The Missouri Comets and the defending champion Baltimore Blast head into tonight's 7:35 MISL Championship Series Game 1 at the Independence Events Center with high hopes following a pair of to-the-wire semifinal series that extended to a 15-minute mini-game.
The Comets dominated Milwaukee 20-6 in Game 1 at home, then traveled to the Wave's home turf to lose 12-9 in the second game. Brian Harris' two goals and brilliant goaltending by Danny Waltman helped the Comets claim a 6-2 victory in the mini-game to reach the MISL Championship Series for the second year in a row.
“We know how the Comets feel, because we needed a mini-game win against Syracuse to make it to the Independence Events Center,” Baltimore defender and MISL MVP Mike Lookingland said Thursday afternoon at a press conference on the turf at the Events Center.
The reigning league champs, who beat the Comets 2-0 in last year’s MISL finals, won the first game against Syracuse 20-7 last week, then were stunned 9-6 in Game 2.
“We're ahead 4-0 in the mini-game when they get a 3-pointer and follow with a shot that hits the crossbar and bounces straight down,” Lookingland said. “If it goes in the net, you're talking to someone from Syracuse right now.”
Baltimore finished in first place in the regular-season standings with a 17-3 record that included 11-4, 11-8 and 14-6 victories over the Comets. The Comets finished with five regular-season wins in a row and a 14-6 record.
The Blast allowed a league-low 101 points during the regular season while scoring 309. Coach Vlatko Andonovski's Comets scored a league-high 329 points while allowing 217.
“Defense wins championships,” Andonovski said, “but we have to combine defense with offense to win the championship. They dominated us in the regular season, but we are a much better team now than when we faced them in the regular season.
“I think this will be a very good series. We both survived the semifinals, and I believe the two teams that belong in the championship series are here in Independence.”
So does MISL senior director Chris Economides.
“To borrow a line from Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again,” Economides said. “A year ago we were here and I believe the two most deserving teams are here in the championship series. They each won a tremendous semifinal series and are back for what we believe will be a tremendous championship series.”
The MISL postseason awards were announced during Thursday’s news conference with Comets forward Leo Gibson being named to the MISL first team. Team captain Vahid Assadpour and defender Brian Harris were named to the second team, and Max Touloute was named to the all-rookie team.
But that's where the honors ended as Baltimore's Danny Kelly won Coach of the Year over Andonovski, Lookingland topped Gibson for the MVP award and Harris for Defender of the Year, the Blast's William Vanzela was named Goalkeeper of the Year over Waltman and Touloute lost out in Rookie of the Year to the St. Louis Ambush’s Odaine Sinclair.
“I had nothing to do with the voting,” quipped Economides, as grumblings could be heard from the local fans who attended the news conference. “It was all from a vote of coaches and general managers in the league.”
Many believed Gibson, who won the league scoring and assist crowns, was a lock for MVP.
“I don't care about the individual honors – I want a championship,” said Gibson, who scored a team postseason record 11 points in the 20-6 win over Milwaukee and leads all postseason scorers with 14 points. “I am sure that people will look at what Baltimore did against us in the regular season and think that we don't have a chance against them in the championship series, but we are playing our best soccer right now and we are excited about Friday night's game.”
Assadpour agreed, adding, “We're a much better team than when we last faced them (11-4 loss on Feb. 8). Danny is on fire in the net, and we're playing our best overall team ball – passing, defense, offense, all the things it takes to win a championship.”
While Harris had his game face on at the news conference, he couldn't help but joke around with Events Center operations manager Tom Manning, who entered the playing field as the attendees left the arena.
“Tom, I thought you'd arranged for something to fall on them (Kelly and Lookingland, who were walking in front of Harris off the turf) after the news conference,” said a chuckling Harris.
Without skipping a beat, Manning quipped, “Maybe tomorrow night, Brian – maybe tomorrow night.”