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Cover Story

Another star

5/18/2016

 

Des Moines Menace men’s soccer team is on the hunt for its next PDL championship

 

It’s the first day of practice for the Des Moines men’s Menace soccer team, and General Manager

Des Moines Menace - Saturday, May 7, 2017

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Matt Homonoff is watching cone drills and calisthenics while cleats dig into the field turf at Valley Stadium. Players are jockeying for position — literally and figuratively — while trying to improve for the upcoming season and possibly a shot at going professional in the future.

 

If he looks a bit tired, it’s understandable. Homonoff was at the airport until midnight the previous night, greeting his new crop of incoming talent who were flying in from as far away as Jamaica, New Zealand, Africa, South America and Europe, then shuttling them to their team-provided apartments.

“I haven’t eaten in two days,” Homonoff said. “It’s nervous energy. There’s no more planning I can do. It’s all reactive now.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow for someone like Homonoff.

Des Moines Menace - Cole Poppen. Saturday, May 7, 2017

Cole Poppen is a newcomer to the Menace this year, but he’s no stranger to central Iowa. The former Ankeny star played club soccer for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy team — Shattuck St. Mary’s — then started 21 games as a true freshman at Tulsa.

But he takes comfort knowing he’s turning the reins over to a seasoned head coach in Mike Matkovich, or “Matko” as he’s affectionately called.

But affection only runs so far. The new members of the Menace roster are finding out right away that Matko is no-nonsense.

“I don’t need you,” Matko barks at the team. “I like guys who want to play.”

This is Matko’s second season with the Menace. In his first year, he guided the team to the playoffs, and now he’s determined to go further.

He’s not the only one. If you ask Homonoff or any of the players, the goal for this season is the same — to add another star.

On the upper left corner of the Menace logo is a yellow star denoting the Premier Development League (PDL) championship the team won in 2005. Another star would mean they duplicated the feat. Winning isn’t everything — but it’s a close second.

“We win games and develop players,” Homonoff said about his organization and its goal every year.  “We’ve found a winning model to develop players and win at the same time.”

The team went 11-2-1 last season and haven’t lost a home game since 2013. In the past two seasons, the team has lost just three games.

Homonoff said much of the credit goes to Matko and his 20 years of coaching experience, and they’ll need to rely on that leadership once again this year.

The 2016 Menace squad is replacing its two leading scorers in MLS draftees Chris Hellman and Vincent Cicciarelli,

Des Moines Menace - Elvir Ibisevic. Saturday, May 7, 2017

Elvir Ibisevic is the youngest player on the team. He’d normally be a senior at Johnston High School, but he’s ahead of schedule. He graduated early to play collegiately sooner, and he just finished his first semester of college at University of Omaha-Nebraska. Elvir is the first Iowan to join and train daily in the residency program at the esteemed IMG Academy. According to scouts, he’s as talented as anyone on the team. (Elvir is the cousin of Vedad Ibisevic, who is a superstar in Bosnia.)

who were drafted 29th overall to the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and 60th overall to the Columbus Crew, respectively. The team will also be faced with replacing its entire back line.

“That’s part of the process,” Matko said about retooling. “Hopefully some new guys can step in and fill their shoes.”

The No. 1 goal

This isn’t professional soccer. Players can’t be paid, but they can be provided apartments, food, living expenses and jobs. There’s no cap on player benefits, but anything a team offers one player, it must offer to every player, and performance bonuses aren’t allowed.

The team finished the 2015 regular season tied for the most wins in the PDL, and the Menace had four former players drafted by Major League Soccer (MLS) after last season. The MLS is the nation’s highest level of soccer, just a step below the best international teams.

Most Menace players are college-age, and they’re fighting to get to the next level.

In 14 of the last 15 MLS drafts, at least one former Menace has been selected.

“This is a step on the way to playing with the big boys,” said Homonoff. “This is the highest level you can play at and keep your college eligibility.”

Only the top 25 to 33 percent of college players are good enough for the PDL, he added, and it’s “by far the best soccer you’ll see in Iowa.”

It’s also arguably the best amateur soccer in North America, according to the PDL’s website. The statement is supported by the fact that former PDL players make up 70 percent of draftees into Major League Soccer.

The main purpose of the 67-team league is to give college players an opportunity to compete while maintaining their NCAA eligibility. For most players, this is their college “offseason.”

