Coach Vlatko Andonovski's Missouri Comets were set up for failure last Saturday at the Independence Events Center.
But they would have no part of a letdown, despite the fact that they were playing without many key players and had already clinched the division championship.
They brought a spectacular undefeated streak into last Saturday's 7-2 win over the visiting Chicago Mustangs, who pushed the hometown heroes' record to a sizzling 16-0.
I watched the game with great interest as the Comets were coming off a hard-fought 8-7 overtime win over the Monterrey Flash, capping a big two-win weekend in Mexico. That thriller clinched first place and allowed Vlatko the opportunity to rest all-star goalkeeper Danny Waltman – who is still recovering from a high-ankle sprain – for Saturday's home game against the much-improved Mustangs.
The Comets have it all going their way this season, and it would have been so easy for the players to collectively think, “We can take tonight off. We've accomplished as much, or more, than anyone thought going into the new MASL.”
But that is not the mindset of a championship coach in multiple soccer leagues.
Andonovski is the leader of a band of brothers who are seeking their second consecutive league championship (having claimed the final crown in MISL history).
“No one would ever think of taking a night off,” he said after new goalkeeper Stephen Paterson starred in the net and a host of Comets provided enough offensive punch to corral the Mustangs. “I am the luckiest coach in the world to be working with such a special group of players. When Danny got hurt, all anyone talked about was playing harder and doing everything possible to help Stephen when he was in goal.
“Then Danny comes back and plays a heroic game against Monterrey, and even though it goes into overtime, we all knew we were going to win that game. And we have many more important games to win this season. There is never a time for a night off.”
Robert Palmer scored the game-winning, short-handed goal against Monterrey to set off a wild celebration that seemed a bit out of character for a team with a perfect record.
“We were playing for Danny and playing for each other,” Palmer said. “This team has so much pride and so much character. We are a family, we are brothers, and we all have one goal – another championship.”
Midfielder John Sosa, who had a goal and three assists in the win over Chicago, said this team is on a mission.
“This was an important game for us, because we wanted to prove that there is still a lot to play for," Sosa said. “There is a good chance that we could meet Chicago in the opening round of the playoffs, and we wanted to let them know what this game meant to us.”
Waltman isn't the only Comet player nursing an injury. Max Touloute (groin), Milan Ivanovic (AC strain) and Stefan Stokic (abdominal strain) did not suit up for the game against the Mustangs.
“The injured guys were with us in spirit,” said defender Brian Harris, who teamed with Palmer to turn away four Mustang shots in the scoreless first period. “I feel for Danny because I know how much he wants to be in there, but Stephen is doing a great job.
“He doesn't have the experience of Danny, but he works so hard and we're going to work hard for him and all the other guys on the sidelines.”
Watching a group of players become a unified squad on the field is special. It happened with the Kansas City Royals during their remarkable playoff run in which they become the first team in big league history to start the postseason with an 8-0 record.
And it's happening with the Comets. From the head man down to the equipment man, this is a team on a mission, and we are so lucky that they are allowing us to go on this remarkable journey.
• The Comets play on the road this weekend with games at the St. Louis Ambush Friday and at the Wichita B-52s Sunday. They have just four games left on the regular-season schedule.
Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at 350-6333 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC