Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Riotous expectations: Reflecting on inaugural 2010-11 MISL season

Ante Cop's winner: The reaction says it all.
I'm prone to doing things at the last minute like anyone else. But the Chicago Riot's birth into the Major Indoor Soccer League was taking it a bit far.

Starting a professional soccer team in a matter of weeks? Talk about a challenge! But the word "impossible" never crossed my mind as I knew we had the right people running the ship.

My first involvement with the team -- I guess you could call it a job interview? -- originated with Peter Wilt in the Toyota Park parking lot on Oct. 16, 2010, before I had to cover Chicago Fire forward Brian McBride's final home game for an ESPN Chicago article. Ten days later, we held our introductory press conference (thanks for the great turnout!). And several weeks after that, on Nov. 19, the Riot went on the road to Baltimore for its first MISL game.

The Riot crew after our home finale.
With hardly any preparation, this Riot squad put together a season that the team and its fans should be proud of. It didn't result in a postseason berth, but under these circumstances, I'm amazed at what the Riot was able to accomplish.

And it was a thrill to be back in the indoor grind in a unique setting at the Odeum Sports and Expo Center in Villa Park. The Odeum has that Hickory Huskers feel to it like "Hoosiers." The game-day activities and events also were old-school and entertaining. The Riot's version of Bozo Buckets brought back the days where I wish I could have won a Radio Flyer wagon. Chicago Soccer Heritage Night was fantastic, running into the folks who were trend setters of this sport in Chicago, and seeing memorabilia, photos, articles and more from several decades back.

As my bookend for the Riot's first season, though, Chicago's roster deserves the full credit. So here are my top-five moments from the 2010-2011 campaign:

• 5. Cop saves the day (Jan. 16, 2011): Let's face it ... Ante Cop is showing up on several occasions with this list. Cop had 22 saves on this date, and his final save came at the final tick of the clock. The Riot, carrying a two-point lead, made a poor mistake with a three-line pass with 2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, putting the ball at the top of the arc for the visiting Baltimore Blast. Baltimore took the free kick and Giuliano Celenza had a clear path with his strike from the left side. Cop dove to his left and batted the ball away to give Chicago its first home win at the Odeum, 14-12.

• 4. Bato heats up (Feb. 6, 2011): Bato Radoncic had a February to remember. He was the league's top scorer in the month (10 goals, 22 points), though he lost out to Missouri's Byron Alvarez for player of the month honors. Radoncic's offensive prowess shined to the fullest on Feb. 6, as he tallied the first hat trick (four goals, actually) in Riot history during Chicago's 16-12 win over the Missouri Comets. Two tallies came during the Riot's critical 8-0 run in the fourth quarter.

• 3. First win in the books (Dec. 19, 2010): The Riot's 0-4 start to the season was a bitter pill to swallow, simply because Chicago lost three of the four games by four points or less. But the Riot finally broke through with a 14-13 road victory over Missouri. The Comets did have a chance to take the game at the end, but Jeff Richey made a clutch diving stop to his left with about 3 seconds left on the clock to preserve the win.

• 2. Cop, Richey rise in OT (March 4, 2011): The mathematical playoff scenarios were already in the rearview mirror, but the Riot fought to the very end in becoming the first team this season to hand Baltimore two defeats. The 11-9 win was capped off by an Ante Cop goal in overtime. Cop didn't get much playing time in the forward role in this match, but he made the most of it with a goal at the 2:11 mark of OT to complete a 6-0 run, ruining the Blast's chance to clinch the regular-season title. Cop shouldn't take the full spotlight, though. The Riot would not have even been in this position if not for the play of goalkeeper Jeff Richey, who posted a game-high 19 saves and kept Chicago in the match. Richey had plenty of critical saves, including a late one in regulation against Giuliano Celenza, who was honored for his career before the match -- Celenza's retiring at the end of the season. The Riot soured the Blast's day on many levels.

• 1. Thrilla in Villa (Jan. 16, 2011): Ante Cop earned a little national acclaim with this strike, which appeared on ABC's "Winners Bracket" show. With 23 seconds remaining and a one-point deficit, Cop unleashed a left-footed strike from a few feet inside the midfield stripe, found the upper right corner of the net and the Odeum went crazy. Chicago Riot 14, Baltimore Blast 12. The reactions afterward were priceless -- Riot head coach Jeff Kraft practically doing an Arsenio Hall "woof! woof!" impression; injured goalkeeper Jeff Richey hobbling with a bad hamstring but lifting up Cop in celebration during the Blast's timeout; and of course the growing contingent of Riot rebel rousers at the east end behind Blast goalkeeper Nick Hovaker. Cop's goal will remain one of the most memorable strikes in indoor, and I don't think I'm being overly dramatic in saying so.

Also check out ...
• Chicago Riot 2010-2011 season recap; lows, highs & the future

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