It's hard to tell who's having more fun at Thursday's Missouri Comets practice session at the Independence Events Center, first-year head coach Vlatko Andonovski or his players.
He is in the middle of everything, from a spirited pre-practice game of take away to an intrasquad game that allows goalkeeper Danny Waltman to have some fun at the forward position.
“We love Vlatko, we love being back in town” said Waltman, the 32-year-old veteran who will lead the Comets into their sold-out opener 7:35 p.m. Saturday night against Milwaukee at the Independence Events Center.
“We're going to miss (former coach) Kim (Roentved) because he meant so much to this team, this organization the first three years, but Vlatko was right alongside Kim and he knows what this team is all about.”
Waltman than paused, and glanced at all the seats in the IEC.
“Man, you look around this place and try to imagine what it's going to be like Saturday night,” he added. It's going to be rocking, and the boys are excited.
“We came so close to winning a championship last year and we all think this is the year we're going to bring the trophy home to Independence.”
Defender Brian Harris said the team is talented enough to do that.
“We're going to be good, you can see that just from watching practice,” Harris said. “… This could be the season we win it all.”
Andonovski is ready to drop the ball.
“The team is excited,” Andonovski said. “I learned so much my first three years with Kim and I am going to miss him as much as anyone, but there were some budget concerns with the team and they decided to go in a different direction.”
Moments Roentved was mentioned, the MISL legend and first Comets head coach made a surprise appearance at the Events Center. There were heartfelt hugs, handshakes and long conversations.
“I'll always follow this team and feel like I am a part of it,” Roentved said. “I am so happy that Vlatko is getting the chance to coach the boys, and I know he is going to do a great job. Things just didn't work out this year (between me and management). This is a team that will have a great shot at winning its first championship.”
They came so close last season, losing 8-6 to Baltimore in the title game, after seeing a 4-0 halftime lead disappear late in the game.
“We haven't forgotten that game,” Harris said. “I think about it every day, and I don't want to ever feel like that again.”
Much of the core of last year's team returns to the Comets, including Waltman, Harris, All-MISL standouts Leo Gibson and Vahid Assadpour and former MISL scoring champion and MVP Byron Alvarez (who will miss Saturday's opener, but is expected to join the team next week).
A new face is also a familiar one, as former MISL MVP Geison, who starred for the Comets two years again and then left to play for Wichita last season, is back with Missouri.
“I'm home,” Geison said. “Vlatko and the boys are having fun, we have the nucleus of a team back that almost won it all last season. I can't wait.”