The new wave

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Canadians used to heavily populate the professional indoor circuits. But, as the indoor game begins a new chapter with the formation of the new Major Arena Soccer League, it’s hard to find our players. The one exception is in the state of Wisconsin, where Ian Bennett and coach Giuliano Oliviero, are expected to lead the Milwaukee Wave to championship heights. Is the Wave Canada’s indoor team? You bet.

If you were to write a history of professional indoor soccer in North America, the book would need to be thousands of pages long. There would be sections about dozens of national, international and regional leagues. There would be stories of franchises that appeared and disappeared, leagues that bled teams as their seasons went on. There would be owners, hucksters and fraudsters. There would be mullets and bad dye-jobs, and Technicolor jerseys that were so wonderfully tacky.

And despite all of the false starts, folding franchises and gimmicky rule changes, the sport has somehow continued to survive. And, in a few American cities, the sport has carved a niche for itself. San Diego. Baltimore. St. Louis. And, maybe most important of all, Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Wave has won indoor soccer championships in a variety of leagues, and lays claim to the fact that it is the longest continuously running indoor-soccer franchise on the continent.

The Wave entered the 2014-15 season as one of the favourites to take the first-ever Major Arena Soccer League title. And, if the Wave is to win the brand-new league’s premier championship, it will need to depend on two Canadians — coach Giuliano Oliviero and veteran Ian Bennett.

Oliviero was named the head coach of the Wave before the MASL season; before becoming coach, the New Westminster, British Columbia-born Oliviero was one of the greatest players in the history of the club. In the old National Professional Soccer League, he played for the Wave from 1995-97. He then came back to the Wave, a part of the Major Indoor Soccer League, in 2003. Add them up, and Oliviero has won three various league titles with the Wave.

But, as Oliviero takes over behind the bench, the Wave franchise embarks on a new chapter in its history. The team has entered yet another league — but there is hope that the MASL will, after 30 years, finally bring stability to the sport. The MASL could represent the best hope for the great compromise; that its existence will bring an end to decades and decades of rival leagues whose bickering did nothing but hurt the sport.

Last season, the Wave was part of the MISL; the MISL laid claim to being the home for some of the longest-lasting indoor-soccer franchises in North America; the Wave, the Baltimore Blast and the St. Louis Ambush. In 2011, the United Soccer Leagues — bullish on the future of indoor soccer — purchased MISL.

Meanwhile, the Professional Arena Soccer League, home to the powerhouse San Diego Sockers (a team which has been recognized by FIFRA, indoor soccer’s governing body, as the best club team in the world) dominated much of indoor soccer in the west, and Mexico, as well.

The PASL had been affiliated with the Canadian Major Indoor League, which had franchises dotted through Western Canada from 2008-2013. Only the Edmonton Drillers — which was later affiliated with the NASL’s FC Edmonton — and Calgary United FC were constants in the league. In fact, the league’s final, ahem, season saw only Calgary and Edmonton remain — and the campaign was reduced to a championship between the two teams.

But the PASL remained a going concern, and strong enough that six MISL owners made the decision in 2014 to leave their league — and merge with the PASL. The new MASL was born.

For the USL, it marked the second time in its history that owners decided to leave its roost. The North American Soccer League was formed because a group of owners, including the Whitecaps’ Greg Kerfoot and the Impact’s Joey Saputo, were unhappy with the direction of the USL. Eventually, the NASL would be recognized as North America’s second division, while the USL-PRO would become division three, but eventually struck a development deal with MLS that would see many of its clubs get affiliate deals.

Stability, finally?

Back to 2014; North America has a new major indoor league, with 24 teams spread throughout the United States and Mexico.

“I really like what they’ve done with thenew league, I think combining the two leagues was a great idea,” says Oliviero,as he prepares to lead the Wave into the season. “It does add a lot of stability to our league. If you look at the growth of MLS over the last decade, it’s really second to none — they are doing a fantastic job. As far as the indoor game goes, this is the best I have seen it in my 19 or 20 years.”

Bennett, who has played indoor since 2007 and has been with the Wave since 2009, knows his body can only take a couple of more seasons of pounding on the turf. The Hamilton-born player says that and his fellow MASLers wants their legacy to be that they were the ones who were there when indoor soccer finally turned the corner from fringe sport to the mainstream.

But Bennett didn’t come into the sport thinking indoor would be his bread and butter; in 2007, he played outdoor for the Charleston Battery, and didn’t know a thing about indoor soccer.

“I was playing outdoor, and then they just drafted me to the indoor league,” Bennett recalls. “I was like, ‘what is indoor?’ I didn’t even know any players when I got drafted and then I was told ‘you got drafted by Chicago. Do you wanna go?’ And I said, ‘I guess it’s better than a part-time job in the offseason, right?’”

