Posted on July 4, 2013 at 11:48 AM
Thursday, Jan 9 at 1:15 PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Their mettle tested after going win-less in the first month of the NASL season, the Scorpions closed ranks and tried to stay upbeat as they worked to find their groove.
It wasn't easy, as coach Tim Hankinson and his players would attest, but San Antonio's North American Soccer League team overcame its slow start with a combination of patience, perseverance and an improvement in execution on both ends of the field.
The Scorpions (5-4-2, 17 points) host the Carolina RailHawks (5-1-5, 20 points) in a pivotal NASL match at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Toyota Field.
The Scorpions, who have won four consecutive matches and five of their last six, can win the NASL spring title if they beat the RailHawks by at least three goals and the Atlanta Silverbacks lose or tie at Minnesota on Thursday night.
Carolina beat the RailHawks 5-2 in Cary, N.C., on May 11.
"Game in and game out, they've been the best team in the league this year," Hankinson said Wednesday. "That in itself is a difficult task for us. We are a much better team than we were when we last played them. They attack and hit you very quickly. I think making sure that we react well to those moments as a group is going to be essential.
"But again, we've got to play attacking soccer as well because getting three goals has not been our trademark throughout the year. Getting three goals is a tough task. It's a perfect July 4th game because we're going to need fireworks to make that happen."
Scorpions stumbled out to 0-3-2 start
Hampered by injuries and off-field issues that included visa problems for their foreign players, the Scorpions had a rough preseason that carried over into the early part of the regular season.
"It was frustrating," striker Hans Denissen said. "We knew we could play better. It was just a matter of things clicking and turning around."
San Antonio was 0-3-2 before it beat Fort Lauderdale 3-1 on May 18.
"Mostly, we just needed time," Hankinson said, responding to a question about what the Scorpions did to get out of their early-season skid. "We did not have a good preseason. That means we didn't have quality games to test our ideas and players. When the season started, we weren't ready. And it was that simple.
"It's taken the first two months of the season and real competitive games with three points on the line to finally get everyone on the same page. Finally, everyone has blended and supports each other, trusts each other, knows the game plan. They're ready to win now, whereas they weren't ready early."
While the Scorpions have good team chemistry now, they struggled to come together early in the season.
"It's taking very strong individual personalities and wills, and sometimes as a coach you've got to bend steel," Hankinson said. "Everyone has taken a step in the right direction to put the team first and that's why we're playing great team ball and winning football."
Hankinson's steady leadership key factor in success
The Scorpions are led by Denissen, who was named NASL Player of the Week after he scored the go-ahead goal and had an assist in the team's 4-1 win over Fort Lauderdale last Saturday. Denissen has six goals this season, which ranks No. 2 in the league.
"Hans has two special qualities," Hankinson said. "One, he can drop into the midfield and help create and build the attacks. He's also got the ability to go forward and find a goal. What we've done to help encourage him is to try to prevent him from doing the midfield work. He's got to trust others to build it. That means that his runs in play are toward the goal."
A native of Tilburg, Netherlands, Denissen scored four goals and had four assists for the Scorpions last year.
"We had a rough preseason,” Denissen said. “We needed more games to play up to our potential. I always thought we could get on the kind of roll we're on now. We have a lot of good players, even on our bench.
“You can't slack off. If you do, somebody can take your job as a starter. Even in training, you have to try to score goals. It's really good that we have that competition on our team. That brings us to a higher level."
Hankinson, 58, was praised by his players for keeping a steady hand on the rudder during the Scorpions' slow start.
"You cannot dwell on how things are going badly," he said. "You can't dwell on how the fans feel. You can't dwell on are you going to keep your job? We're contracted to go out every day and work with our guys to give them the best possible chance to win on Saturday.
"That's where the focus has to stay. You can't get overly frustrated. You get angry when you miss opportunities to get results. Clearly, you have to stay focused on the job at hand."