In the landscape of North American sports you have many match-ups throughout history that evoke emotions, memories, debate, and in many cases hostilities. There is Ali vs. Frazier, Sox vs. Yankees, Canadiens vs. Bruins, and Lakers vs. Celtics, just to name a few. So while Ambush vs. SeaWolves may not have the same ring to it, and definitely not the same historical backdrop, Friday night’s game was loaded with importance for both clubs.
For Orlando it was about creating something new and tangible. This is the team’s first season in the Sunshine State. They are trying to build a fan base and grow the sport while building a tradition of success. While the team has plenty of veteran talent they also have a coach in Tom Traxler who, while experienced in the outdoor game, is fairly new to the vastly different game of indoor. A win tonight would be a big step towards putting them into the playoffs, while a loss does not kill their chances but would definitely be a setback not only in the standings but in terms of morale.
The game would also have extra significance for three Orlando players with St. Louis connections. Richard Schmermund, the sometimes combative defender with a cannon of a left foot, is not only a St. Louis native but a former Ambush player. SeaWolves keeper and Assistant Coach Piotr Sliwa also is an ex-wearer of the teal. Lest we forget Gordy Gurson, who rarely needs motivation to score goals, is also ex-STL, so we can assume he would love to help propel his new club into the playoffs at the expense of his former club.
For the Ambush this is about establishing credibility in the vastly knowledgeable St. Louis soccer community. This club seems to live in the shadow of the original Steamers who would pack the old Arena with over 19,000 fans a game. Or the original Ambush who along with current Assistant Coach Jamie Swanner brought the city its only indoor championship. While there may have only been that one championship those past teams were vastly successful on and off the field and were stymied in other trips to the finals by the likes of the New York Arrows and Steve Zungul, or the Cleveland Crunch and Hector Marinaro and his overtime heroics.
So for a club that had a .206 winning percentage since their rebirth, and a 4-38 record over the past two seasons, a season in which they not just compete for but make the playoffs would not only serve as validation for the coaches, ownership, and the players it would provide legitimacy in a genuine soccer city. With only eight games remaining this is the definition of a must win. While a loss would not mathematically eliminate them from contention it would become much harder for them to qualify.
So I guess there is only one thing left to say, “Let’s get ready to play some indoor soccer!” I was going to say “rumble” but I believe that has been copyrighted or branded. So we will go with the above (wink, wink).
Prior to kickoff the Ambush observed a moment of silence for El Paso Coyotes rookie Frank Briones. The 28-year old was killed tragically in an automobile accident. It was a stark reminder that none of us are immortal. I think it also serves as a great reminder of how the game of soccer can really bring us all together and remind us of our common humanity.
The Ambush took a page from their big win two weeks ago against the Comets by getting an early goal. Rugged defender Robert Acosta opened the scoring after Stefan St. Louis absolutely skinned a defender with a strong turn in the corner to the left of the Orlando goal. St. Louis played a ball out front that Corey Adamson turned towards goal. The rebound of Adamson’s attempt was then converted by Acosta giving the Ambush a 1-0 lead.
The SeaWolves seemed to be getting the bulk of the possession if not a lot of chances for that possession. With 4:15 left in the first quarter an ill advised pass from from the defensive end was intercepted at the yellow line by Thiago Freitas. Thiago, who has become an Ambush killer of late, made no mistake putting a right footed bullet into the far corner behind Paulo Nascimento to even the score.
But the Ambush did not wilt and with 3:26 left in the first quarter they promptly replied. After a corner kick in the Orlando zone a scrabble ensued and Lucas Almeida found Magui Souza in front of the net with a ball off the end boards. Magui, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite, converted the pass high near post to restore the Ambush lead at 2-1.
With 9:45 left in the second quarter the Ambush were again victimized by the pressing SeaWolves. An other ill advised pass, this time by the usually reliable Paulo, up the middle of the defensive zone was picked off by none other than Thiago. In what looked like an after-training scenario Thiago and the SeaWolves had a 3-on-0 break from the yellow line. With players on this left or right Thiago almost cruelly, like a cat playing with a mouse, dribbled at the Ambush keeper before calmly lacing the ball low and into the corner to Paulo’s left. It was his second of the game and 11th of the season.
Thiago would complete the natural hat trick with 7:54 left in the half. He picked up the ball near half field from Gordy Gurson and started an odd man break. No Ambush player came to meet Thiago and stop the ball. The result was him again placing a ball into the far corner to the left of the Ambush keeper to make it 3-2 for Orlando, a lead they would happily take into the half.
The Ambush coaching staff has been preaching, “stay the course” and with 3:31 left in the third they responded. Justin Stinson took a pass from JT Thomas and beat Sliwa from near the corner kick spot with a blast to the roof.
With 2:25 left in the quarter Ambush forward Zach Reget and SeaWolves defender Schmermund got tangled up near midfield in what looked like a wrestling match between two heavyweights. The result was an Ambush power play. Reget would end up being the beneficiary of that hard work. Wasting no time on the power play Reget would knock home the goal after a scramble to the right of the Orlando goal. Stinson would get the helper on the goal which with 2:03 left in the quarter restored the Ambush lead at 4-3.
