This past Friday my soccer obsession took me out on a venture from my home in Oakland, California to Turlock in The Central Valley to see my first ever live Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) match. I went in to the match with a middle of the road expectation level as I’ve seen and covered soccer from all levels, from SFSFL Sunday League in San Francisco all the way up through the Pyramid NPSL, PDL, USL, NASL to MLS. I’ve seen the absolute best and worst of what lower league soccer has to offer in this country. MASL topped every expectation I had.
The MASL carries a lot of positive features about how the game in this country can grow outside of professional soccer cities. When I arrived at the home arena of the Turlock Express, the first thing that occurred to me when seeing this indoor soccer complex just outside the main downtown area of Turlock was that this could work anywhere, or at a minimum, in more places than an 11-side outdoor soccer could. Once the game kicked off, I also realized on the other hand how perfect of a community a city the size and location of Turlock is for MASL. Arguably, Turlock isn’t a big enough city to have pro outdoor soccer, nor would there be a big enough player pool for more than a 6-side soccer team. But Turlock has enough passionate soccer fans and skillful players for a great MASL club.
The MASL game was played with many rules that the general American sports fan could more easily get behind than many of the aspects of 11-side outdoor soccer. For starters, the pace of play is a much faster game than the outdoor game. The smaller playing field and live substitutions mean, like hockey, the game is played at a lightning quick pace. Chances occur with the same regularity of a hockey game, and much more frequently than a normal soccer match. This helps keep the fans on their toes, as there is no lull in the action. The small field leads to a higher scoring game much like the 7-6 game I attended that saw the Syracuse Silver Knights top the home town Turlock Express. This solves one of the biggest complaints from the general sports fan about soccer; that the game is too low scoring and too slow.
The other aspects of the MASL game that I really appreciated seeing, that up the excitement level, were the Blue Card and the Golden Goal overtime. The Blue Card is like a penalty in hockey where a team goes down a man for a period of 2 minutes. In the match that I attended, both teams earned this Blue Card Power play once adding an entirely new wrinkle to the game, creating more chances and adding to the intensity. One side had to play a basketball style Zone Defense while down a man. The Golden Goal overtime also helps to solve another usual sports fan complaint about the ending of soccer games in a tie. The Silver Knights came back from down 2 goals late in the 4th quarter (yes, the game is split into 4 quarters, not 2 halves) to force this Golden Goal overtime. The overtime was just another step up in game intensity as Turlock almost conceded on a few occasions, before they eventually did, as the Silver Knights won the match. The intensity for every missed chance on both ends in the overtime had the entire crowd into the match at an even higher level than regulation because the match could end at any moment.
The play on the field is slightly different than regular soccer, as any player basically has to be able to play any position as they are constantly changing locations on the field. This is a concept that I found to be important for the game in America, the idea of “total football,” where every player has to be able to defend and score, is something that is missing in many American players. I believe that playing more arena soccer in the offseason could help developed this aspect of the game. As well, both keepers are a vital part of the build-up play, forcing keepers to learn to play more with the ball at their own feet than in the outdoor game. This will help develop sweeper/keepers for the outdoor game as well. The final aspect for developing the game in this country through MASL is the importance of the players’ ability on the ball. For too long in the American game, players have relied on clearing the ball long and just using pure speed to run onto the ball. In the MASL, this isn’t really possible. Players must have better touches and more controlled passing than the outdoor game demands. This aspect of the MASL game is something that can help develop players’ skill on the ball in this country.
Besides the play on the field, the crowd was absolutely phenomenal. There were easily as many people in the Turlock indoor soccer complex as I’ve seen at most NPSL and PDL games. A reported 452 in attendance which I later found out is on the low end for the League. Due to the enclosed facility and the close proximity to the field it made it as loud an atmosphere at some points as you can get in soccer in the lower leagues of the US. As well, their seemed to be a deep community involvement with the team as a majority of fans knew the players on the field and were wearing Turlock Express gear. This signaled to me that communities the size of Turlock, without any other pro sports, or as many other things to do on a Friday night, are perfect for a thriving MASL team. Arena soccer can bring a high level of soccer to communities like Turlock that may or may not have the resources for other pro soccer teams or ones that can’t play outdoors year round, like Syracuse. There isn’t a need for a large staff, players, or resources as an outdoor team, but MASL can bring the same atmosphere and energy.
The play of game had many new concepts for a soccer fan like me to learn that I quite liked. The types of set pieces on a small field are nothing like on a full sized pitch. Syracuse was able to score from 2 set plays that were really well drawn up, almost like an inbounds play in basketball. The use of a zone defense when down a man I also found intriguing. The four defenders would set up in a diamond to defend against five. The stoppage of the clock whenever a whistle was blown was very nice to see as well because it negates the ability for winning the game by wasting time. But my absolute favorite thing was the assist or pass off the wall. The first 2 goals of the game were purposefully played off the wall as a centering pass. This changes the way in which a defender and goalie play defensively due to a larger number of angle options for the attacking player.
Overall, my first MASL experience was thoroughly enjoyable and well worth the drive. The way in which the indoor game is played can be more exciting than the outdoor game as well, helping to develop some missing pieces in the American player. It can be a game more likely to draw in the general sports fan than the outdoor game because of the high scoring and fast pace of the match. MASL also has the ability to thrive and grow the game in places smaller than usual soccer cities. My experience at my first MASL game was positive for so many reasons and something I’d highly recommend for all sports fans to check out if you have a club nearby. I would also recommend more clubs around the country to take a serious look at adding an arena soccer team to their current club setup to add more soccer for their fans and players in their offseason and help their club and their players grow all year round.