The Menace organization attempts to mimic a pro-style environment and prepare players should they have the fortune of playing professionally. Developing soccer skills is the team’s No. 1 priority, and, according to former Menace star defender Alec Bartlett, they do a good job of it.

Bartlett is originally from Kansas City, having moved to Des Moines after transferring to play at Drake University after his freshman year. He then played three seasons for the Menace, and now he plays professionally for the Charlotte Independence, which is the next rung on the ladder to the big leagues.

Bartlett said a day in the life of a player depends on the individual. Most players aren’t from Des Moines, so they often share team-provided, two-bedroom apartments, four players in each.

Des Moines Menance - Menace head coach Mike Matkovich checks out the players during the first training session of the season. Saturday, May 7, 2017

Menace Head Coach Mike Matkovich is in his second year leading the team.

The team can, and does, provide assistance with living accommodations, expenses, food and training.

After practice, many of the players do physical therapy or individual training depending on their needs and goals. The team takes pride in having a chiropractor (Dr. Cory Thiele) and a sports masseur (Amanda Lundsted) available if needed.

Many players get together for lunch in the afternoon, followed by work, studying or helping out with youth soccer camps. The Menace also provides coaching opportunities for those interested, according to Bartlett. Providing jobs is also permissible, and some of the players work at Kum & Go, whose CEO, Kyle Krause, owns the team.

 

Why watch the Menace?

Last year’s Super Bowl telecast took approximately four hours, and during that timespan, the pigskin was actually in play for only about 12 minutes. That’s normal for American football in which telecasts average only 11 minutes of in-game action, according to a study by The Wall Street Journal measuring the time from when a ball is hiked to when the whistle blows a play dead.

On the other hand, Menace soccer is packed with action. Players say they go “45 and 45,” referring to the 90 minutes of a Menace game, and the ball is live the entire time.

The Menace has a loyal fan base known as the “Red Army.” Many have a passion for soccer, while others come to enjoy a warm summer night, a hot dog, a slice of pizza or tailgating outside Valley Stadium, the team’s home since 2008. It’s a family-friendly event, and there is a Kid Zone with a Kick Center, Halftime Bubble Soccer and other fun things for kids to participate in.

Home matches have been played at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines since 2008. The team played its inaugural season at Dowling, then stints at Hoover and Waukee before moving to Valley Stadium in West Des Moines in 2008.

The Menace has led the PDL in attendance for 14 of the previous 16 seasons, averaging more than 3,000 fans per game. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and younger. Parking is easily accessible, and fans can meet the players on the field to get autographs after the game. And who knows? These guys could be the next professional soccer superstars.

“Live soccer deserves a chance,” said Homonoff. “These are world-class athletes fighting to go to the next level.” CV

 

 

Tickets are available for purchase at the stadium on game days.

$5 – ages 5 to 12

$10 – adults ages 13 or older

$20 – V.I.P.

$50 – season pass

Parking is available to the stadium’s north in the city hall parking lot, to the west and south in the upper parking lot and overflowing into the adjacent church’s parking space.

Many Menace matches are doubleheaders. The women’s team drops the ball first at 4:30 p.m., and the men start at 7:30 p.m. Most soccer games last less than two hours.

The team will have a fireworks display after the game on Friday, July 15.

Food trucks will get a trial run on June 4 and possibly on other select dates throughout the summer.

The women Menace play at Valley Stadium, too. The team just missed the playoffs last season. Homonoff estimates 80 percent of the women are local players. One ticket grants a fan access to both the men’s and the women’s games on doubleheader nights.

 

Top 5 reasons to watch the Menace

They haven’t lost a home game since July 13, 2013 (2-1 to the Real Colorado Foxes)

Players sign autographs after every home game.

A new-look mascot will be unveiled on Saturday, May 21.

Budget friendly: Tickets are $10, and entrance is $5 for kids ages 5-12.

“Live soccer deserves a chance,” said Homonoff. “These are world class athletes fighting to go to the next level.”

 

Things to Know

First things first: It’s a “match” not a game. And if you hear someone refer to “the pitch,” it means two things: This isn’t their first soccer game, and they are referring to the field of play — the green grass with the white lines. Likewise, “nutmeg” isn’t a spice, it’s when the ball rolls between a defensive players legs.

