Sometimes the celestial bodies will align and the unthinkable ends up happening under the lights of a sporting event. When we last caught up with the Tacoma Stars, the club had just lost their longtime coach, along with a home game against rival Ontario, and would then have to turn and burn south for a two-game road trip, just prior to Christmas.
Even after naming all-star player Nick Perera as the new head coach, the deck was stacked against the Stars for this one. A Saturday night battle against perennial nemesis San Diego would be followed by a rematch against the Ontario Fury the next evening. Chances were better than decent that the Puget Sound boys could be coming home with a couple of tough losses underneath their belts.
Unbeknownst to amateur astronomers, something odd must have been happening out there in the cosmos. The Stars went toe-to-toe for 60 minutes with the San Diego Sockers. This wouldn’t have been the first time Tacoma played San Diego to the hilt, only to suffer a late goal or two, and suffer a heartbreaking loss.
However, something was quite different under the lights of the Pechanga Arena on this night. After surrendering the first goal of the game off the foot of San Diego legend Craig Chiles, the Stars had no problem shrugging it off. Just over a minute later, Perera took an incredibly long throw from goalkeeper Danny Waltman, let the ball bounce a couple of times and then pounded inside the far post to knot the score at 1-1.
The teams would play to a stalemate for nearly the remainder of the first quarter. San Diego’s Brian Farber was in the right place at the right time, as a ball intended to be cleared out of the goal box, ricocheted off him and right into the back of the net. From that point on, the teams played for 15 minutes and five seconds until Tacoma evened up the score just prior to the halftime buzzer.
Former Wilson High School standout Joey Gjertsen took a long pass off a steal by Chase Hanson and found himself quickly in front of the goal with a two-on-one opportunity against San Diego goalkeeper Boris Pardo. Instead of doing the obvious bit and feed Perera off to his right, Gjertsen slapped a high foot on the ball and found the back of the net. Pardo had guessed wrong that the ball was heading to Perera, and found himself out of position.
Tacoma would break the 2-2 tie early in the third period off of a pounding left-foot strike from former Bellarmine Prep stud Adam West. The man affectionately known as “Batman” to Tacoma fans, slammed a shot from the red line into the upper-left corner of the box, and Tacoma took a 3-2 lead.
San Diego would answer a few minutes later when Raymundo Contreras sent a long shot into the box that was re-directed off the foot of Tacoma defender Cory Keitz. Unfortunately, the ball took a new flight path and Waltman was unable to pull off a Spider-Man maneuver and save the ball from going into the back of the net. Less than three minutes later, the Sockers retook the lead on a sensational heel shot from the middle of the goal box by Leonardo De Oliveira. The 4-3 San Diego lead would hold until the end of the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, two former Stadium Tigers got into the mix, as Alex Megson one-timed a pass off the wall from Raphael Cox and slipped the ball past Pardo. The game was now tied at 4-4 with just over 11 minutes left in regulation.
The two teams did their best to break the tie for the next nine minutes. It was at this point that “Batman” delivered a mighty blow to the Sockers. With time beginning to run down, West took a pass from Perera deep behind the red line. Seeing the San Diego defense out of position for the moment, West waisted no time attacking the goal. Just as a Sockers defender slid in to make a play on the ball, West crushed another shot off his left foot, a full 15 feet beyond the red line and found the back-right portion of the net for a 5-4 Tacoma lead.
Still, there seemed to be plenty of time for San Diego to ruin this Christmas treat for Tacoma. Taking a 16-game home winning streak into the match, San Diego wasn’t going to take this loss lying down. Over the final two minutes, the Sockers tried to pepper the Tacoma goal, but Waltman and the Stars’ defense were giving up zero ground. A header by Mike Ramos cleared the ball long enough in the final moments to take away San Diego’s final shot opportunity.
The 5-4 victory was truly a team effort. Not only was the defense stout in the face of one of the most talented offenses in the Major Arena Soccer League, but the offense showed that they were ready to step up and finish the deal. The “Man of the Match” was awarded to Waltman, who put together probably his finest 60 minutes as a Tacoma Star. The former Bellarmine Lion saved 22 shots on goal, and many were on the sensational side.
Tacoma would follow up this remarkable victory with an equally impressive performance at Ontario the next night. Waltman would only need to stop 16 shots against the Fury, as the Stars put six goals on the board in the 6-3 win. West came up large again with two goals, while Perera, Ramos, Jamael Cox and Chase Hanson each added a score.
Waltman and West were each named to the MASL team of the week, with Waltman earning MASL Player of the Week honors.
The victory pushed the Stars to the top of the MASL Pacific Division standings with a 4-1 record. Tacoma will hit the road for a match against the El Paso Coyotes on Friday, Jan. 4, followed by a match at Rio Grande Valley on Sunday, Jan. 6. The Stars will return home for a big, two-game home stand against defending MASL Western Division champions Monterrey on Friday, Jan. 11, and another rematch with rival Ontario on Saturday, Jan. 12.
For tickets and more information, visit www.tacomastars.com.