It’s always the quiet ones. Last year the Florida Tropics rose from inconsequential also rans to Eastern Conference Champions thanks to a free agency splurge. This year it only took the St. Louis Ambush six days to “win” free agency, by signing former Milwaukee Wave forward Max Ferdinand (ranked #1 on the 4th Annual MASL Top 40 Free Agents List) to a two year contract with a third year mutual option.
St. Louis was already one of the busiest teams this offseason before MASL free agency began on July 1. The Ambush, who had previously seen key talent leave town on a yearly basis, got started on April 7 when they announced a five-year extension for Head Coach Hewerton Moreira. The announcement indicated Hewerton would relocate to St. Louis, signifying his commitment to the team and the team’s commitment to succeeding on the field after seven straight losing seasons.
Two weeks later they re-signed JT Thomas, last year’s breakout leading scorer, to a three-year contract.
On the third day of free agency they acquired defender Sam Guernsey from the Baltimore Blast, and last week they brought back Richard Schmermund who also last played with the Blast.
But the biggest acquisition any team will likely make this offseason is the Ferdinand signing. Ferdinand is a four-time All-League First Team forward, who has finished in the top three in assists each of the last four years. He spent the last five seasons with the Milwaukee Wave, helping to lead them to a Ron Newman Cup title in 2018-19.
So how did St. Louis pull it off? “I was fortunate to have a lot of very appealing offers during my free agency,” Ferdinand said. “It wasn’t an easy choice. But St. Louis felt like the right move at this time. Shelly Clark made the transition easy, and I believe in her vision for the team and specifically the players. Leaving Milwaukee was a tough decision, but it was time for me to move on and seek other challenges and other opportunities. After putting in five years with the club it was time for me to explore other options.”
“If you look at Max’s history in the game, you can see a trend,” said Ambush owner Shelly Clark. “He plays with a team, wins a championship, and then looks for a new challenge. He did that with Baltimore and now Milwaukee. From my perspective, I believe that we’ve spent the past few years laying the foundation and we are to a point where we are true contenders, and Max found that appealing. Max has a long history with Hewerton and knows a lot of the Ambush players because we play the Wave and Kansas City more than any other team. St Louis is a great city with lots of opportunities within youth soccer that help to provide year round stability for our players. For me, it’s not just about what happens during the season, or the hours that the guys are reporting for practice and games, it’s about them as people and making sure that they know they are welcomed, wanted, appreciated and are a part of our Ambush family. I believe in what we are doing here in St Louis, and Max wants to be a part of it, too.”
Hewerton and Ferdinand both spent big chunks of their careers with the Wave, but they were never actually teammates there. “Me and Hewerton have had a history playing against each other for a long time, but we became friends off the field as well,” Max explains. “We do have Milwaukee in common, and now that we’re on the same side I’m looking forward to it.”
Around this time last year the Ambush were losing two young studs in Zach Reget and Justin Stinson, two players who could have been the face of the Ambush for the next decade.
The Ambush’s fortunes seemed to change, however, in December when Jeff Locker was introduced as a new partner in the ownership group. Four days later the team signed well-regarded outdoor player Qudus Lawal. That signing ultimately didn’t work out, but other acquisitions followed, including trades for Milwaukee defender Jonatan Santos, and Kansas City Comets forward Anthony Grant. Locker assumed the title of General Manager in March.
“Anytime someone new steps into a situation, there are bound to be changes as new ideas, visions, and goals become infused into an organization,” Clark says of Locker. “Jeff has several specific goals for the team and in order to obtain those goals, significant actions had to occur and are still occurring. He is an engaged partner. He has brought in sponsorships and ticket sales, which is affording us the opportunity to act differently. I believe that his involvement and support will be key to the development and success of this organization.”
Ferdinand, a year ago, was celebrating his second career championship (his first came in 2012-13 with the Blast). The Wave were unable to defend their title due to the COVID-19-related suspension and eventual cancellation of the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
Ferdinand was part of the MASL’s most feared tandem with Ian Bennett. “Ian and I constantly challenged each other to become stronger players, and as a duo we made each other stronger as well as our team,” said Ferdinand. “Our connection on the field was natural, and we pushed each other to become better players. You can’t create that as an individual. MVP status was never a motivating factor, we worked as a team to get to the championship and I know Ian felt the same way. You never know, you might see us on the field together in the future.”
Bennett, who famously signed a “lifetime contract” with the Wave offers further intrigue. “I still want to play with him and I’ll make it happen,” Bennett teased.
Ferdinand is looking forward to seeing what develops on the field in St. Louis, but he’s not looking for an instant connection. “The only way you can find chemistry is to get back training as a team,” he says. “I already met a lot of the guys off the field and they’re great guys. I think having good chemistry off the field is going to help us on the field tremendously, but the only way you can find that is to get to work and make those connections. But to be honest, a cohesive team works together offensively and defensively. Falling in sync with another player happens organically, but I approach my strategy as an offensive player based on the team as a whole.”
There’s no question the Ambush are headed in the right direction, coming off the best two seasons in franchise history, and Max will make a significant impact. The question is when or if there will be a 2020-21 MASL season in the Land of COVID-19. Clark is confident there will be.
“We will have a season, but I anticipate that it will look differently than in years past,” she says. “I can’t speak to every team’s individual circumstances, but I’ve been meeting with Family Arena and have already devised options for concerns regarding capacity and safe social distancing. Our arena actually hosted several high school graduations this month, one of which I attended. They checked temperatures as folks went into the arena, people wore masks, they adhered to the seating closures, they waited patiently as arena staff released us upon conclusion section by section, their ventilation system wasn’t recycling air, and sanitizing stations throughout the arena gave everyone plenty of opportunity to keep their hands sanitized. Since our arena can hold 9,500, even at 33% capacity we would still be able to safely have 3,000 fans at our games.
“We may not have the traditional MASL season, but teams and owners will work together to ensure that games are played and a safe experience can be enjoyed by all.
“I think we are all wanting to get back to some version of ‘normal’, which for players means playing and training; for staff, it’s planning the game themes and talking with groups. We are all ready for soccer to be back.”
Ambush fans can hardly wait.