Nicolau Neto shakes off rust to stymie St. Louis Ambush

By Michael Smith
The Examiner

Kansas City Comets goalkeeper Nicolau Neto sat out last Sunday’s regular season finale against the Dallas Sidekicks because of a variety of bumps and bruises.

That allowed him to rest and recuperate for his team’s first game of a best-of-three series against the St. Louis Ambush in the first round of the Major Arena Soccer League Ron Newman Cup Playoffs.

The rest appeared to help as Neto stood on his head, stopping 29 of 33 shot attempts to help the Comets capture a 7-4 win Friday at Cable Dahmer Arena.

“He got the rest he needed and he came out looking hungry to play,” Comets player/coach Leo Gibson said. “He played absolutely brilliantly. He kept us in the game.”

Kansas City Comets goalkeeper Nicolau Neto fist-bumps fans through the glass to celebrate their 7-4 MASL playoff victory over the St. Louis Ambush Friday night. Neto, who sat out the regular season finale with some nagging injuries, returned to the net and saved 29 of 33 shots to help give the Comets a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.

The Comets completed a 2-0 sweep with a convincing 6-2 victory Sunday afternoon at the Family Arena in St. Charles to advance to the semifinals Thursday and Saturday at Cable Dahmer Arena. Their opponent was to be determined Monday.

Neto only allowed one goal in the first two quarters Friday on a close-range strike from St. Louis defender Vadim Cojocov. Two of the goals he allowed in the final two periods were on set pieces and the final one was during an Ambush power play with an extra attacker.

“He is always keeping us in the game,” Comets forward Rian Marques said of Neto, who has a 70.6 percent save percentage this season. “For me, he is the best keeper in the league.”

Neto admitted that he struggled with some rust after missing a game, but was still able to help keep his team ahead for most of the contest.

“I felt a little bit out of rhythm today,” Neto said. “Everything has its pros and cons. We did a good job (on defense) and stuck to the game plan.”

Neto had several impressive saves, including a leaping knockaway on an Ambush shot that appeared to be headed toward the upper 90. He also had to defend a one-on-one situation with a St. Louis ball handler Sam Guernsey early in the second period.

Kansas City Comets goalkeeper Nicolau Neto (1) comes out to challenge St. Louis Ambush ball handler Sam Guernsey in the second quarter of an MASL playoff game Friday at Cable Dahmer Arena. Neto stopped 29 of 33 shots to help the Comets to a 7-4 win.

Neto came out to challenge and slid and knocked the ball away for a save.

“I saw that our defense was beat and I was trying to help,” Neto said. “He kind of got a rough touch and I was able to step out and block it.”

While Neto was a moving wall in the net, the Comets used a five-goal second quarter to build its lead. Kansas City took a 1-0 lead into the second period after Marques put in his own rebound.

St. Louis tied it at the 13:21 mark of the second period on Cojocov’s goal. But the Comets rattled off five consecutive goals to take a 6-1 lead into halftime. Gibson, defender Ray Lee, Marques, defender James Togbah and Ignacio Flores scored one goal each during the run.

Kansas City Comets defender Ray Lee, left, blasts a shot past a pair of St. Louis Ambush defenders for a goal in the second period of their MASL playoff game Friday at Cable Dahmer Arena. The Comets claimed a 7-4 win in the first of a best-of-three series.

“We came out and possessed the ball and took advantage of the transitions,” Gibson said. “We took advantage of the opportunities and it worked out for us.”

The Comets pressured the ball when St. Louis had possession in the second quarter, which created several turnovers. Their ball movement was also sharp, which led to the five goals.

“We got off to a rough start,” Marques said. “We weren’t finding our game. Then after the second goal, things started to go our way and we started to play our style of play and the ball started to go in.”

St. Louis scored one goal in third and one goal early in the fourth to narrow the gap to 6-3.

Kansas City Comets forward Matt Lewis celebrates after scoring an empty-net goal late in the fourth quarter to seal a 7-4 MASL playoff win over the St. Louis Ambush Friday at Cable Dahmer Arena.

Comets defender Matt Lewis got a loose ball near midfield when the Ambush was on the power play with a sixth attacker. He used a soft touch to make an empty-netter with 4:32 left to play to ice the win.

Kansas City continues its stretch of solid play as it has now won seven out of its last nine games after a 1-3 start to the season.

“That kind of woke us up,” Gibson said of his team’s 1-3 start. “We started fixing things we needed to fix. We kept it simple and started moving more off the ball and taking advantage of opportunities. That’s what got us where we are now.”

The Comets took an early 2-0 lead Sunday on goals by Dom Francis and Gibson, and Neto made that early lead stand as he stopped 14 of 16 Ambush shots.

The Ambush cut the lead to 2-1 early in the second quarter as Stefan Mijatovic scored in the upper right corner on a restart, but the Comets got the two-goal lead back on Gibson’s second of the game with 6:18 left in the half.

Max Ferdinand scored the final Ambush goal as he collected his own rebound off a penalty kick and found the back of the net at 13:15 of the third period.

Kevin Ellis gave the Comets some breathing room as he scored 20 seconds after Ferdinand's goal, and Lee took a rebound off a Gibson shot to score the fifth goal of the night at 11:16 of the fourth quarter.

Ramone Palmer's empty netter accounted for the final score.

"At the start, I believe I had more confidence in them, then had in themselves," Gibson said of the Comets' rough start this season, "and that confidence has paid during the most important time of the season."

The Examiner's Bill Althaus contributed to this report.