One of the criticisms of American Soccer has been the lack of true rivalries. In MLS many of the so-called rivalries seem forced or coerced. In indoor soccer the rivalry between St. Louis And Kansas City is nothing if not genuine. There is history and a honest dislike bordering on hate when these cities meet up. It doesn’t matter if it is the Comets, the Attack, the Steamers, the Storm, or the Ambush. Whereas the names may change, the dislike does not.
I spoke to injured Ambush midfielder, Ross MacGregor, prior to kickoff and asked if a game like Saturday’s meant a little more even for a player on injured reserve. MacGregor replied, “For sure a game like today gives you an extra jump even being on injured reserve. Being English I understand and appreciate the importance of a rivalry. It’s to where you would rather be relegated yourself than see your rivals lift a trophy.” I then witnessed first hand what he meant when Ross, a Manchester United supporter, saw a fan nearby wearing a Liverpool jersey.
The intensity and a certain gleam was evident in the eyes of both MacGregor and Assistant Coach Mark Litton as they admitted that the rivalry has a renewed fervor this year with the teams being so close in the standings and with the Ambush having the better of their cross state rivals head-to-head this year. Litton was visibly pumped as he described the importance of winning the season series after years of not faring well against the Comets. MacGregor stated, “The Comets have been hot of late but we seem to have their number.” A statement that brought a wry smile to “the good lad’s” face.
With the players and coaches obviously coming into this affair with a little something extra, I wondered if being in charge of a rivalry game like this had any effect on the referees. I asked veteran referee, and one of the best in the business, Doug Wolff, if officials prepped any differently for a game like this. Wolff was candid in his response, “We do our homework on players, teams and tactics always, but there is the rivalry variable that can’t be measured.
“Refs do extra preparation for cross town games and try to manage the heat of the match and not overreact to physical or verbal confrontations as our goal is to let the players decide who wins.”
The atmosphere in the Family Arena provided the answer as to whether the fans feel a little more amped up for a match against their rivals. So with everyone ready there was only one thing left to do and that was get this game started.
In any rivalry game getting off to a fast start can be key, especially for the home team who wants to keep their fans in the game. Slow starts have been an issue throughout the season for the Ambush so one would assume that starting strong was at the core of Heweron’s message to his charges. We can also conclude that the Ambush got and received said message as the Ambush came out flying, aided by their home town crowd and the extra bit of electricity in the building.
The spirit of “Alumni Night” must have been infectious as the Ambush channeled a bit of old school indoor mojo by scoring two goals in the first five and a half minutes, both the result of balls played off the end boards indirectly in front of the goal. Rookie sensation Zach Reget opened the scoring for the Ambush before Felipe Silva doubled the lead converting a classic wall ball from Lucas Almeida.
The Ambush were feeling it when, with two minutes left in the quarter, their other young revelation Justin Stinson sprung Corey Adamson on a break-away with a excellent through ball. It was the type of distribution that proves that, whereas you can beat one player off the dribble, you can beat an entire team with a well played pass. Adamson, who I will admit I have been critical of in the past, showed great composure in finishing the play by rounding the keeper before slotting it home.
As coaches there is obvious gratification when your team is playing well. But there is also a concern that your players may start to feel too good about themselves. With 54 seconds left in the quarter that may have been the case as the Ambush got a little sloppy in their own end and a poor giveaway led to Leo Gibson cutting the lead to 3-1 with Kiel Williams getting the helper. The turnover goal was compounded by the fact that it meant conceding in the final minute of the quarter something that is universally frowned upon.
Early in the second quarter Almeida went on a maze-like run through the heart of the Comets team before laying off a ball for Reget, who appeared to let up on the chance rather than burying it and restoring the three goal lead. Comets keeper Mark Saxby ended up making a goal line stop.
With 3:09 left in the half the game ratcheted up a notch. Saxby and Ambush forward Stefan St. Louis were involved in a collision chasing after a loose ball just outside the box towards the half boards. While it appeared that Saxby initiated the contact the official trailing the play, who admittedly did not have the best angle, called the foul on St. Louis. Keepers tend to get the benefit of the doubt in these scenarios the world over and such was the case here. St. Louis, however, suffered from a momentary lack of discipline and charged the official in protest and was assessed a two minute penalty and a yellow card for dissent. It appeared St. Louis may have been fortunate that nothing further or more severe was dished out as he appeared to bump the official as part of his protest.
After several top shelf saves by Ambush keeper Paulo Nascimento on the ensuing penalty kill the Comets would once again score a late goal as this time Brian Perez would score with 31 seconds left off a feed from Leo Gibson. Thus, the Ambush would see their three goal lead cut to one at the half.
