PALATINE – Christian Meza was planning on pursuing his business career, content with how far soccer had taken him. Aaron Nichols was just looking for a chance to see if the game he fell in love with as a kid could lead to a life as a playing profession.
But for the two former area high school standouts, receiving a call from the Chicago Soul – an expansion team in the Major Indoor Soccer League – has opened the door to a new opportunity. But the chance also means Meza, a former Northwest Herald Player of the Year at Dundee-Crown, and Nichols, a top-notch defender at Marian Central, have had to make adjustments.
Both played Division I college soccer – Meza at Bradley and Nichols at Wisconsin – contributing in their own ways. And although both grew up playing together in the outdoor game with the Chicago Magic club team, both are rookies in a professional indoor league that forces them to look at soccer in a different way.
“Outdoors, you can fabricate a goal and do this or that to make a goal happen but in indoor, anything can happen,” said Meza, who scored the first goal in Soul franchise history in a season-opening win last weekend in Syracuse. “Balls are bouncing left and right and you don’t have time to react to anything. It’s just a split-second chance that you have and that you have to take.”
Games in the MISL are played on hockey-rink sized fields bordered by boards topped by 8-foot-high plexiglass. Fourteen-foot wide goals are situated at each end of the field, creating a fast-paced game in which an average of 11 goals a game are scored. It’s an environment that helped make the Soul the right move for Meza and Nichols, who relish the idea of playing professionally so close to where they grew up.
The first-year franchise will play its home games at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates. The Soul open their home schedule Dec. 7 against the Rochester Lancers.
Only two games into the season – and into his new professional career – Nichols is invigorated by a league he’s just settling into. Last week in Syracuse and in Baltimore, Nichols entered arenas where youngsters stood five-deep along the boards and where even the opening team introductions gave him his first taste of soccer at the next level.
“You’re standing there and the lights go off, the music’s playing, the fireworks are going off and it was a really cool feeling,” Nichols said. “You realize, ‘All right, this is a professional environment,’ and that first four minutes of the game and it’s fast-paced and you’re getting hit. It was good to set the tone.”
Meza and Nichols understand that being professional rookies means they’ll have to learn on the fly. Meza spent this past summer with the Charlotte Eagles of the United Soccer League’s Pro Division, unsure of whether it would be the last stop of his playing career. But when the Soul called him offering Meza a tryout, he knew he couldn’t pass up the chance.
“This was the right fit,” Meza said. “It’s just a great feeling to being playing professional soccer in your hometown.”
Both players discover new things to learn on a daily basis while also fitting in with a team with plenty of veteran leadership. Even though they’re new, both have made a good early impression on Soul coach Manny Rojas, who likes what Meza and Nichols bring to their respective positions.
“This indoor [game] is a little bit crazy sometimes, but they’re good players,” Rojas said. “They showed at the beginning they can play and for me; it just gives me confidence that they will do the job.”
The unpredictable aspect of indoor soccer is one of the sport’s most marketable features, making promoting it in their hometowns an easy task. Nichols has already reached out to the White Lightning soccer club in Johnsburg while also pushing Chicago’s home opener next month to friends and family.
He doesn’t think it will take long for the game to catch on.
“Once people see it and experience the indoor game and see how similar it is to other sports they’re used to already, they’ll really like it,” Nichols said. “All it will take is one game.”