RETURN OF THE STARS Tacoma Stars opener leaves fans breathless

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Alex Megson with the bicycle goal to tie the game with 4.1 seconds left in regulation. Photo by Bob Bunn

It’s hard to believe that a season opener could offer up a high-stakes, playoff atmosphere, but that’s exactly what went down on Friday, Oct. 27, when the Tacoma Stars hosted the Milwaukee Wave to kick off the Major Arena Soccer League season. When the smoke had finally cleared following this blast-off of a game, the Wave had snuck out of town with a heart-stopping 6-5 overtime victory. However, the 3,091 fans in attendance had to be leaving the Accesso ShoWare Center in Kent with renewed sense of hope and promise for the new-look Stars.

We’re not going to beat around the bush here. This Tacoma Stars squad looks like it’s going to be a legitimate contender to win the MASL Pacific Division. If there was ever a roster built to challenge the likes of Tacoma’s long-time nemesis San Diego, this one definitely has the look and feel. With the addition of three veteran studs from the Kansas City Comets, the Stars are already looking more potent than at the start of last season.

Just prior to the MASL kick-off weekend, the website “The Turf and the Boards” published their MASL forecast for the season. While they had the Stars finishing outside of the playoffs, it should be noted that they predicted that the Milwaukee Wave will win the MASL Eastern Conference, and play for the Ron Newman Cup championship.

The Wave certainly looked the part, and the Stars ran with them neck and neck for more than 68 minutes of play. With this in mind, there seems to be much to look forward to over the next 21 games of Tacoma’s regular season.

A quick pace was set from the opening whistle, and took nearly the entire first quarter before either team would find the back of the net. Milwaukee goalkeeper Josh Lemos attempted to clear the ball with just under a minute and a half left in the first period. The ball’s flight was interrupted by Tacoma’s Derek Johnson, who got a high foot on the ball, deflecting it off the wall and back to himself. Johnson then pushed the ball up to Joseph Cairel, who found himself with nothing between Lemos and himself out on the right wing.

Cairel took a moment to gather himself for the wind-up and then let loose with a blast that sizzled just above the playing surface. The ball snuck inside the far post and Tacoma had a 1-0 lead with 1:23 remaining in the first period.

Tacoma’s new blood would make their mark at the outset of the second period. Alain Matingou rifled a pass that found its way through a couple of defenders and all the way to the feet of Ramone Palmer, who had worked his way to within just a few feet of the Milwaukee goal. A quick tap-in and the Stars were now leading 2-0 with 15:45 left in the second period.

The Stars would stretch their lead to 3-0 just three minutes later off a connection by two of Grit City’s finest. Former Stadium High School star Raphael Cox skipped a quick pass to Wilson High School hall of famer Joey Gjertsen, and the Evergreen State College’s all-time scoring leader crushed the ball into the back of the goal from the left wing.

It would take Milwaukee another eight minutes until they finally put a point on the scoreboard off a goal by Daniel Mattos. With the score now 3-1, Tacoma would answer just 31 seconds later. Gjertsen fired a shot that careened off the wall, left of the goal. The ball was heading toward the top of the box when Johnson, a former standout at Franklin Pierce and Pacific Lutheran University, met up with it, and pounded a shot past Lemos to give the Stars a 4-1 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.

With time running out, Milwaukee took advantage of a Tacoma miscue and Marcio Leite made the Stars pay with a solo shot that trimmed the lead to 4-2 with 16 seconds left in the half.

Tacoma had several opportunities in the third period, but a renewed defensive effort by the Wave would thwart every scoring opportunity. Meanwhile, Milwaukee was finding their own groove on offense. With 10 minutes left in the third period, the Wave had tied up the score and the momentum of the game was quickly moving toward the visitors. Ricardinho Sobreira took a feed from Drew Ruggles nearly four minutes later, and the Wave’s offensive torrent had now given them a 5-4 lead. With just over five minutes left in the third quarter, it felt as though the flood gates had opened for Milwaukee.

Looking more like a veteran team already, the Stars buckled down and put a stop to the Wave’s offensive rush for the next 28 minutes of play. Meanwhile, Tacoma continued to put pressure on the Wave goal, but to no avail.

The fourth quarter was an exercise in clock watching for many of the Tacoma fans. Seconds and minutes were ticking off the scoreboard and the Stars kept just missing out on scoring opportunities to tie the game up. It was getting down to nail-chewing time when the clock went under one minute to play and Tacoma pulled goalkeeper Danny Waltman. In for Waltman, the Stars rolled out Troy Peterson as the sixth attacker, and the move by head coach Darren Sawatzky ultimately paid off in dramatic fashion.

With the clock inching toward zero, the Stars mounted an offensive push, but the Wave defense continued to push right back. The ball was going in the wrong direction with 19 seconds left in the match. Nearly at his own yellow line, Peterson skipped the ball up the field to Gjertsen, who moved the ball toward the top of the box and then began to stumble. Before losing it completely, Gjertsen put a heel on the ball for a charging Robert Palmer, and things got a little crazy.

Palmer blasted a shot that was immediately blocked. The ball caught some air and went back toward Palmer, who then headed the ball toward the left corner. Waiting for the ball was teammate Alex Megson. With time racing off the clock, the former Stadium Tiger flipped backwards and pounded a bicycle kick that whizzed over the head of Lemos and into the upper right corner of the goal.

Megson and the Stars had just tied the game with 4.1 seconds left on the clock and it was pandemonium in the ShoWare Center as Stars’ fans lost their collective minds in astonishment. The goal was easily one of the top-three ever in the new history of the Tacoma Stars, and it’s now been burnt into this writer’s mind for eternity.

Sure, Milwaukee would score the game winner with just 1:43 left in overtime, but it did little to erase the euphoria that was still in the air. The future looks like it has arrived for Tacoma, and if the first game was any indication of how exciting things are going to be this season, local soccer fans are in for a real treat this year.

Following a road trip to Turlock and San Diego, the Stars will return home on Friday, Nov. 17, to face the Express at 7:35 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit tacomastars.com.

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