MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Risers will be very happy to be playing in front of a friendly audience on Saturday night after opening the season with a pair of disappointing losses on the road.

The support from the passionate Muskegon fans will be particularly important, because the Risers will be playing the Iowa Demon Hawks, a team reportedly loaded down with major league soccer talent.

The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Muskegon’s Trinity Health Arena.

The Risers opened their season with an 11-6 loss to the Demon Hawks last Saturday. While he wasn’t making excuses for his team’s performance, Risers coach Michael Vollmer said part of the challenge was that the Demon Hawks have a handful of high quality non-American players who would ordinarily be competing at the Major Arena Soccer League 1 level – a step above the MASL 2, the Risers’ league – but have been held up by visa issues.

The Risers’ Michael Schmitt battles for control of the ball last season. 

They are allowed to play in the MASL 2 because it’s a semipro league, so the Demon Hawks’ management swooped in and added them to the team.

Vollmer said he’s actually happy to be competing against those elite players again this weekend, because the experience will help the Risers improve and give them a high goal to shoot for.

“I think their team owner is going to fly them in for the game,” Vollmer said. “I want to play them again. It only makes us better and sets the standard for what we want to become. We tied them 4-4 in the second half on Saturday, which was a good benchmark to build on.”

Vollmer said the always boisterous home crowd in Muskegon will be a big equalizer.

“Obviously this is a date we’ve had circled on the calendar for a while,” Vollmer said about the home opener. “It’s my first home game since I’ve become the head coach, and the guys love playing in the arena with the backing of our amazing fans.

“We’re going to do everything we can do to put a good product on the field.”

Risers goalie Akani Mayambu gets ready to make a save during a game last season.

Muskegon fans have gained a reputation around the league, and the semipro soccer world in general, for their passion and loyalty, and the Risers could use a good dose of that, Vollmer said.

The Ironmen played both the Demon Hawks and the Iowa Raptors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last weekend. The Demon Hawks list their official home as Des Moines, Iowa, but apparently were not able to secure dates to use the arena in that city this season.

There weren’t very many Iowa folks in the building for either game last weekend, so the always exciting atmosphere at Trinity Health Arena will be invigorating for both teams, but especially the Risers, according to the coach.

“They (the Demon Hawks) are going to be like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ and that might help them a bit, but it will help us an incredible amount,” Vollmer said.

Anatomy of a tough weekend

The Risers got off to a slow start in Saturday’s season opener against the Demon Hawks, falling behind 7-1 at halftime. They played better in the second half, with each team scoring four goals. Brandon Edwards led Muskegon with two goals. Salvador Nunez, Daniel Arrellano, Francisco Calabrese and Ryan Wagenmaker each scored once.

“We definitely struggled in the first half,” Vollmer said. “We were better in the second half, but we had dug ourselves too much of a hole. We didn’t have enough composure to control the play in our own defensive end.”

Muskegon got off to a hot start on Sunday against the Iowa Raptors, leading 3-0 after one period and 4-1 at halftime. Unfortunately that lead evaporated when the Risers were outscored 6-0 in the third quarter, and they ended up losing 8-6.

TJ Ifaturoti moves the ball up the field for the Risers in a game last season. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Muskegon’s Miguel Flores, who led the league with 21 goals last season before he was injured, scored in the contest. Edwards, Nunez, Kyle Crain, Moses Crawford and Cesar Alayo also found the back of the net.

“We got off to a really good start,” Vollmer said. “We knew they would make some changes in the second half and pressure us more, and we had a game plan for that, but we didn’t execute in the biggest moments.

“It went from 4-1 to 7-4, all in the third quarter. I could tell we were emotionally drained and physically drained from playing the previous night. It was just a matter of making some mental errors. In the first few games you’re going to get a bit of that.”

What got into Edwards?

Edwards, an Orchard View High School graduate and a favorite with Risers fans, is a defender who considers himself a defensive specialist – but suddenly he’s leading the team with three goals after two games.

Fans remember Edwards’ dramatic shorthanded goal in the playoff semifinals last season that gave Muskegon a temporary two-goal lead over powerful Cleveland. That showed everyone he can put the ball in the net, but it’s just not something he’s done at this level very often in the past.

“He had a spurt over the weekend that was good to see,” Vollmer said. “His offensive skills are probably not conducive to him being an attacking player, but he has such a high motor, he’s always playing hard, non-stop, so defenders have a hard time guarding him.”

Muskegon’s Brandon Edwards scores a big goal in a playoff game last season.