The 743 indoor soccer fans who showed up to the WISL Championship match on Saturday night to watch the Tacoma Stars and Bellingham United face off certainly got their money's worth. Solid defense was on display at both ends in an exciting low-scoring game, with the result still in doubt entering the final minute of play, when Tacoma led 4-2 and Bellingham employing a sixth attacker for much of the fourth quarter in an attempt to find goals. Instead, Tacoma was able to find 2 goals in the final minute to put the exclamation point on the WISL season.
The first half was dominated by defense, with Tacoma enjoying most of the possession in the first quarter. Despite that, it was Bellingham that opened scoring on a Gabriel Zaccagnini goal from a set piece delivery from Brendan Quilici with 9 minutes remaining in the quarter. Tacoma was still able to control possession for the remainder of the first quarter and get some shots off, but none of it paid off on the scoreboard.
The second quarter was much more difficult for the Stars, as they were forced to defend for the better part of 6 minutes on 3 virtually consecutive Bellingham power plays, in addition to a penalty that Bellingham was unable to convert. Tacoma managed to kill all 3 power plays and found the equalizing goal in the final minute of the first half on a strike from Raphael Cox, giving the Stars all the momentum going into halftime.
The strong defense continued into the third quarter for both sides. For a moment, it looked like Joey Gjertsen was about to give Tacoma its first lead of the game, after he rounded Bellingham goalkeeper Riley Liddle, but Gjertsen's shot went just wide. The Stars were unable to capitalize on the 2 minute power play that followed, but they were able to find the go-ahead goal just after Bellingham returned to full strength on a set piece, as a Michal Mravic pass bounced off Derek Johnson's chest and fell to Mark Lee, who put the chance away to give the Stars their first lead of the game just before time ran out in the third quarter. That would turn out to be the final lead change of the match.
The fourth quarter began with Tacoma clinging to a slim 2-1 lead. Derek Johnson made sure Tacoma would have some breathing room with 12:30 left in the game, scoring his league leading 15th goal of the WISL season and his 22nd goal in all competitions, with Nate Ford credited with the assist. That would wind up being the championship winning goal, putting Tacoma up 3-1. Mark Lee added another insurance goal with his second of the night on a Stars power play, to cap off his best week of the season after Sunday's 5 goal, 1 assist performance in the MASL. That Johnson and Lee were the ones to extend Tacoma's lead is appropriate, as they were named honorable mentions in the MASL Team of the Week for their performances on Sunday.
That forced Bellingham to take off Liddle and bring on Brendan Quillici as the sixth attacker in an attempt to chip away at Tacoma's 4-1 lead with 9 minutes remaining in the game. That decision paid off with a Tye Hastings goal that cut Tacoma's lead to 4-2 with 6:30 left in the fourth quarter. That made for some nervous moments in the final minutes of the game for fans of both teams. A 2 minute Tacoma power play a few minutes later would make matters even more difficult for Bellingham, even though their defense managed to kill it. That left Bellingham with only 3:15 remaining to find 2 goals to tie the game.
It wasn't until Joey Gjertsen's goal with 28 seconds to go that Stars fans were finally able to relax a bit, knowing that conceding 3 goals in under 30 seconds would be extremely unlikely. Gjertsen got his second goal in just 22 seconds to put the exclamation point on the result and Tacoma's WISL season, with only 6 seconds remaining. Gjertsen's second goal was set up by Raphael Cox's long, high clearance that somehow managed to avoid hitting any of the Tacoma Soccer Center's rafters in a play that was symbolic of the Stars WISL season in its perfection.
Tacoma lifted the inaugural WISL Championship trophy, capping off an undefeated season that drew renewed support throughout the season from fans old enough to remember the Stars glory days, when they set indoor soccer attendance records at the Tacoma Dome that are still in tact nearly 3 decades later. Those fans are joined by new fans, excited about what the club can accomplish as it transitions to full professional status over the offseason, in preparation for the 2015/16 MASL season.
But there is still one more piece of business for the team to take care of in next weekend's road trip to Missouri, where it will take on the 6-12 St. Louis Ambush on Saturday before closing out the MASL season at the undefeated Missouri Comets a day later. Both games will be streamed live on the MASL website.
LevyFilms was also present to capture the action, so we can probably look forward to another field level slow motion highlight video in the near future.
The Stars finished the non-MASL portion of its 2014/15 season a perfect 13-0-0, including 3 wins in friendlies. The only times the team has failed to win have come in losses to teams that have qualified for the MASL playoffs. The club surely hopes to be one of those MASL playoff teams a year from now. The rest of the WISL teams won't likely shed many tears knowing they won't have to face the Stars next season.