Friday, October 5, 2012
When he signed for the Syracuse Silver Knight in 2011, Nelson Santana brought a small amount of professional indoor soccer experience with him. The 33-year-old had previously played in the MISL in 2005-06 for the California Cougars, facing teams such as the Milwaukee Wave and Baltimore Blast.
But the MISL Santana returned to proved to have progressed far beyond the one he had played in five years before.
“Yeah, there are a lot of good players, from the goalies to the defenders and midfielders and forwards, everyone can play now,” Santana said by phone recently. “Before, there were guys that didn’t know much about the game, but now it’s catching on, and a lot of people have the basic skills, so it surprised me a lot.”
Not that Santana was out of place. Providing veteran leadership in the Silver Knights’ first season, he led the league’s defensemen with 46 points, including 16 goals. Adding 34 blocks at the defensive end, second on the team to Ryan Pierce, Santana’s strong two-way game drew admiration from the league’s coaches as he was named to the MISL All-League First Team.
It also drew attention from one of the coaches he had come to admire in his first stint in the league. After the season ended, Milwaukee Wave coach Keith Tozer got in contact with Santana and invited him to training camp for the U.S. National Futsal Team.
“It was great,” Santana said of the call-up. “I have so much respect for Coach Keith Tozer. I remember back then we used to play against each other, he’s a very competitive guy, and it was amazing when he gave me a call and asked me to do this.”
Santana was named to the final squad that competed at CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying in Guatemala, joining a number of fellow MISL players on the squad. While the team was unable to qualify for the finals, Santana enjoyed representing his country, and getting to compete alongside players he’d battled the previous winter.
“Yeah, it was cool,” Santana said. “It was almost like friends, we had gone up against each other, and there wasn’t any grudge, we just worked hard. Playing against these guys, who are very good, it was a great experience, and getting to know Coach Tozer off the field, being a friend, it was a great experience.”
Santana spent the rest of his offseason at his home in California, coaching youth soccer, and also visiting family in Colombia. Now, though, he’s back in upstate New York to prepare for the Silver Knights’ second season. Syracuse plays the first game of the upcoming MISL season as they host the Chicago Soul on Friday, November 2.
That’s followed by a visit from the Rochester Lancers, and the resumption of a rivalry that quickly heated up in the inaugural season for both clubs a year ago. The Silver Knights took a dramatic 16-15 victory in their first-ever meeting, and from then on the two teams battled back and forth for a place in the playoffs. Santana said the proximity of the two cities helped the rivalry grow as quickly as it did.
“It’s fun when the two cities get together,” he said. “There’s a lot of fans that come down from Rochester to Syracuse and when we go to Rochester there are some fans that travel there, so it’s pretty cool to see the fans that are willing to travel to support their team and it makes it fun, it makes it interesting.”
The Lancers got the upper hand at the end of last season, edging out the Silver Knights for the final place in the MISL playoffs. With a good core of players returning, and the addition of forward Matt Clare, Santana has his sights set firmly on earning the club’s first playoff berth this winter.
“The main thing right now for me is to help as much as I can to help the team get to the playoffs,” Santana said. “That’s my goal this year, to help as much as I can from the perspective of defending better, to trying to score or assist my teammates, but the main thing is to make the playoffs.”