It took nearly the full length of the season, but the Tacoma Stars have successfully clawed and scratched their way into the Major Arena Soccer League playoffs. Tacoma will host the MASL Pacific Division champion San Diego Sockers on Thursday, March 8, at the Accesso ShoWare Center in Kent. The first kick is set for 7:35 p.m.
With their backs against the wall, the Stars knocked off the Ontario Fury on Friday, Feb. 23, by a score of 8-6. The victory put Ontario into a must-win situation in their season finale against the San Diego Sockers on Thursday, March 1. A victory by the Fury would make the Stars’ own season finale the following night against the Kansas City Comets a must-win game.
After dashing Tacoma’s playoff hopes late last season, Ontario found itself on the wrong end this time around. San Diego let the Fury stay within striking distance for much of their match, but in the end, the cagey veterans pulled away for an 8-4 victory and the result went two ways. Firstly, it secured Tacoma’s spot in the MASL playoffs, and secondly it tossed Ontario into the “wait until next year” category.
Tacoma fans should take note that this playoff opening matchup against the 19-3 Sockers will be the only home playoff game for Tacoma under the new MASL playoff format. Looking to shorten up what is usually a lengthy playoff process, the MASL has made a huge modification to the postseason structure. While the divisional first round will consist of a home and away format (with a third “mini-game” following the second contest, if the teams are tied at 1-1), the conference finals, as well as the Ron Newman Cup Championship, will be decided in a one-game, winner-take-all contest.
With Tacoma being the eighth and final seed in the MASL playoff field, there is zero chance for the Stars to return home.
Of course, what this does is set up the possibility of a storybook ending for Tacoma and their fans. While the odds are long and bordering upon astronomical, Tacoma could run the table and capture the Ron Newman Cup without the benefit of a home game following their first-round opener.
That has kind of a nice ring to it for Tacoma fans. The folks from Grit City take pride in that chip on their shoulder, and if their team has to run the gauntlet against the toughest foes in the business, and do it all on the road, so be it.
The season finale against the Kansas City Comets had the potential of being a laid-back affair following San Diego’s playoff sealing win the night before for Tacoma. The game that ensued on Friday, March 2, in front of 3,320 fans on Fan Appreciation Night was the sort that Tacoma fans will remember for a long, long time.
Kansas City came out like a team fighting for their playoff life. Despite being ousted from the playoff chase a couple of weeks ago, this fact seemed to mean nothing to the Comets. They brought a physical performance against the Stars and Tacoma was forced to answer back. There would be no niceties in this affair.
The Comets got on the scoreboard first midway into the first quarter off the foot of their captain Bryan Perez. The score remained 1-0 until 56 seconds into the second period when Tacoma’s Nick Perera knotted the score with a solo blast. Kansas City would add two more goals in the period, one from Andre Braithwaite and another off the foot of Perez. Kansas City led 3-1 at halftime.
A solo shot by Tacoma’s Robert Palmer closed the score to 3-2 just over six minutes into the third quarter. Danish rookie phenom Philip Lund would then take a feed from Joey Gjertsen and even the score at 3-3 with just under five minutes left in the third stanza. Kansas City would answer less than a minute later off a solo score by Braithwaite and the advantage remained 4-3 for the Comets going into the final period.
Just over two minutes into the final period, Raphael Cox would take a dish from Perera to knot the score at 4-4. It would take just 16 seconds for Tacoma’s Vince McCluskey to give Tacoma their first lead of the contest at 5-4. Again, Kansas City answered in less than a minute off the foot of Mirko Sandivari to make it 5-5 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the match. Raphael Cox would then take a feed from Cory Keitz and put Tacoma back on top at 6-5 midway through the final period. The Comets’ Ignacio Flores would tie the game back up with four and a half minutes left in regulation and the score held at 6-6 until the final buzzer.
Overtime wouldn’t last very long. Looking at a free kick in the corner, Perera rolled the ball toward Raphael Cox and the former Stadium Tiger sent a missile into the top corner of the goal for an instant 7-6 victory. Cox notched a hat trick on the winner and sprinted around the ShoWare field after ripping his shirt off. It was a glorious moment for the team and their fans in a game that felt like the perfect precursor to the playoffs.
Tacoma (11-11) hosts San Diego on Thursday, March 8, at 7:35 p.m. Tickets are available at the ShoWare box office and also at http://www.tacomastars.com.