Baltimore, Maryland, is not a nice place to play indoor soccer.
Specifically, the 1st Mariner Arena, home of the Major Indoor Soccer League defending champion Baltimore Blast. This is especially so if you’re a member of the Milwaukee Wave.
The Wave have won six championships, but so has Baltimore – all since 2003 – including last year’s romp over Missouri. They average over 5,000 fans a game at 1st Mariner Arena, and they drew almost 9,000 for the clinching game over the Comets in March.
Nick Vorberg knows this better than most.
The 38-year-old goalkeeper is in his 15th professional season and 11th with the Wave, and as he sits back in goal, the action taking place down the field in front of him, he hears it from the crowd.
"The guys behind me are chanting about my wife," he said with a grin. "Just chanting the whole time."
It’s easy to smile when you help pitch a shutout, quieting those fans – nay, turning them – in an 8-0 victory two weeks ago in Baltimore’s home opener.
"But by the end of the game, they were like ‘That was unbelievable!,’" Vorberg said. "That one was a little bit more special because it was in Baltimore, it was their home opener, there were tons of fans there and usually they’re just waiting for that first goal so their announcer can go off and the fans can go nuts."
A shutout is such a rare thing in indoor soccer, very rare. In fact, the Wave – despite having some of the top goalkeepers in indoor history – had only pitched five in its history prior to the last one.
"In outdoor you can have shutouts playing a style, being very good on the offensive side of the ball – maybe the other team doesn’t even touch the ball," Vorberg said. "We play with both teams going back and forth."
He then outlined how a shutout can happen in indoor:
- "Unbelievable" team defense being played
- The goalkeeper has to make some exceptional saves
- Luck needs to be on your side
"We – and I say, we – have never – and I say never – have ever gone into a game with the goal of it being a shutout," Wave coach Keith Tozer said. "Our goal is always eight points or less. We feel if we can give up eight points or less we’re in most of the games because we think we can score more than eight. To go into Baltimore and to get the shutout, obviously we didn’t plan on it. We did however talk about we gotta keep the game close, they normally pull away in the first half, give yourself a chance to win at the end of the game and see if you can score first. They all did a wonderful job. As the game grew, their confidence grew.
"Nick made four to five unbelievable saves, along with the players in front of him blocking shots also. And then you need lady luck. Baltimore’s saying they outshot us, but in my experience, when we out-shoot other teams we lose more games than not."
The shutout accentuates a tremendous start to the season for MISL’s reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, who will turn 39 in February. In two starts, he has a 93.3 percent save percentage and is allowing only 2.00 points against as the Wave have started the year 2-1.
He’ll be in net again on Saturday as the Blast hope to return the favor in the Wave’s home opener.
"They’re going to come with a different mentality," Vorberg said of the Blast. "They watched our (season opener) and we gave up 21 points. So, they were probably thinking the points are going to come, the points are going to come, and we made it way more difficult. The preparation for them was a little bit different, so they’re going to come in differentt. Every game with Baltimore is different and has a different. This one coming up will be huge."
Vorberg says that to stay sharp at his age, he does things a little differently than he did in his 20s.
His pre-practice work with goalkeeper coach Mark Litton doesn’t include a lot of diving and throwing his body into harm’s way. He changed his diet a handful of years ago to keep his body in better shape, and worked with a personal trainer this offseason.
He says he’s better now at 38, which is interesting. How can you stall Father Time?
In Vorberg’s case, it was about all the above, along with getting his knee cleaned up five years ago. Initially diagnosed as tendinitis, doctors eventually discovered a tear in his patella tendon. That led to a chain reaction of maladies in his leg, from his groin to his calf.
Physically, he feels better – and moves better – than he did in his early 30s.
And mentally, his knowledge of the game – the odd angles the indoor game presents, the tighter goal area, and what his opponent’s will do with the ball, put him in better positions to keep the ball out of the net.
"I’m better at reading the individual player a lot more, and then since 33 I’m definitely better with my feet, just seeing the ball and playing the ball," he said.
"If something happens in front of me, my communication is much better. I still get in moments when I have to speak up and do the screaming thing, but the communication part, like me directing, is getting better, too. That can always get better. Hopefully there is an air of calmness to the position, and hopefully that’s what I bring to the table. I know I have, over the course of my career. Much, much calmer. I don’t get fazed by the different things that happen in front of me as much."
In the long history of the MISL and the Wave, Vorberg has already solidified his place among the sport’s all-time greats. He is currently second in team history to Victor Nogueria (227) in wins with 116.
"I think you can put Nick Vorberg, definitely, in the top six to eight goalkeepers to ever play this game," Tozer said. "Nick’s way, way up there. Not only individual accolades, but team championships. That’s huge. We always say, there’s a lot of great players in the game in any sport, but the ones who don’t win the championships?"
"But he can say, Goalkeeper of the Year, U.S. National team, gold medal. Unbelievable career."
Vorberg knows his time may be limited – though Nogueira played until he was 44 – and he’s aware that while he feels good, and thinks about the game in a different way, sports are fleeting. He’s hoping to help the Wave to its seventh championship.
"When I signed this year it was, put the blinders on, really focus and find that motivation and we gotta win that championship," he said. "It’d be nice to finish on top and bring another championship home to Milwaukee and really be part of it and help. This is the part when you get to this age, am I making myself better, am I making my team better?"
And if the Wave do win this year, who knows?
"Going into the last three or four years, you think about it every year," Vorberg said of retirement. "You think about that every single year. It’s a motivational tool. Last year, if we would’ve won the championship and I got Goalkeeper of the Year, that’s it? Maybe hanging up the boots, going out on top you know? But not winning the way we did …
"I always remember Michael King, who was captain of the team, I think he showed a great way of passing the torch, when to step aside, when to teach, that kind of stuff, and I kind of picked up those traits from him. Hopefully I’ll pass the torch like that."
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.