BALTIMORE – Following a 19-4 loss to the defending champion Baltimore Blast in Game 2 of the MISL Championship Series, first-year Missouri Comets coach Vlatko Andonovski didn’t panic.
No, instead he inspired his team to rally for a dramatic 6-4 mini-game victory to bring Eastern Jackson County its first professional championship.
“I think a lesser team, with a lesser coach, might have caved in,” said veteran goalkeeper Danny Waltman, who was spectacular in the mini-game. “Baltimore had just kicked our butts – they kicked us pretty good – and Vlatko told us that this was our moment.
“He told us that Baltimore might have been the better team in Game 2, and was the better team in the regular season (winning all three games against the Comets), but the 15-minute mini-game belonged to us.”
Andonovski believed it, and so did his team.
“Vlatko was amazing after we lost Game 2,” said defender Brian Harris, the finals MVP who scored the game-winner Sunday in Baltimore and also had two goals in a semifinal mini-game win over Milwaukee.
“You hear about the great speeches from (Notre Dame coach) Knute Rockne or (Green Bay Packers coach) Vince Lombardi or even (U.S. "Miracle on Ice" hockey coach) Herb Brooks, and Vlatko’s speech was right there with any of the best speeches they ever gave before a game.
“We’d just got spanked pretty good, and he still believed in us. He made us believe that we were the best soccer team in the mini-game and we went out and proved him right. Man, I get chills just thinking about it.
“This team would march through fire for Vlatko. We love that guy. We really do, we love him. And he loves us.”
Andonovski just grinned when those remarks were relayed to him after the biggest win of career.
“Danny and Brian and the boys went out and inspired me,” Andonovski said. “I told the boys (after the 19-4 loss) that it didn’t matter that Baltimore was the better team during the regular season. Or that they were the better team in Game 2.
“All that mattered was that we had to believe that we would be the better team in the mini-game. I told them we had worked too hard all season to let Baltimore win another championship. This championship belonged to the players in our locker room.
“And they believed me. You could see it in their eyes. I looked at Danny and Brian and Vahid (Assadpour, who scored three 3-pointers in Friday night’s 15-8 home victory). I knew they believed me. When we left that locker room, I knew deep down in my heart we were going to win that game.”
Waltman made an incredible stop, diving across the goalmouth to bat away an early shot that would have given the Blast a quick 2-0 lead.
“You don’t think, you just react,” said Waltman, who gave up two goals in the mini-game. “When they (later) took a 2-0 lead (on a goal by Max Ferdinand) we didn’t panic. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was the confidence Vlatko had in us and the confidence we had in each other, but I knew we were going to win.
“No one panicked, and Lucas (Rodriguez) went out and scored the highlight goal of the year on that bicycle kick goal.”
Rodriguez’s ESPN-worthy goal knotted the score at 2-all at 9:24. But the Blast came back and took their last lead of the game on an Adauto Neto goal at 12:11.
“We had about three minutes before our season ended, and Stefan St. Louis went out and willed a goal to tie the game,” Harris said, shaking his head. “He wasn’t even supposed to be on the field, and he went out and tied the game. And we all knew he was going to score, you could just feel it!”
That goal came at 13:26 on an assist from Rodriguez.
Then with 54 seconds left Harris duplicated the game-winning score he had accomplished so many times in his backyard.
“What little kid hasn’t hit the winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series, or the game-winner in the World Cup,” said Harris, who took a perfect pass from Leo Gibson and sent a rocket past MISL Goalkeeper of the Year William Vanzela at the 14:06 mark.
“I dreamed about it as a little kid, and now, I did it for real. I knew they couldn’t come back from that goal, we all did. I was so excited, I mean, it was like I got caught up in the minute and didn’t even really realize I scored the goal. It was a moment everyone should experience in their life. I’ll never forget it.”
The shell-shocked Blast never recovered, and the team that was shut out by the Blast for every major postseason award was on top of the world.
“When Brian scored with 54 seconds left, it was over. They might as well have ended the game then, because Danny was not going to allow another goal,” Andonovski said. “It was amazing, just amazing. I hope the boys never forget how good it feels.”