Joey Tavernese, just 29 years old, and six years into an arena soccer career that is still on the upswing, considered walking away from the sport this offseason. The man with the Peter Pan alter ego, was thinking about growing up before his time.
But retirement will have to wait at least one more year, as Tavernese signed a one-year contract with Utica City FC on Tuesday.
“I had told everyone that offered me a contract that I was not playing this season, including Tommy Tanner.”
“The real and only reason I came back to play and signed, was because of the owner of Utica City FC, Rob Esche,” said Tavernese. “I had told everyone that offered me a contract that I was not playing this season, including Tommy Tanner. Rob called me a week later, we spoke on the phone for two hours, and on that phone call, he sold me, and I agreed right then and there. I knew he was a player’s owner, cared about me without even knowing me, and said all of the right things. In one phone call he addressed all my concerns and told me they would be taken care of.”
“He knew we had the same exact goal when he met me: to win,” Esche succinctly put it.
Tavernese was born in New York State and seems destined (determined?) to stay there. When he signed to play outdoors in China in 2015, an injury short-circuited his time there. When he was signed by the Ontario Fury later that year, his stay there only lasted four games before he was traded to the Syracuse Silver Knights. When he signed with the ill-fated Hartford City FC, they folded before ever playing a game. He has played 97 of his 101 career indoor games with New York teams, starting with the Rochester Lancers, through Syracuse, and now following the Silver Knights approximately 50 miles east to Utica.
“Indoor soccer is not going to pay my bills for the remainder of my life, so I am trying to begin a steady and normal life,” he says. “If I could, I would play soccer until I was 50 like the great Dougie Miller. I hope each and every day that a team will pop up on Long Island so I have the opportunity to continue playing.”
Tavernese owns a soccer school on Long Island and is taking online courses to receive his Masters.
Growing up, Tavernese played some indoor with his youth club teams. “I always enjoyed it and the different aspects and features that the walls and fast-paced style of play brought to the game,” he says.
After four years at Siena College he tried out for the Silver Knights, but was cut by Tanner, who owned and coached the team at the time. “I then went to the MISL Combine and had a decent showing,” Tavernese says. “That’s where I met Soccer Sam (Fantauzzo), who is a great advocate of indoor soccer and one of the best owners I have ever had the pleasure of playing for. He brought me into the Lancers camp, and it was not an easy sign. I had to work extremely hard to earn that first contract.”
His first year he only saw action in five games and had one assist. In his second year, he distinguished himself with 24 points in 20 games, but it was 2014/15 where Tavernese reached “star” levels, increasing his goal total from nine to 26, and his point total from 24 to 41.
“Indoor is a big transition,” notes Tavernese. “I had great mentors in Jim Hesch, Josh Rife, Rey Martinez, Mauricio Salles, Jake Schindler, and Doug Miller. I watched a lot of game film, and tried to learn what the other players in my position did while in the games, players like Machel Millwood, Adauto Neto, Leo Gibson, and Byron Alvarez.”
Just as things were clicking with the Lancers, however, the team folded. “He’s a special player and more importantly a special person,” says Fantauzzo, who is currently preparing a Lancers resurrection at the MASL2 level. “He gave his heart and soul on and off the field.”
“That was a tough period for me,” Tavernese recalls. “Rochester had just folded, which was a city and organization that I was absolutely in love with. I highly considered playing for the Baltimore Blast and unfortunately, turning down the offer (could have had three rings) I decided to go out west and enjoy the sunny weather, but when I arrived there I played a few games and then sustained an injury which sidelined me for a few weeks. The combination of everything that occurred just left me with a bad vibe, and Ontario just ended up not being the place for me. And that’s when Tommy Tanner called and said they needed a target and a trade was made. In a way it came full circle. I ended up having a great second half of the season, we lost (in the playoffs) in triple overtime to the Blast, and I was called into multiple trips for the futsal national team.”
“Joey is a great teammate and understanding his limitations on the field is what makes him such a special player,” said Tanner, who is now the Utica City FC General Manager. “He has a very high soccer IQ and knows where he needs to be. He also loves to score goals and will sacrifice himself to put the ball in the back of the net.”
Tavernese matched his career-high with 26 goals in 2016/17 and took his game to a new level last year, setting career-highs in goals (28) and assists (26). His 54 points were a Silver Knights record and placed him fifth in the MASL scoring race.
Last year was his first full season with coach Ryan Hall, who led the Silver Knights to a 13-9 record, a sharp turnaround from their 8-12 finish in 2016/17. “Ryan did an amazing job with what he had last year,” said Tavernese. “He is a great player’s coach. He’s a hard working grinder, just as I am, so we have a similar background.
“I am just an average player, who works hard, and gains the benefits of having great teammates.”
“Honestly, the only reason I am successful on the field ever, is because of the players around me. I mean I could name every player on every team and they are the reason I score goals or have assists. Slav (Ubiparipovic), Jake (Schindler), Nate (Bourdeau), (Darren) Toby, Kenardo (Forbes), (Patrick) Thompson, are all the reason I was successful last year. Points are great, but if we are not winning who cares about points? I hope to score points to help us win this year, but as long as we are winning, that’s all I care about. I am just an average player, who works hard, and gains the benefits of having great teammates.”
“Everyone that knows me outside of the league and in the league knows I’m the life of the party.”
So where did that Peter Pan moniker come from anyway? “They call me Peter Pan, because I never want to grow up,” he says, simply. “Live the life of a kid as long as possible. Everyone that knows me outside of the league and in the league knows I’m the life of the party. If you’re looking for a good time, come find me. But when it’s game time, it’s serious. There’s play time and work time, but Peter Pan for as long as possible.”
That serious side got Tavernese a seat on the MASL’s new Player Committee. “I will make sure that I do whatever I can to help make sure that the players receive what they deserve in this league,” said Tavernese, who is not afraid to speak his mind. “A lot of players go above and beyond and I think they are deserving of more.”
One thing that disappointed Tavernese is this year’s schedule, a common refrain heard around the league from players and fans. “I wish the schedule had more out of conference games, as I think it makes it fun for the players and fans to see different teams and players, but hopefully that changes in the future. We play the same three teams a combined 18 times. That gets a little old and boring for everyone.”
Having played for three teams and different owners in both the MASL and the MISL before it, Tavernese has seen a lot of the inner workings of professional arena soccer. “Rob Esche will be the best thing to happen to the MASL. He has the right mindset to take this league back to the top.
“When you see what Utica will bring to the league, that will eventually be the model to follow,” Tavernese continues. “If the league can become a bit more professional, I believe the sky is the limit. It will take time and work, but I think that with the current crop of owners, there is a lot of good to come, and I am excited to see it all. In my eyes, people have the right mindset for this league, it’s just a matter of acquiring the correct resources to make it happen.”