the Tacoma defensive wall. As the ball hit the back-right of the net, Anderson was visibly upset as to how out-of-position his men were in front of him, but there would be no time for that, as Tacoma would now need a goal to tie the match before time expired.
Tacoma had several good looks in the final minutes, but it all went out the door when the team was called for a substitution penalty. With around 1:30 left in the match, it was the sort of call that you don’t like seeing for any team in a championship match, and as would be expected, the Tacoma bench and crowd went unhinged. It will probably be talked about for a long time. Now, down a man to close-out the game, Tacoma was playing desperate to even get control of the ball. Playing up a man, Bellingham were mostly able to play keepaway from Tacoma for the remaining moments, and again, the WISL championship trophy would remain with the Hammers.
The Tacoma Stars of the professional Major Arena Soccer League found themselves on their heels as they took on the Ontario Fury in California on Thursday, Feb. 15. Tacoma was unable to match the home team’s intensity in the first half, but were somehow able to keep the game close at 4-3 off of two goals from Taylor Walter Bond and a solo shot from Philip Lund. The second half would see the Fury run-off five unanswered goals. A late blast by Evan McNeley made the match a more-respectable 9-4 at the final buzzer, but it certainly wasn’t the sort of outing Tacoma was looking for while in the middle of a late-season playoff hunt.
Ontario would now hold a 10-10 record on the season, while Tacoma’s playoff hopes took a solid jab to the nose as the Stars’ record fell to 8-11. However, there would be no time for the Stars to wonder what went wrong, as they would need to head north to pay a visit to the Turlock Express. While the Express have been dwelling at the bottom of the MASL Pacific Division standings, they have always tended to put together surprising outings on their tiny playing field at Turlock Indoor Soccer. A loss would be devastating to the Stars, while it could offer a feel-good result for the 2-17 Express.
As expected, Turlock put up a strong fight and goals by Tacoma’s Troy Peterson, Derek Johnson and Nick Perera gave the Stars a slim 3-1 advantage going into halftime. Turlock would get closer midway through the third quarter to make it 3-2, but Tacoma would answer with a goal by Trevor Jensen late in the third and solo blast by Jamael Cox early in the fourth quarter to make it 5-2 Tacoma. Turlock would get their final goal with nine minutes remaining in the match, but Tacoma’s defense would shut them out the rest of the way.
Now the stakes are even higher for the 9-11 Stars as they host Ontario on Friday, Feb. 23, at the Accesso ShoWare Center at 7:35 p.m. With two games left in the regular season, this match is a do-or-die for Tacoma. Should the Stars earn a victory, both teams would sit at 10-11, with Tacoma owning a 3-1 tiebreaker in head-to-head contests. Ontario will then close out their season with a home match against a San Diego Sockers club that has already wrapped up the Pacific Division title on Thursday, March 1. Tacoma will host the Kansas City Comets the following night. Ontario could still regain the second seed to the playoffs with a win over the Sockers and a Tacoma loss to the Comets.
Of course, this is all hypothetical. It all begins on Friday, Feb. 23, when Tacoma hosts Ontario. Nothing else matters to either team right now.