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Even though the San Antonio Scorpions had a near-perfect first season in 2012, the first and last games of that amazing run could not have been more disastrous — first, they were trashed by Puerto Rico in the home opener, and then, after being ahead, lost the semifinal when their top scorer snapped, leaving the Scorpions one man down for more than half of the game.
Looking back on that fatidic April 15, 2012, game (a crushing 0-4 defeat), Coach Tim Hankinson waxes philosophical and remembers something about that game that caused to the Scorpions’ impressive turnaround: the moment when five Puerto Rican players wanted to fight one Scorpion and no teammate came to his rescue.
“Basically, Puerto Rico came in and bullied us and put a fight on the field and we didn’t show the right instinct that we were ready to fight for each other,” Hankinson told the Current during pre-season practice two weeks ago. “That next game, after long discussions with the team, we played Ft. Lauderdale and a fight broke out which actually turned us in the right direction and showed we were ready to fight for each other. That doesn’t mean every game becomes fisticuffs, but it means you’re in a battle, us against them, and you need almost a boxer’s mentality: ‘If I don’t throw punches first, then I’m going to be defending myself all game.’”
The Scorpions quickly bounced back: they took revenge in Puerto Rico, beating the Islanders 2-0, and went on to win the regular season in decisive fashion. Forward Pablo Campos was the league’s top scorer and MVP (20 goals), goalie Daryl Sattler won the Golden Glove (13 clean sheets in 24 games), and the team had the league’s best attendance: filling an average of 9,100 seats per game. Home games never attracted less than 7,000 fans, and 13,000 people, the Scorpions’ highest attendance, turned out for their home opener: A very impressive first run for any expansion team in any sport.
But things are different this year: Campos, Sattler, and several top players are gone, and Coach Hankinson had to restructure the team based on the Scorpions’ budget. After careful consideration, he chose a formula that worked well for the first-division Major League Soccer Chicago Fire in 1998: get the best available Eastern European players out there. They’re strong, they’re fast, and they’re cheap.
“The [Chicago Fire] opted for similar ideas, rather than mixing many different international spices and making it hard to blend everything,” Hankinson said. “We also considered the fact that this league moves players around different teams, they’re all trying to make more bucks, but it’s always the same players. No one is trying to reach out outside of the league to bring in new blood and to try things, and we decided to take the risk,” he continued. “It could be an average season, where things don’t come together the way you imagined it, or it could be a fantastic season. To win cups you have to gamble a little bit and hope you produce a team that wins games.”
Among the new players to watch this year: Six-foot-six-inch tall Croatian international defender Luka Vucko and Bosnian midfielder Edin Husic. “[Vucko] adds size, finesse, and experience,” said Hankinson. “He’s an enormously tall central defender, but he’s got feet like a South American. That’s a wonderful pick up for us.” According to Hankinson, Husic, who played in the Croatian first division and for the Bosnian national team, is “a very intelligent and technical midfielder, good on the ball, and has good character.”
Hankinson made a smart move this season, creating a better bench than in 2012. While Campos was the lone striker last season, the Scorpions now have several picks for center-forward. One of them is 24-year-old Serbian forward Nikola Vasilić, who is six foot three inches tall and played in first division teams in Croatia and Bosnia.
“We’re still getting to know all these new players, but we’re confident in them,” said Hankinson. “We may have lost some star players from last year, but now we have more options.”
Unlike last year, when fans had no clue as to who was playing for the other team, this time the Crocketteers (the Scorpions’ main fan base, one of four groups that include the Bexar County Casuals, The Alamo City Ultras, and Dragoons 78) will have a chance to jeer the main “enemies”: the Minnesota Stars (who beat the Scorpions in that infamous semifinal) and current champs the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The season starts April 6 in Minnesota, and comes home April 13 against Tampa Bay.
“This year we’ll have a few players our fans cheered for last year that will be playing on opposing teams, and that will build a whole different dynamic and anticipation to the match,” said Hankinson.
No match will be more anticipated than the home game against Minnesota on June 1: it will be the first time Pablo Campos, the Scorpions’ darling in 2012, plays against the team.
“How will our fans greet him? We’ll see,” said Hankinson with a mischievous smile.
On the one hand, the Scorpions owe Campos (and former goalie Sattler) a good portion of last year’s success. On the other hand, the Brazilian forward blew it in the semifinal against, precisely, Minnesota. First, he scored a goal that practically secured the Scorpions’ advance to the finals. But in the 21st minute he completely lost it, head-butting an opponent and earning a red card that forced the Scorpions to play with 10 men for most of the game. The exhausted Scorpions finally lost when Minnesota scored twice in the last minutes of the game. It was a heartbreaker.
Instead of apologizing after losing the semifinal, Campos, who couldn’t be reached for comment, left the team.
“You see this in every sport: when a team wins big, there’s going to be certain players who are looking to cash in, and Pablo was demanding a very big contract, beyond our means,” said Hankinson. “Our owner [Gordon Hartman] often says, ‘We have to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run.’
We can’t suddenly go from a sound business strategy to open up the account and pay whatever a player wants. We made him the very best offer we could but he had a tremendous offer from Minnesota and took it.”
So I asked the Crocketteers: How would you treat Campos when he comes back to SA on June 1?
“While we appreciated his skill and goal-scoring ability for the Scorpions in 2012, and still consider him a friend off the field, he is now part of the enemy,” said Rich Moore, the Crocketteers’ vice president, via email. “We simply cannot extend our loyalties to former Scorpions players who move to other NASL teams. He will receive the same treatment as any other visiting (enemy) player who dares to walk into our house. With his experience, Pablo will understand it’s nothing personal; he’s simply wearing the wrong jersey. Sorry, Pablo.”
The Scorpions’ season starts Saturday. Their first home game is against Tampa Bay, 7:30pm Sat April 13 at Toyota Field. Tickets and info at sascorpions.com or (210) 495-8686.
One key player that the Scorpions managed to retain, South African-Canadian Harmse is a solid, versatile player who can play defense and midfield. Besides leading the North American Soccer League’s best defense in 2012, he had one goal and two assists.
Former Mexican international Saavedra, 40, couldn’t quite keep up with the fast pace of the NASL, but he’s a good option on the bench and a key addition to the Scorpions’ coaching staff: he’s in charge of the reserve team and there’s a good chance he’ll retire after this season to concentrate on coaching.
For the new season, the Scorpions will play at the 8,500-seat state-of-the-art Toyota Field, specifically built for the team. Unlike last year’s home, Heroes Stadium, the pitch has natural grass and zero football lines — as it should be. “The era of using football stadiums for soccer is coming to an end,” said Coach Hankinson. “Natural grass is a game-changer,” said Javier Saavedra. “Artificial grass is harder and faster and the ball bounces in weird ways. And when it gets too hot, you have your feet on fire.”
Besides having the NASL’s best team of the regular season, San Antonio can brag about having the best second-division fans, period. The Crocketteers are the largest of four supporter groups that include the Bexar County Casuals, The Alamo City Ultras, and Dragoons 78. They helped the Scorpions attract 7,000 fans on a bad day, and over 13,000 on a good day, with an average of 9,000 fans per home game (the league’s best). “During the off season, we put in a lot of thought and time towards improving every aspect of our ‘game-day experience,’” said Rich Moore, the Crocketteers vice-president. “That includes our tailgate, our chants and songs, the drums, flags, banners, etc... If everything gets finalized, the fans will see and hear the Crocketteers 2.0 in Section 113.”