Pumas looking to improve on first-season success

Kitsap Pumas midfielder Tony Kerr, center, celebrates with teammates after the team’s playoff victory over the Seattle Wolves at Bremerton Memorial Stadium last July. - Wesley Remmer/File Photo
Kitsap Pumas midfielder Tony Kerr, center, celebrates with teammates after the team’s playoff victory over the Seattle Wolves at Bremerton Memorial Stadium last July.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/File Photo

The Kitsap Pumas won’t officially begin the 2010 soccer season until Saturday, but the second-year club already looks primed to repeat as division champions.

The Pumas (6-0-1) shut out six of the seven teams they faced during the preseason, which they concluded Monday with a 2-0 victory over Seattle Pacific University. The team enters Saturday’s regular-season opener having outscored opponents 13-2.

“I think we’re going to have a bit of a bull’s-eye on our back right now,” Pumas coach Peter Fewing said. “I don’t have any problem with that.”

The Pumas finished the 2009 season atop the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League’s Northwest Division, with a record of 13-2-3, and reached the league’s national quarterfinals before being ousted by California’s Ventura County Fusion, the eventual champion.

Despite the success, Pumas owner Robin Waite chose not to renew the contract of head coach John Wedge, a Bainbridge Island resident who built the team’s 2009 roster from scratch with help from the front office.

In November the team hired Fewing, the former head coach of Seattle University’s men’s soccer team and a two-time collegiate national champion. Fewing realizes he has big shoes to fill, but is already living up to expectations.

“There’s some pressure on the coach, I can tell you that,” Fewing said. “I’ve never been in a program where I’m following a season where we’ve done quite so well.”

The club solidified its roster over the offseason by adding a herd of new players. Among the additions was Daniel Scott, a 2009 national finalist for defender of the year; former Bahamian national player Cameron Hepple; and Nik Besagno, the No. 1 pick in Major League Soccer’s 2005 SuperDraft.

Former Oregon State University star Robby Christner, a first-year player, led the club with five goals in the preseason. He said combining the old and new players has not been a problem; the group began to gel almost immediately.

“Maybe three or four days into the tryouts, I felt like I was already fitting into the team,” Christner said. “The team’s full of good guys that are really easy to talk to and really easy to get along with. Everybody’s really cool with each other and welcoming.”

That chemistry has translated to success on the field.

The only two goals the Pumas have allowed this season came in a 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers of the United Soccer Leagues First Division. Both goals were scored on set pieces — a corner kick and a free kick.

“We don’t concede goals,” Christner said. “Our defense is stellar right now. That’s a huge part. You can’t lose a game if you’re putting zeros on the board defensively.”

Although camaraderie and talent are valuable assets, a large part of the Pumas’ success may be due to the club’s ability to offer players a rare commodity in the 68-team Premier Development League: a paycheck.

That fact has given some of the league’s top players incentive to join or remain with the team.

“Our guys are getting paid in a league where that’s not happening for everybody,” Fewing said.

In addition to salaries, the players are reaping the benefits of a lively fan base.

“The crowd is very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable,” Fewing said. “They’ve seen us score some goals, so they have reason to be excited.”

The Pumas averaged more than 300 fans a game at Bremerton Memorial Stadium during the preseason, said Fewing, who expects that number to climb once the regular season begins.

A repeat of last year’s success would help the Pumas’ attendance numbers. More than 2,300 fans came out for the team’s final home playoff game last year.

“The team did well last year, and the goal is to improve on that,” Fewing said. “I’d like to go further in the playoffs, we’d like to go further in the U.S. Open Cup. We’re just going to have to be very smart about how we go and just not get ahead of ourselves.”

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