The Nashville Metros make their first playoff appearance since 1998 when they take the Ezell Park pitch at 7 p.m. today against the Milwaukee Rampage.
That postseason reappearance was postponed a week following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and like others inside the sports world and out, it's been difficult to focus on the task at hand with the tragedy that has held America in its grip for the past week. Each club plans special pregame ceremonies during the first-round series that will reflect upon the tragedies and allow fans a chance to offer help to those stricken by the attacks, according to team officials.
"There is a somber mood in our camp these days, as what should have been the highlight of our season has turned into a struggle to stay focused on what we need to do to beat Milwaukee. Our thoughts and prayers have been with the many thousands who have died in what is probably the worst tragic event of our lives," head coach Brett Mosen said. "We, like many, have had our discussions about the nightmare on September 11th, but all the discussions in the world do not bring any sense to what has happened recently. At a time like this you just do what little you can to help, and as a team we went to the Red Cross (on Saturday) and gave blood, which made us all feel we helped the best we can right now."
"We had a couple of days off to reflect on what happened and give everybody a chance to start dealing with this tragedy," forward Jeff Houser said. "Now, we've gone back to work and we've got to focus on our jobs, but it's tough. Everybody's just getting ready for what we have to do.
"Playing games is our job. Others had to go back to their jobs this week, to get back to their desks. We had to get back to playing."
The team found out about the terrorist attacks while still on the practice field, and like many others went to watch the terrible events of last Tuesday unfold on television. The A-League promptly postponed the start of playoffs to this week as a show of respect for the victims and because of logistical concerns that arose in the aftermath of the attacks.
Now the Metros take on the Rampage in a home-and-home, aggregate-goal series after both sides finished the regular season with 14-10-2, 63-point marks. Milwaukee is seeded eighth and Nashville ninth in the 12-team tourney because of the Rampage's 4-0 win over the Metros at Milwaukee County Sports Complex on Aug. 11.
The players feel that more than just the date and location of the match have changed, according to Houser. "We just have to go out there and play our game. We had injuries and felt tired after traveling up there. I think it'll be a different team for Milwaukee to face this time when they come down here," he said. Both teams have definitely played well at home - the Metros are 9-3-1 at Ezell in 2001 while the Rampage are 10-3 at the MCSC.
The star striker knows that his team is rested, although hopefully not rusty, after a lengthy layoff. "I didn't make the trip to Charleston (for the Sept. 8 regular season finale), along with some others. It's been almost three weeks since some of us have played, and that's a long time to go without a game," Houser said.
Nashville will have all roster players available for the first time since early in the 2001 season. Milwaukee has a healthy Digital Takawira, however, and that has often spelled trouble for opponents. He has struggled with injuries this season, playing in only 20 of the team's 26 games, but still finished No. 5 in league scoring (13 goals, 4 assists: 30 points) after a 2000 campaign where he was the league's MVP and tied the Charleston Battery's Paul Conway for the scoring championship.
Fenger and Houser finished the season at Nos. 3 and 4 in league scoring. Fenger (14 goals, 6 assists: 34 points) and Houser (14 goals, 5 assists: 33 points) were passed on the last day of the regular season by the Charlotte Eagle's Dustin Swinehart (18 goals, 3 assists: 39 points), who scored four goals in the Eagles' season-ending 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Silverbacks. Conway (22 goals, 3 assists: 47 points) took the scoring crown alone this year.
Takawira's play has provided scoring opportunities for other Rampage players like David Hayes (6 goals, 6 assists: 18 points), Igor Soso (6 goals, 5 assists: 17 points) and Steve Butcher (6 goals, 2 assists: 14 points). Milwaukee has also had a solid defense to aid goalkeeper Dan Popik (9-8-1, 1.34 goals-against-average).
Fenger, Jaymi Bailey (whose 11 assists led the league this year), Steve Kraemer, Andreas Maier and Jeff "Nacho" Dominguez had a taste of A-League playoff experience last year while playing for the Hampton Roads Mariners, which recently acquired Nashville's A-League franchise rights for next season. They lost to Richmond in the first round.
First-year starter Cole Burgman (9-8-2, 1.75 gaa) is expected to be in goal for tonight's game. The Nashville keeper was tenth in victories and ninth in saves (93) during his rookie year in the league.
"This could be our last week together. If you lose it's over. We don't want our season to end right now and everyone will be doing everything in their power to get to the quarterfinals against (the) Richmond (Kickers)," Mosen said. "And it's a chance for the boys to break one more record before we all bow out of Nashville since the Metros have never got past the first round stages of the playoffs."
In 1997 Milwaukee upset Nashville in the first round on the way to winning the A-League championship. In 1998, the New Orleans Storm upset Nashville 3-2 in a first-round shootout.
The Rampage has been in the playoffs every year since the modern A-League started in 1997 except 1999, when the squad finished just two points out of a playoff berth. Milwaukee won the league championship in 1997 despite finishing the regular season 14-14. After beating the Metros that year they went on to defeat the New Orleans Storm, the Vancouver 86ers and the Carolina Dynamo to cop the league crown.
Each of the playoff series except the league championship contest is a two-game, home-and-home competition with the team scoring the most goals in the series advancing to the next round. Golden-goal overtime periods (followed by a shootout if necessary) would determine the winner if the goal totals were even following the two regulation matches.
Milwaukee hosts the second game of the series Saturday at 3 p.m. CT. For Metros players, a 14-hour drive awaits on Thursday as earlier plans for a plane trip to Wisconsin were scuttled after last week's events. "It's not easy to take such a long bus trip and go play, but it's certainly understandable under the circumstances," Houser said.
Nashville vs. Milwaukee
Tonight, 7:00 p.m.