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Going Forward in the Great Indoors

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Indoor is a big part of Puget Sound soccer's past, and it's got a promising future.

Courtesy Wilson Tsoi/TacomaStars.com

Certainly small-sided teams have played an extensive role in Puget Sound soccer's storied past. Now, 40  years since it began as mid-winter oddity and space holder, indoor soccer may have found its role for the future.

Forget the fog machines and lasers, the pregame pomp and circumstance. The stripped-down game of 6-a-side can still play a vital role in American player development.

Indoor soccer may have slipped beneath the waves at the professional level when the Tacoma Stars and Seattle SeaDogs succumbed in the Nineties. Yet at the participant level it's plying the waters quite well.

Up and down the I-5 corridor are more than a dozen indoor centers, filled on winter noon hours, evenings and weekends with players young and not-so-young. Also packed to capacity earlier this month was the Tacoma Soccer Center gallery, with a standing-room only crowd of 740 watching the born-again Stars win a regional championship.

With fans hanging over the railings above and members of the Stars climbing the boards from below to reach friends and family afterwards, it was an idyllic ending to a rather turbulent return of indoor soccer to the limelight.

Brace for Impact

Unfortunately most of the headlines this past season were saved for the train wreck known as the Seattle Impact. Granted a Major Arena Soccer League franchise last summer to play in Kent's ShoWare Center, the Impact initially made some encouraging moves.

But soon it all began to unravel-first off the field, then on it. Before playing the first game, the coaching staff departed, followed by players quitting en masse.

Once word spread about a lawsuit claiming the player/owner sexually assaulted team dance team members, the Impact was a pariah. Few wanted to play, seemingly fewer wanted to watch.

Two months into the season, came theSeattle Impact's inevitable end. Stepping into the breach was the Stars.

It was a tall order. Tacoma not only filled the seven remaining matches on the Impact's MASL slate, they also fielded the requisite reserve side in the Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL) as well as keeping their commitment to thee Western Indoor Soccer League (WISL).

"Having to step into a pro league with a team of amateurs was a great experience for our players," says Stars coach Darren Sawatzky. "That said, your expectations have to be humble." Tacoma completed the MASL season Feb. 22.

Out of the Ruins

The good news was that Tacoma turned the tide. Fans began following the Stars to Kent for MASL games. Meanwhile the club finished the WISL campaign unbeaten.

"The Tacoma Stars brand is extremely valued, particularly in the Tacoma area," shares Sawatzky, himself a Stars fan as a youth. "People remember those great days of the past, and it's a brand that holds true. People care about us." Over 1,100 attended the final MASL home match.

Impressively, the Stars also served as a springboard for players seeking to reach the next level. Captain Adam West was signed by Louisville and Josh Phillips joined Colorado Springs, both of USL PRO.

Knowing Their Niche

There are now several vehicles available to develop as a player: premier clubs, MLS academies, college, PDL and USL. Stars owner Lane Smith also operates the Sounders U23 entry in PDL, as well as the Sounders Women. Indoor has a distinct role as well.

"Going forward, the Tacoma Stars can become the winter niche," both for fans and aspiring players, claims Sawatzky.

Neil Megson, one of those original Stars, advocates each boy and girl mixing some indoor with their outdoor play. "You have the ball all the time; it's always at your feet," says Megson. "You're forced to control the ball all the time. It improved my control, my vision and my speed of play, and I think it would do that for anybody."

It did the trick for Phillips. Says Sawatzky: "His first touch wasn't the best, and the indoor game really helped him tighten up his. His passes are much better.

"Technique is also about how quick your brain can do something...Your brain's got to work faster and make decisions at the same time you've got to perform the technique," adds Sawatzky. "It doesn't hurt anyone to do that type of training."

Given the popularity of the full-field variety, it's unlikely that indoor will ever again approach its popularity of the Eighties.

People Will Come

While the record throngs are etched in some memories, the truth is that between the Sounders, Stars and SeaDogs, their combined average gate was around 7,000. To reach capacity at ShoWare on a regular basis now would likely require some ‘name' players and/or some true showbiz presentation. Still, a few thousand fans for the Stars is not beyond reason.

"(Indoor) can be successful," contends onetime Sounders, Stars and SeaDogs player Brian Schmetzer. "People will come out because it's an inexpensive ticket and decent entertainment. It has an important place in the history of the Northwest, and if Darren can keep doing a good job, I'd love for Tacoma to get good crowds."

For now the Stars plan is to field a professional team in MASL and an amateur team in WISL. They can compliment the likes of Kitsap and Sounders U23s in PDL and S2 in USL PRO, putting experienced veterans like West and Joey Gjertsen alongside 19-20 year-olds.

Just as with DeAndre Yedlin's days with the U23s, it affords fans a front-row seat to see fine young prospects on their way up.

"We're under no illusions, that this team is a development platform," states Sawatzky, "but it can be an awesome platform."

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on hiswebsite and has been republished here with his permission.