Season Preview: Expansion status doesn't temper expectations

by Brian Ackley

Head Coach Clay Roberts knows the Florida Tropics SC will have challenges as an expansion team in an ever-improving Major Arena Soccer League, but that doesn't diminish the expectations for the 2016-17 season which starts Friday night, Nov. 11, at the Lakeland Center against the San Diego Sockers.

“Our owner, myself, we want to win,” Roberts says matter of factly. “We've worked hard to put together the best roster we could. Our expectation is to win. The MASL is extremely strong. The level of the league has gotten higher and higher, so there's no easy game for anybody. We're going to make some youthful mistakes Friday night, we're going to make some mistakes next week. But I will say by the time we get into the second and third games in the division, we're going to be as sharp as anybody in the league.”

Roberts, who was a member of the 2007-08 MISL champion Philadelphia Kixx and is the head coach at nearby Southeastern University,  said the roster is sprinkled with both veterans and talented youngsters, which has been training for several weeks now, including practices all week at the Lakeland Center

He believes the Tropics will be able to score goals, including the first line which includes Freddy Moojen, who had 41 goals two seasons ago for the Dallas Sidekicks and  Ricardo Diegues, who netted 64 goals in 57 college games at UT-Brownsville. Indoors, in 10 games with the MASL Brownsville Barracudas, he had 10 goals and five assists. Forward Carlos Araujo rounds out the top line.

“We have a lot of individual talent, very high level, skilled players,” Roberts noted. “That's always nice indoor, because it's a very skillful game. We have attacking players that are going to be able to produce goals. The way we re looking to play is a dynamic, attacking style.”

Moojen will play a dual role as an assistant coach, and is a particularly important building block.

“Freddy is a key piece,” Robers said. “His experience and knowledge is going to help us out. He knows  he has to play a bigger role than just a player..”

Defensively, Roberts will look to a top pairing of Anthoy Arico, a starting defender last year for the St. Louis Ambush, and Chicago native Armando Tello, who starts his third season of MASL play.

“The defensive responsibilities are something that's going to be learned here in the first month of our season. With so many new players to the indoor game, we'll be relying on our veteran indoor guys to lead the way and communicate well because it's such different game when you're transitioning from an outdoor player to an indoor player,” Roberts said. “It won't be a season-long weakness, just something that we have to work through in the first few games.”

Goaltender Pitor Sliwa will be the backline general, after lowering his goals against average to 5.92 last year with the Ambush, He posted a 10.62 GAA two years ago with Seattle.

“The goalkeeper is so important. He's a big piece in what we'll be able to do this year. His knowledge of the game, his communication, we're going to rely on that. He's going to have to make the big saves, as any indoor keeper does,” Roberts added.

The Nov. 11 game marks the debut of the Tropics franchise for owner Andrew Haines, who for the last three years owned the St. Louis Ambush. The team averaged more than 5,600 fans a game for that period.

The Tropics will play 10 games at home this season, but it is not the first time professional indoor soccer has been played in the arena they will call home.

Interestingly, some the games greatest stars have played on the Lakeland Center turf, when the North American Soccer League Tampa Bay Rowdies played three regular season games of their indoor season there in early 1984, including a marquee matchup against the New York Cosmos.  Steve Zungul, the “Lord of all Indoors”, suited up for the Golden Bay Earthquakes in one of the matches, as did the legendary Tatu who scored four goals for the Rowdies in their 12-6 win over the Cosmos.

All 20 games will be broadcast live online, and can be accessed through the team's website at Tickets for all home games are also available online, or by calling 863-333-5353.

The Tropics will play in the Eastern Division of the Eastern Conference of the 17-team MASL. Division rivals will include the defending league champion Baltimore Blast, Harrisburg Heat and Syracuse Silver Knights. Eleven games will come against divisional foes, and the schedule also features such league heavyweights as the San Diego Sockers, St. Louis Ambush, Kansas City Comets and Dallas Sidekicks.