Ian Bennett

When Bennett made his debut in the game, the scene was far different from when Oliviero began playing for the Wave in the 1990s. When Oliviero played in the old NPSL, it was common for Canadian players to play outdoor in the spring and summer, then report to the indoor leagues as soon as their seasons on grass were over. There was a time that, if you wanted to make a living playing soccer in North America, you had to commit to playing 12 months of the year.

But, as the outdoor game has strengthened over the last 20 years, the indoor game has weakened.

There are still a few throwbacks who play for pro outdoor and indoor teams. Former FC Edmonton striker Dan Antoniuk went back and forth between the NASL and the San Diego Sockers. J.C. Banks and Tony Walls, two Americans who play for Oliviero in Milwaukee, also play for Rochester of the USL. But those 12-month indoor-outdoor warriors are now pretty rare.

Bennett has tried the indoor-outdoor split; he played a few USL seasons, but as hegot older, it just became too much for him. He stuck with indoor.

“I think it helps. It helps you to stay fit. You don’t really have an off-season so you keep going outdoor, indoor. But, as you get older, it gets crazy on the travelling. You are kicking off six months here, six months there. I found that, as I got older, that I wanted to do less travelling, so I had to hang one or the other up.”

Blame Canada?

Think back to the 1990s — and some of you will remember that Canadian Hector Marinaro was the scoring king of indoor soccer, scoring hundreds of goals for the Cleveland Crunch of the NPSL.

The Edmonton Drillers, who played at what’s now known as Rexall Place, had Canadian national-team regulars like Kevin Holness, Domenic Mobilio, Pat Onstad and Martin Nash. Nick De Santis played for the indoor Drillers and then moved to the Montreal Impact’s indoor team.

The scene has changed, and the MASL is dominated by Mexicans and Americans. But both Bennett and Oliviero hope to see a renaissance of the game amongst Canadians, and see more prospects from this country in MASL.

“I think any young Canadian high-level player, they don’t look at the indoor game as their first choice,” says Oliviero. “They look to go overseas. Even if you look within the MLS academies, take Vancouver for example, you’ve got young players coming through there — I think that their choice is not even to graduate to the first team, but probably to go overseas. So I think it trickles down from overseas, to MLS and then into indoor. Some of these young players, they’re not even thinking about going to the U.S., or even in Canada, to get a full scholarship and get a good education. The potential is there. I think there are so many players who have the ability to be stars in this league but I think they are looking at other avenues early on. But it helps a young soccer player to play the game most of the 12 months.

“If you look back, Edmonton and Montreal had teams in the league at one point as well and it really contributed to the number of Canadian players. If you look at the successes of both of those organizations, those players were wanted all around the league, even when those teams went away. So, there is definitely a place for Canadians in this league.”

The catalyst would be a Canadian franchise in MASL. The chances of FC Edmonton owner Tom Fath resurrecting the indoor Drillers are zero. But league officials have said there has been some interest from a potential Montreal investor.

“I think (adding Canadian teams) only makes us a stronger league,” says Oliviero. “Covering all of North America, that would be great. I played with the Montreal organization in the three years they were there [in NPSL], it was just fantastic. And if one Canadian franchise came in, hopefully more would follow.”

Possession Game

The strong Mexican influence — and the lessening of the Canadian influence — has forced the indoor game to change.

“It [indoor soccer] has changed quite a bit,” says Oliviero. “When I first came into the league, it just seemed to be very technical, intelligent players, a lot of international players were involved in the game. MLS hadn’t come around yet. As MLS grew somewhat, our league became a younger player’s league. Athletic ability became a bigger part of the game. Milwaukee has always kept it as a little bit of both. There are very good athletes on the team but also intelligent players who can make plays and think a couple of steps ahead.

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN PLASTIC PITCH #4

“The game has definitely changed, for the better, possibly. But I don’t think the entertainment value has ever gone away from the indoor game. I think it’s an exciting game to come and watch.”

The Mexican game is a lot more about possession. Remember that, when you put Canadian or American players on a 200-footlong court that’s identical in size to a hockey rink, they’ll think about a transition game that’s similar to basketball or hockey. They’ll want to pounce on a turnover and turn it into a scoring chance. Canadians and Americans live to run and gun.

But the Mexicans don’t come from basketball or hockey cultures; their version of indoor, or “rapido soccer,” isn’t influenced by other sports. So, the Mexicans have developed a different style of indoor soccer that puts a premium on slowing the game down and holding onto the ball — and trying to set up the perfect scoring opportunity. They don’t run the floor like the Canadians or Americans do.

