Amani Walker is probably the nicest guy on the Minnesota Stars team. He is soft-spoken, eloquent, always friendly, helpful, and just the very nicest guy out there. (At least off the pitch.) When he was asked what he wanted the fans to know about him, he said: “I’m just Amani, I guess. I just want to be nice and friends with everybody and get along with people. Not try to impose too much, I guess. It’s a weird question to ask.”
Maybe, but the new (and existing) fans want to know more about the players. We want to know who they are, aside from the things we can look up online or see on the pitch. With that in mind, he was asked what he wanted to tell the people who didn’t know him last year.
Amani answered, “Nothing. ‘Hello’ I guess. ‘Welcome?’” He laughs. He’s already meeting new people this season, and not always at team events. “I met somebody actually in the Apple store, I guess one of his friends is a Dark Cloud, and he was part of the Timbers Army and moved to Minnesota so now he’s going to be part of it, the Dark Clouds. It was actually kind of weird, random, in the Apple Store. It was cool, though. I’m just happy and thankful that we do have our supporters; somebody who we can work for and go to when we have success and when we’re not doing so well. It’s a nice thing to have and thank you guys for doing what you do.”
You have to admit, Walker is one of the more easily-recognizable players on the pitch. At 6’-2” with shoulder-length (or longer) dreadlocks, he’s easy for fans to keep track of, although defenders often have trouble.
The conversation about being recognized led to a question about other easily recognizable players. He was asked if there were any new player nicknames or stories the fans should know about. Walker said, “Who has a new nickname this year? I’m trying to think. Aside from Evan’s god-awful mustache.” Many of the fans already know about Evan Sassano’s ‘stache and have been having Photoshop fun online with the images. During the Nebraska road trip, Sassano also had a beard. “Oh yeah, he was Jesus. But see, me and Kevin Venegas called him Castaway. We couldn’t remember Tom Hanks’ name in Castaway. That’s what we called him for a long time; it’s definitely what he looked like, like week three in Castaway. [laughing] That’s what he looked like, just scraggly; it wasn’t doing well.
“It’s just been a fun preseason. Long drives, a lot of stuff that’s just been overall fun. It’s good to get everyone back and start playing again and get excited for this [opening] weekend.”
The players are getting ready for their season, and so are the fans. Amani was asked what he thought was the coolest thing he’s seen fans do for a team or player around the league.
He mentioned his new teammate Martin Nunez, formerly with Puerto Rico and Ft Lauderdale. “Well definitely, Martin hated the Dark Clouds, HATED the Dark Clouds, for years. He always said he hated coming here, but he also said that’s good, you should want to hate the fans. You should want to – he used to talk back and everything, and got over it. But he used to hate it; that environment, that presence, the little stuff you do, like Taka Time, that kind of stuff. It’s great and it gets people going. We call it Taka Taka Time now, it picks up all throughout the team and creates a different kind of buzz in the locker room which you have fans that are doing stuff and always being creative and trying new things out. I really like Taka Time. What else did I like last year? Just the feeling, the flares, the flags, the banners, everything that you guys put out was great. It made it feel good to play at home, you know what I mean? You go to Atlanta, you don’t feel that way; you go to Edmonton, you don’t feel that way. Montreal was special last year just because it was 12,000 strong, but it’s still a small stadium, but you feel like a big presence with you guys. Almost all of it was because of the Dark Clouds.”
Aside from Martin, has Walker heard of anyone around the league that’s bugged by the Dark Clouds? Any players or teams? Amani answered, “Besides Jonny Steele last year?” and laughed. Jonny Steele became a Dark Clouds favorite – to taunt and distract. He continued, “I think everybody feels uncomfortable when they play here, because of our supporters. And that’s the biggest part of the home-away type deal. If you go into somebody else’s stadium and you feel just as comfortable as you did, as if you never left home, what’s the point of traveling? We could just play this at home. But if you can honestly make them uncomfortable, make them – you know, when we score a goal, make them really feel it, that helps us more than anything. It’s that atmosphere, that feeling that we have a lot of people behind us that want us to do well. So not only do we have to do well to win this game, we have to do well for them. I don’t think anybody’s really happy to come here to play… and that makes me happy.”
When asked about strong rivals in the league, Walker said, “The way the league has built this up, [the first game against] Carolina is going to be tough, with us winning the Championship and them winning the regular season, so I think that’s going to be a good game for us.
“Carolina, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, they’re going to be huge ones for us, not only because we played them in the playoffs last year, but because they are strong teams to begin with. They were good teams, and good battles, and we had a lot of good games against them. Some went our way and some didn’t. So I think those three in particular are going to be big. Puerto Rico is always good; they never show and don’t feel like playing. They’re always a good team. And I think Atlanta and San Antonio are making big strides to play well and be big in this league; San Antonio especially have big dreams of going beyond their stadium and their owner, and the plans that they have for the next 5-6 years, it’s going to be huge, so they want to start off as well as they possibly can.
“We just played Edmonton [in a preseason scrimmage], and they’re a good side, and an all-Canadian team this year, I believe. So it’s always going to be different to go up there and play and have them play us; then it’s national pride. [laughs]
“I think Carolina, Ft Lauderdale and Tampa, when we’re down there, it’s going to be particularly tough. Especially with the exchange of guys that we’ve had, with Scotty [Lorenz] and Jack [Stewart] going to Ft Lauderdale, and Luke [Mulholland] going to Tampa. I think those games will be the good ones. The hard-fought ones, but the fun ones nonetheless.”