Look Ma, no hands: Except for goalies, players can’t use their hands. You already knew that. But did you also know they can’t use their wrists or elbows? It’s impermissible for players to use anything below their shoulders to “handle” the ball intentionally to gain an advantage. If a ball is kicked into the arm or hand of a player, there is no foul. Goalies are allowed to use their hands — except in certain rare instances.

In the beginning: Much like its American counterpart, a soccer match begins with a kickoff. The ball is placed in the center of the field while each team stays in its own respective end. When the referee blows the whistle, one team boots the ball to the other. This process repeats itself after each goal and at halftime.

At the end of the day: It’s been said a tie is like kissing your sister, but in soccer, ties happen. And they happen a lot. But the Menace were 11-2-1 last year, they don’t tie or lose very often, so relax that kisser for now.

It ain’t over… when you think it’s over: In soccer there is a thing called “stoppage time.” During the two 45-minute halves of regulation time, the clock runs continuously and doesn’t stop for any reason, even if a player is hurt or the ball goes out of bounds. After the clock expires at the end of each half, the ref will add as much time as is needed to make up for breaks in the action. So even when the clock says it’s over, there is still usually some time left to play.

Goals: A ball in the back of the net is worth the equivalent of 20-40 points in a basketball game, so players understandably treat them like Gollum from “The Hobbit” — they’re “precious.” If you see a Menace goal, go crazy with joy. Everyone else will.

Who plays what and where: Soccer has three primary position groups: defenders, midfielders and attackers. Unlike football positions, the players are located primarily as their positional designation indicates. Attackers attack the opposing team’s goal. Defenders attempt to thwart attackers. Midfielders are located primarily in the center portion of the field, assisting both attackers and defenders on their team. There are further breakdowns of each positional category, but for now that’s all you need to know.

Don’t worry. Be happy: When you see your favorite player writhing in agony and holding his knee, don’t sweat it. He might be faking. In soccer it’s called a “flop,” and it’s pretty routine. If the ref falls for the rouse, a penalty shot (PK) could be awarded, and PKs are quite valuable  — players make approximately 85 percent of penalty shots.

One last thing: These players don’t use reversible jerseys, nor is a team mother to serve orange wedges at halftime. This is big-time soccer played by good role models who you won’t find on the police blotter. If you’re a sports geek, or if you’re a family person looking for an inexpensive night out, this might be the place for you. CV

 

 

SCHEDULE

Date         Time        Opponent

Saturday, May 21    7:30 p.m. vs Chicago Fire U23

Saturday, May 28    5 p.m.      @ St. Louis Lions

Saturday, June 4      7:30 p.m. vs Kokomo Mantis FC

Friday, June 10       6:30 p.m. @ Thunder Bay Chill

Saturday, June 11    6:30 p.m. @ Thunder Bay Chill

Tuesday, June 14    7 p.m.      @ WSA Winnipeg

Saturday, June 18    7:30 p.m. vs St. Louis Lions

Friday, June 24       7:30 p.m. vs WSA Winnipeg

Saturday, June 25    7:30 p.m. vs WSA Winnipeg

Tuesday, June 28    11 a.m.    @ Chicago Fire U23

Friday, July 1          6 p.m.      @ Kokomo Mantis FC

Saturday, July 2      6 p.m.      @ Kokomo Mantis FC

Saturday, July 9      7:30 p.m. vs Thunder Bay Chill

Friday, July 15        7:30 p.m. vs Toledo United FC

Saturday, July 16    7:30 p.m. vs St. Louis Lions

 

Menace history

                The first ball was booted in 1994, and in its 22-year history, the Menace has made the PDL playoffs 13 times, including regular season championships in both 2002 and 2014. In 2005, the Menace brought home a tournament championship.

                The Des Moines Menace is also a youth soccer club. According to Homonoff, there are more than 1,000 local Des Moines Menace youth players ages 3 to 19.

                The Menace’s only retired jersey is of Tomas Boltnar, No. 21. The franchise’s all-time leading scorer played from 2002-2008. He earned PDL Most Valuable Player honors in 2002 and 2003.

Menace players drafted in 2016

Chris Hellmann (2015) – 29th overall, Vancouver Whitecaps

Vincent Cicciarelli (2015) – 60th overall, Columbus Crew

Chase Minter (2011) – 21st overall, Columbus Crew

Jacob Speed (2014) – 78th overall, Dallas

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