It was apparent that the intensity was ratcheting up in this affair and that both teams were rightly viewing this as a playoff game. A perfect example of that commitment was a moment where forward Stefan St. Louis threw himself in front of a left footed shot attempt from Schmermund. This is not something that is recommended if you value your health, but Stefan flung himself in front of the blast and ended up blocking the shot with his torso. This was loudly appreciated by the fans at the Family Arena as well as I am sure by his teammates.
That intensity would come to a boil with just 1:26 left in the quarter with the Ambush holding on to a slim 4-3 lead. Paulo dove to collect a ball in the box which SeaWolves defender Joshio Sandoval attempted also to win. The challenge appeared late if only by a fraction and tempers flared. The result of the fracas was really nothing more than handbags at twenty paces but Gurson did end up on the turf and Paulo was assessed the only penalty for contact above the shoulder/elbowing.
But it would be the Ambush who would strike short handed. Just 15 seconds into the final stanza Reget delivered a ridiculous if not sublime cross field pass to Joao Pepe who would beat Sliwa to make it 5-3 Ambush.
But that feeling of euphoria would not last long as first Osvaldo Rojas would convert a pass from Mario Alvarez with a backheel goal with 13:32 left to play. A mere 17 seconds later Ambush defender Vadim Cojocov was assessed a two minute penalty for hauling down an Orlando player along the boards who appeared to have gotten the better of two Ambush defenders and was about to break free.
The SeaWolves, borrowing a page from the Ambush, did not waste any time equalizing in the ensuing power play as Thiago this time turned provider as he set up Elmo Neto for the tying goal. The two goals in 29 seconds were a dramatic change in events for both sides.
But unlike past season this Ambush squad would not crumble and with 9:23 on the clock Magui would set up JT Thomas for the go ahead goal. Magui who received a pass near the top of the box was composed and got Sliwa to commit to him and then deftly slid a pass to his left to Thomas who was able to hit the back of the net.
The SeaWolves would show some mettle of their own. With bodies hitting the deck everywhere the SeaWolves would start an odd man rush. The resulting break would lead to Gurson finding Alvarez to knot the game at 6-6.
With just under two minutes left in the game there was a unexpected moment when a group of traveling Orlando supporters started a,”Let’s go SeaWolves!” chant that was quickly drowned out by the Ambush fans. Now I am not suggesting this was akin to a derby encounter but it was nice to see and only added to the intrigue.
Neither team was able to get the deciding goal in regulation which was fitting in a way since the opening game of the season between these two down in Florida was decided in a shootout. This game would not require the same. Only 1 minute and 35 seconds into OT Gurson would find a rebound and bandy it into a prone Paulo, where it then ricocheted into the goal off a looming Acosta into his own net. It was not a thing of beauty but it was the kind of goal a poacher would delight in and Gurson is definitely proven himself to be a poacher of goals. There was a bit of a protest from the Ambush players that Gordy had kicked the ball out of Paulo’s hands but their protest would fall upon deaf ears. It must be said the official was in a good position to make the call.
Meanwhile the SeaWolves rushed the field to celebrate their 7-6 win on hostile turf. Gurson celebrated by removing his jersey to show off his Florida tan to the St. Louis fans. The exuberance shown by the SeaWolves was clear proof how important this win was to their playoff aspirations.
While Thiago and Gurson were the obvious offensive catalysts for Orlando their efforts would have been for naught had it not been for some impressive saves from Sliwa, the best of which was a point blank save on a 3-on-1 break for the home side.
The mood for the SeaWolves was obviously jubilation as I caught up with co-captains, Sandoval and Gurson after the game. Gurson was straight to the point in stating, “Absolutely beating the Ambush is big for us. Sure it feels good to turn the tables on them. In terms of playoffs it’s big because now they have nine loses while we only have five.”
I asked Gordy about the significance of scoring the game winner against his former club. He coyly replied,”For me winning is more important than scoring goals personally.” While I don’t doubt his desire to win, guys like Tayou, Bennett, Gibson, and Gurson live to score goals, and big ones at that.
I also asked Gurson about the process with a Head Coach that had never coached indoor before and being in a new city. He was very complimentary of Traxler and his commitment to film study and really learning the game. He also also felt the team was starting to be rewarded for their hard work by getting some bounces. Next up for the SeaWolves is another game with huge playoff implications on Sunday in Kansas City versus the Comets.
The mood was obviously more subdued on the Ambush side. I spoke to Almeida, whose recent play has shown him to be truly deserving of the number 10 shirt. I made the observation that it appeared that Orlando had the better of possession throughout. I asked Lucas if that was by design from the Ambush tactically or just the way the game played out. Almeida was understandably somber as he replied that it was not their plan to sit back and absorb pressure and counter. He thought they had gotten off to a positive start with the early goal but that they had trouble breaking down Orlando’s pressure. He felt that the SeaWolves had done a good job at disguising where the pressure was coming from and that the Ambush had not been able to assess it well enough. Lucas also dismissed the notion that the week off after their emotional win over the Comets had led to any sluggishness. Instead he thought it had been a benefit as guys were able to get rest and address various knocks.
The Ambush will not have time to dwell on the disappointing loss as they will host the Tropics on Sunday afternoon. The team will need to lick their wounds and refocus because a loss on Sunday would be catastrophic to their precarious playoff chances.