“I think that’s one of the most exciting things about the merger of the two leagues and us going to 23, 24 teams,” says Oliviero. “Seeing the different styles; I watched the game with Toros of Mexico the other week, and I was ‘like wow, that is so different than the way that we play.’ But it was enjoyable, they played good soccer, they got the ball and moved it around. The pace of the game was a lot slower, but they were effective the way they played. But I think having all the different brands of soccer come together, to have Mexican teams coming into Milwaukee or us maybe having to go there — it’s just going to make it more exciting. If you look at the last couple of years of indoor soccer, you’re playing the Missouri Comets, you know every player on the team, you know every player’s tendency. So, having new teams and new brands of playing is just a big plus for indoor soccer.”

The new MASL isn’t only dealing with mixing Mexican and American indoor soccer cultures; the league is also trying to find a way to please fans who are split on how scoring should be counted.

There are two solid factions; the traditionalists, who believe that each goal that should be worth one point — just like the outdoor game. That’s how the PASL operated. But the old NPSL — and the recent incarnation of the MISL — used variations of the multipoint system. Just like basketball, a goal scored outside of an arc is worth three points. Inside the arc, the goal is worth two. Of course that creates the debate: Should a long shot, no matter how well-struck, be worth more than a fantastic team passing sequence that leads to a tap-in?

The MASL came up with an, ahem, unique solution. Four of the teams coming in from the MISL — Baltimore, Syracuse, Rochester and Harrisburg — will keep the multi-point system when they are at home. For all other games, goals are one-for-one.

Confused? That’s OK.

Oliviero said he understands the thinking behind the multi-point system. If a team is down 5-1 in a one-for-one system, fans will start leaving the arena. The game is over. But if the score is 10-2 in a multi-point system, the trailing team is right back in it if it can score a couple of quick three-pointers. It keeps fans engaged.

Bennett is less politically correct.

“I could care less, it doesn’t matter me to me. I understand that the weaker teams might go for multi-point because you can get back into a game with a three. But to me, the game of soccer is one point for one goal.”

Family Ties

Bennett isn’t the only member of his family to have played pro indoor soccer. A couple of years ago, his younger brother, Josh, impressed at an MISL combine and earned a spot with the Syracuse Silver Knights. The former Hamilton FC player came out of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and was able to lock down a spot with the Knights; but, as the MASL era dawns, he’s out of soccer.

But Ian has fallen in love with the indoor game — and the city of Milwaukee.

“I’ve been here for six years now and I love it. I played a lot of places, I am sure [Giuliano] has too, but it’s just the people here and the sense of the team and the history. People here know everything about the Wave. They know all the great players who played here, the legends, the all-stars. If anyone here doesn’t know Victor Nogueira [arguably the greatest indoor-soccer goalkeeper of all time], it’s like a sin here. There are tons of awesome people here and I think that’s why I have stayed so long and the reason a lot of people stayed here. It’s just a great town. They put the Wave on another level, like the Bucks and the Packers.”

Futsal vs. Indoor

But, will the indoor game still be able to find young talent coming through the ranks? More and more young players are being encouraged to play futsal, with the small, heavier ball and no boards. Coaches will say that futsal does more to develop on-the-ball skill than indoor soccer.

The Canadian team that went to the most recent CONCACAF futsal championship was coached by Sipho Sibiya, who had many great seasons for the NPSL Drillers. Traditionally, top players from North American indoor leagues have crossed over to play futsal for their countries.

But, as futsal grows as a developmental game, it still is in its infancy in terms of being a successful spectator sport. The board game is still far ahead in that area.

So, futsal or indoor? Oliviero — who has also been part of Canada’s national futsal program — weighs the pros and cons:

“The same debate is going on in the United States right now. Futsal is a growing sport. But both are small-sided games, they both allow a young player to get a lot of touches on the ball. Obviously, with boards and balls not going out of bounds as much, it can create bad habits because the boards can save a bad touch here or there. But, if the ball is staying in play, the kids are getting more touches and that’s a bonus as well. But, in both, players are getting more touches on the ball than they would on the bigger surfaces outdoors, so I think both games really help develop the young player.”

Oliveiro and Bennett do their interviews a couple of weeks beforethe MASL season kicks off. When the games begin, the Wave wins their first game, 8-4 over the St. Louis Ambush. Oliviero gets his first coaching win and Bennett scores twice. The Wave begins the season by winning two out of three, including a 4-0 win over the Detroit Waza Flo. Shutouts in indoor soccer are extremely rare — so the Wave’s early successes are certainly sending a message to the rest of the league. But, after eight games, the Wave is just 4-4 but, the team has played seven of those matches on the road.

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