As his players stretched out, and worked on some angled shots on goal in the background inside at Uihlein Soccer Park off Good Hope Road, Milwaukee Wave coach Keith Tozer admitted that while the expectation of his team remains the same – to win a Major Indoor Soccer League championship – there is a different feel about this group.
After all, it is the first time in two years that the Wave is not trying to defend a championship after back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
"I’m really energized for this year because we didn’t win it last year – it’s a whole different mindset from when you’ve won one and you’re trying to regain it, or you won two like and you’re trying to regain it," Tozer said. "We’re kind of like the underdog now. I’m really excited for that quest to go get it."
It’s not a word often associated with a franchise that has won six titles and came within seconds of competing for a third straight last year, when it fell in the final seconds to Missouri in the semi-finals. Fittingly, the team travels to Independence, Missouri to face the Comets in their season-opener on Saturday.
"I still think we feel like we have a target on our backs a little bit because we’re the Milwaukee Wave but I definitely do feel like it’s a different feeling, a lot of new guys, a lot of excitement, a lot of talent, a lot of new talent, it’s always nice to have that to motivate you, to try to find that chemistry," reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Nick Vorberg said. "There are some challenges ahead of us but I think they’re good challenges."
"Every year we could win and we’re expected to win, the way we’re perceived in the league as far as the other teams and coaches, everybody wants to beat us and we’re always the team that’s in contention to be in the final – at the minimum," added veteran Wave midfielder and forward Tenzin Rampa said.
"For me, this year, looking at our team, that’s maybe where you can go the ‘underdog’ route because we have so many new players to indoor. But, you still see the core group of guys, the six, seven guys who were here for our championships."
That core includes Vorberg and 2011 MISL Championship MVP Marcel Feenstra in goal. Marcio Leite, the MVP of the 2012 MISL Championship Series is also back, along with veterans Rampa, Ian Bennett, Marcelo Fontana and Hewerton.
Seven new players have been welcomed to the team this offseason as well, including Joe Hackbarth, a Yale graduate who has only played outdoor.
"It’s got a great history, soccer wise, so it’s a great opportunity for me to be able to play against some great competition not only within the MISL but within this great organization," Hackbarth said of the Wave.
"I feel it’s an opportunity for me to get better and become a better player. That brings some pressure, but it’s a good kind of pressure. It’s good to be a part of the team that is expecting to win and wants to win. It’s a great goal to have, obviously, and it’s good to be able to have a goal that’s realistic. Everyone wants to be able to bring back a championship."
It’s a bit of a departure from several of last year’s acquisitions, including Rookie of the Year Luan Sales Oliveira, who had a background in indoor soccer.
Milwaukee opens the season with three road matches over the next three weeks before returning to the U.S. Cellular Arena for the home opener is on Dec. 4. The early road contests will quickly initiate the newcomers in terms of understanding what it’s like to not only play indoor soccer, but for the six-time champion Wave.
"For the new guys, if they don’t know the history, the guys are trying to tell them," Rampa said. "Right now, everything’s good. It’s a good team, it looks good. But when we step on the field on Saturday, they’re going to get a sense of how – I don’t want to say hated – but how hated, really, the team is, competitively speaking."
While there are plenty of new faces to work in, nearly a third of the roster are fresh faces, it’s nothing Tozer, his staff or veteran players haven’t been a part of in the past.
"We’re only going to get better as the season goes on," Tozer said. "Every year is kind of like a different child, a different personality. The big thing that I find is that I’ve got players that have been with me for 10, 11 years. You talk about a college coach who has a player for four years or three years or two years and then a whole new group comes in. it’s a whole new feel. It helps because of enthusiasm. I’ve got guys who I have to make everything different for those guys, but the same time I’ve got the younger guys that I’ve got to teach the nuances,. The older guys already know them. So, I’ve got to blend that together. It is a difficult situation, but at the end of the day, if we don’t’ win a championship it’s not a good year for the Wave."
What is different is the new look of the organization ushered in by first-year owner Sue Black, who took over the team from Jim Lindenberg in April. The team colors and logos have changed, as have the uniforms.
As part of that new look, national recording artist Daughtry has been booked to perform following the Wave’s second home match against the Baltimore Blast on Saturday, Dec. 7.
It’s the type of thing that has little effect on the pitch, but could help bring in new ticket-buyers and sponsors.
"It’s like eating the same soup every Saturday and all of a sudden it changes – instead of chicken it’s steak, instead of potatoes it’s carrots," Tozer said. "I think having a new ownership group and a new logo, it kind of rejuvenates the people in the front office and the crowd and maybe they bring their people in that have never been to a game. Jim brought in people who had never been to a game. And the ones before that brought people. Hopefully by those different groups some people stay and you just build it."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.