The crowd was a bit uneasy as the home side has shown a propensity in the past for starting to crumble in situations like this. But Almeida would display a touch of magic as he practically walked the ball into the net out of the corner with a series of faints and hip swivels that had Saxby squarely on his backside. The Ambush would further extend their lead when Almeida, who has recently rediscovered his form, would find a sliding Stephan St.Louis for a power play goal. The goal was a bit of redemption for St. Louis and put the Ambush up 5-2.
Stinson would score off a feed from Almeida to increase the lead to 6-2. The goal put the crowd of just over 3,200 into euphoria.
Prior to the St. Louis goal Leo Gibson had been assessed a two minute penalty for what appeared to be an intentional kick of Reget on a drop ball. That coupled with what appeared to be an off the ball incident involving Gibson later in the quarter brought things to a boil. On a night when the UFC was forced to cancel its Main Event and reshuffle its card it appeared for a moment that Gibson and Hewerton may be willing to step in. But cooler heads prevailed.
Those who thought this game was over at 6-2 are obviously new to the ebbs and flows of a rivalry game. With 2:55 left in the quarter Kansas City’s Lucas Rodriguez would score on a pass from Gibson on a well worked set piece from the top of the arc. A mere 31 seconds later James Togbah would be the recipient of a set up from Gibson cutting the score to 6-4. Then just as they had in the previous two quarters the Comets would get another late goal to end the quarter when Robert Palmer would found the back of the net off an assist from Ignacio Flores. Suddenly, in lightning quickness, the Comets had cut a 6-2 deficit to 6-5.
A mere eight seconds after the Palmer goal Robert Acosta was shown a blue card on an ugly, reckless challenge just outside the box. This resulted in an interesting moment as Comets coach Kim Roentved approached the Ambush bench after having checked on his player. He and Ambush boss Hewerton had a brief exchange that I doubt had anything to do with who has better barbecue, KC or St. Louis.
The Comets made the Ambush pay quickly as Rodriquez scored 47 seconds into the fourth quarter with an assist to who else but Leo Gibson on a slick centering feed. The Comets blitzkrieg of the Ambush resulted in four goals in less than four minutes and a stunned crowd was looking at a 6-6 tie when only moments before they had been in party mode.
Moments later Paulo made a dynamic save to keep the score tied. He dove to his right stopping a laser volley set up by an exquisite cross field feed. As happens so often in soccer a save at one end results in a goal at the other. This time it was Mario Marcos who converted Almeida’s fourth assist of the game to put the Ambush back on top 7-6.
With 7:16 remaining in the game St. Louis’s young guns, Reget and Stinson combined on a nicely worked 1-2 which resulted in Stinson finishing at the back post. Just shy of two minutes later the Ambush would score a short handed goal to increase their lead to 9-6 on a set piece in the Comets zone, in which Felipe played a hard ball off the end boards that Magui Souza banged home.
Anyone who thought this surely must cement the win was obviously forgetting that this was a rivalry game and that Leo Gibson is a special player. Gibson would first score a power play goal and the Comets would pull their keeper with three minutes on the clock. With 45 seconds left Gibson would cut the lead remarkably to 9-8.
With 25 seconds left, the Comets John Sosa would take an ill advised and undisciplined two minute penalty for getting his arms up in Reget’s face. The penalty would greatly reduce Kansas City’s chances of getting the equalizer.
With three seconds remaining Stinson would ice the game with an empty net goal on a shot from nearly 3/4 of the field into the empty net. The goal would also give Stinson, a St. Louis native, a hat trick in this rivalry match-up.
The game would not end peacefully though as there was a dust up between Gibson and a couple Ambush players after the final whistle, but all parties were eventually separated. The win improved the Ambush to 8-8 on the season and provided them with the advantage in the head-to-head match up with the Comets which could be a playoff tie-breaker.
Kansas City would undoubtedly rue their missed opportunities as they made the return trek down I-70 towards home. Gibson once again showed his class and passion as he had a hand in seven of the eight Comets goals in the 10-8 defeat.
The mood was understandably different on the home side. I asked Ambush Assistant Coach Jamie Swanner if this was the biggest win in the history of the Ambush since their rebirth in 2013. Without hesitation he replied, “This is the biggest victory in present Ambush history. It’s at home. We had the Legends here. We have a lot of young guys and we wanted to show we could play.”
When asked the same question fellow Assistant Coach Mark Litton, with a large smile replied, “Absolutely!” He also emphasized how the coaching staff has been stressing to the players to stay the course. How in previous years the team would have collapsed in a game like tonight and lost. But that this year’s team is learning to win and are playing with confidence.
All in all it was an amazing game with plenty of action and just the right amount of nastiness between the sides. The constant momentum swings were probably the cause of a few heart palpitations and will undoubtedly give both coaching staffs teaching points going forward.