CLEVELAND — Professional soccer returned to Northeast Ohio in 2020 as the reborn Cleveland Crunch became an official member of Major Arena Soccer League’s second division.
The Crunch last played in 2001. The team competed in multiple leagues, winning three titles in the 1990s as a member of the National Professional Soccer League.
Picking up where they left off, the Crunch secured MASL II’s championship in their first year rolling to a 9-3 record in a condensed season.
The club’s monumental return to soccer was punctuated by MVP honors, both league-wide and playoff, for Crunch goaltender Marijo Musa. But if you’d ask the 25-year-old net minder a year ago if he could’ve predicted the Crunch’s rapid ascent to the top of the league, he would’ve said he had other plans.
“I didn’t think I’d be playing in this league, let alone win the cup,” Musa said.
Musa has been playing soccer since he was 11-years-old. A late starter in the soccer world, he quickly became wrapped up in the game.
“My brothers were always playing soccer, so I kind of played with them in the backyard fun, Musa said. “Anyone that’s played soccer and enjoyed it for what it is, you just develop such a passion for it.”
That passion stuck with him as he got older as Musa began to elevate his level of play. After playing with Croatia Cleveland and Cleveland Soccer Club, he went on to play in a professional academy in Mexico.
“It was an incredible experience. Just three years before that I wasn’t playing soccer,” Musa said. “To move to a different country, not being able to speak the language. I had no friends, no family. It was tough at times.”
But as the saying goes, tough times don’t last, tough people do.
“When you get thrown into the fire, whether it’s in soccer or in life, you're kind of thrown into the fire pit, you learn and adapt quickly,” Musa said. “I think it helps you learn and grow as a player and a person.”
From there, he trained with the United States Under-17 National Team and earned an invitation as one of the top 50 players in the U.S. to the Nike Academy at Nike HQ.
When it came time to go to college, Musa had scholarship offers from Cleveland State University and N.C. State University. After a low ACT score, he took extra courses to improve his standing. The tests worked but didn’t yield the ultimate result he wanted.
“My scores got terminated, Musa sad. “The NCAA said there’s no way you can go from this score to that score in such a short time frame.”
Musa ultimately lost his scholarship offers, and the game appeared to be slipping away.
“It was definitely heartbreaking. That’s the only way to put it,” he said. “From a financial standpoint, I wasn’t in a position to ask my parents for $80,000-$100-000 to go to school, So when I had that scholarship, it was a no-brainer.”
Despite not landing on a team immediately, Musa never let the game stray too far away. Soccer is a small but big community and there are a lot of players that know of one-another.
“We grew up playing with each other and against each other all the time,” Musa said.
So, when Eric Davis and Luciano Ruscitto, two managing partners for the recently resuscitated Crunch, approached Musa with a chance to play, he jumped at the opportunity.
“There’s certain things in life that you're going to be able to control the outcome of and there’s certain things that are just going to happen for whatever reason,” Musa said.
If Davis and Ruscitto cracked open the door, Musa kicked it down with his play. Leading the league in wins, goals against average and save percentage, he put the league on notice that he and the Crunch were for real.
“I told myself this is what I wanted as a game. I wanted to make the game enjoyable for myself and play professionally,” Musa said.
Musa backstopped the high-powered Crunch into the postseason, where they defeated the Amarillo Bombers and Wichita Wings to claim the championship.
“I just kept looking at the scoreboard, every five or ten seconds and it kept ticking down and ticking down. It was like ‘Oh my god we’re going to actually do this,’” he said.
Thanks to the pandemic, the Crunch get an extended stay with their trophy. Musa and team officials are awaiting details on the upcoming season and when they can defend their title.
Meanwhile, the Crunch will hold open tryouts for the 2021-2022 season on Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Soccer Sportsplex in North Olmsted.
Check-in will begin at 11:30 a.m. and tryouts will take place from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Individuals must be at least 17 years old on the day of tryouts to participate. The registration fee is $60 online and $80 at the door.
Cash-only payments will be accepted on the day of tryouts. All participants must show a valid ID at check-in.
To register visit www.theclevelandcrunch.com/tryouts.
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