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Third time's a charm for Kitsap Pumas?
In its first two seasons of existence, the Kitsap Pumas have earned consecutive playoff berths, having advanced to the conference finals of the Premier Development League both times.
They are two years removed from a division title. But for this team, it’s not enough.
“I really don’t think any of us will be happy with anything less than a championship,” defender Taylor Hyde said last weekend at one of the Pumas’ final training sessions before the May 1 opener against Vancouver.
After winning the Northwest Division crown in 2009, the Pumas made another run at a national championship last season, which ended in defeat to eventual champion Portland. The title capped off an undefeated season for the Timbers, the first in league history, while the Pumas watched their hopes dwindle.
“It puts a sour taste in our mouth,” Hyde said. “We’re all very passionate about this game, so the motivation right now is to get back to the playoffs and overcome that hurdle.”
Despite their frustrations from twice missing out on the championship game, the Pumas are looking to the future.
Peter Fewing, who won two national championships with Seattle University in 1997 and 2004, returns for his second season as head coach of the Pumas. He led practice last weekend at Gordon Field with the same mentality he’s carried since he started coaching – take it one game a time.
“We have to put our focus solely on today,” he said. “It’s interesting, everybody wants those titles, we all want them, but they don’t come easy. You don’t get championships until you actually play in the title game.”
Fewing said Saturday that the Pumas are currently working on team unity, fitness and conditioning in the final days of the preseason. The longtime coach is also looking for direction from players. The team has undergone roster changes since last season, recently signing eight rookies.
The turnover is typical for teams in the league for players under 25 years old.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” said Pumas Executive Director Ben Pecora.
Among the new faces is assistant coach Justin Stoddard, who played for the old Seattle Sounders club in 1996 and 1997. Stoddard, originally from Port Orchard, is happy to reunite with the sport by helping coach the Pumas.
“It’s just about being a part of soccer again and being able to coach,” he said. “The goals for the team haven’t changed, so it would be nice to get to the title game in my first year.”
The Pumas’ road back to the playoffs will start by playing three of its first four games at Bremerton Memorial Stadium. A five-game road trip, which includes games against Tacoma and Portland, will follow through mid-June.
In addition, the division now includes two teams that feed into Major League Soccer franchises. Starting this season, the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps will compete in the professional league, while still hosting its squads in the development circuit.
The recent news from Major League Soccer means the Pumas will likely face new-look teams in Portland and Vancouver for a fight in the Northwest Division.
“They’re stronger than they were in the past based on the MLS fact alone,” Hyde said. “They’re going to start being looked at by the pros. Every game is tough, but I’m sure Portland will be the obstacle for us getting back to the playoffs.”
The inclusion of two Major League Soccer clubs in the division only confirms that Kitsap needs to focus on the present, Fewing said.
“We can’t look at what we’ve done and say we’re going to have success this year because of it,” he added. “There are no guarantees.”
Looking ahead to Vancouver
The Pumas’ regular-season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps is scheduled for Sunday on the road. Game time is set for 4 p.m. at Terry Fox Field in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Kitsap defeated Vancouver 6-2 to earn a playoff berth last summer. The two teams earned a 1-1 draw in their only other regular-season meeting in 2010.
Fewing said he’s expecting a more physical, Canadian style of play from the Whitecaps in their upcoming opener.
He also added that the rivalry has changed now that Vancouver is linked to Major League Soccer.
“They’re going to come out guns a blazing,” he said. “Vancouver is hard and intense, so we’re going to have to be ready.”
When asked about his team’s chances, the Pumas head coach said that regardless of stats, he likes leading a team with a chip on the shoulder, something Kitsap will carry until the final game of the year.
“We’ve got to believe we’re the team that has something to prove,” Fewing said. “We’re going to be the underdogs whenever we step on that field, regardless of what our record says.”
Pumas sign nine players
The Pumas reached an agreement with nine players in advance of the May 1 season opener, including three rookies, the club announced April 26.
Defender Steve Mohn, forward Robby Christner, midfielder Elliott Fauske, defender Graham Davidson and midfielder Manny Hernandez all signed with the team last week. The Pumas also agreed to terms with defender Kendell McFayden, midfielder Chris Andre, goalkeeper Zac Lubin and defender Sam Roca. Andre, Lubin and Roca are rookies.
Mohn and Christner return to the Pumas, while Fauske, Davidson and Hernandez are newcomers. Mohn was the first player to sign with the franchise when it started three years ago.
Fauske will play for his fourth Premier Development League team, having already competed for Spokane, Yakima and Cascade (Ore.). He also played for the Pumas’ indoor team last winter.
Davidson, a former Olympic College soccer player, competed in England last year. Hernandez is from Guadalajara, Mexico.