For 24 games, the San Diego Sockers grappled with their opponents while picking up wins like candy. It has been one of their most successful regular seasons in the team’s history, but the allure of the regular season grows dull on the Sockers.
After a grueling 24-game season in which San Diego went an incredible 23-1, it is finally time for the playoffs. For the Sockers, it represents another chance to hoist the Ron Newman Cup for the 15th time in franchise history and bring the Cup back home to San Diego.
A fitting tribute to the late Sockers coach and namesake of the championship, who passed away shortly before the season began.
San Diego enters the playoffs with home-field advantage and looking for better results after being bounced in the Western Conference finals for the past two seasons. With this in mind, the Sockers added to their impressive arsenal of offensive weapons by adding Landon Donavan to their rotation. The addition of Donovan has boosted the Sockers to the powerhouse that they are now, but now is the time to prove themselves in the playoffs.
The Landon Donavan effect
The Sockers set not only the indoor soccer world ablaze when they announced the signing of Donovan, but the entire sporting world itself. The team grew so much in popularity that ESPN sent a camera crew down to cover Donovan’s home debut.
Of course, the financial viewpoint worked wonders for the Sockers. An increase in attendance numbers drew record crowds thanks to an average of 5,370 fans as opposed to the 2,640 fans averaged before Donovan put pen to paper. With the Sockers now on the map thanks to the signing, it naturally led to copycats, like with the Ontario Fury signing fellow World Cup player Jermaine Jones to their squad shortly after the signing of Donovan.
Signing one of the most prolific players in US soccer history wasn’t just a PR stunt by the Sockers; they expected him to play. And play he did. After netting just an assist in his debut game against the Tacoma Stars, Donovan exploded for two goals in a 12-4 stomping of the Turlock Express, which is just what the Sockers’ have come to expect from one of the most elite American soccer players in history.
However, Donovan is just one of many players in a stacked Sockers offense.
The term “Murderer’s Row” was made famous due to the sheer power of the 1927 Yankees. Specifically, their lineup filled top to bottom with sluggers. Now, the term is commonly used as a descriptor for teams with formidable talent.
This term perfectly describes the offense of the San Diego Sockers. Led by the venerable captain Kraig Chiles, the Sockers have a league-best +93 goal differential and are second in the league in goals forged with 185, just two goals behind the Milwaukee Wave. Playing the 3-21 Turlock team five times in the season surely helps the goals forged, but the talent is lethal no matter who the Sockers play.
Flanking Chiles are Brian Farber and MVP candidate Brandon Escoto, the latter of whom lead the team with 55 total points. The electrifying striker has energized the team with his passionate play along while the clutch factor he brings to the pitch is part of the reason the team’s record is where it’s at today. He is responsible for two of the Sockers’ wins thanks to two Golden Goals scored in overtime that lifted his team to victory in the final minutes of play.
Chiles leads the cavalry with 35 goals scored and, while Farber’s contribution of 18 points seems shallow on paper, it is his veteran leadership that helps stabilize the team on the field of play, especially when things get chippy and emotions run high. Newcomers Leonardo De Oliviera and Christian Gutierrez have made their presence known with 40 and 20 points respectively, while De Oliviera leads the team in total number of assists with 25 on the season.
On a team loaded with depth, every player on the pitch can score a goal at any time. Whether it be old faces like Eddy Velez or new players like outdoor converter Travis Pittman, each player brings an offensive skill set to the team. Even the power play, which the Sockers only converted at 19% at their lowest point, has boomed to a 40% conversion rate after Donovan joined the squad.
So yes, the term “Murderer’s Row” fits perfectly well for a team that can score a dozen different ways, whether it be the tried-and-true set pieces, a quick strike on the power play, a faux hesitation off a top-of-the-box opportunity or the golden boot of Escoto, defenses around the MASL are due for tough times when facing the Sockers.
Man in the Net
But what good is an offense that scores in bunches if the defense can’t keep up? San Diego thankfully doesn’t have to deal with this problem as the team has allowed only 92 goals to score against them all season. While much of this is thanks to the combined efforts of Ze Roberto and Ray Contreras manning the defense, it is the human brick wall of Boris Pardo that has kept San Diego in many a game.
Last season, Pardo was in a platoon with Chris Toth but, when Toth was traded to the Fury late in the offseason, Pardo was left as “The Man” to serve as the season-long keeper. Not only did Pardo step up and deliver, but he also surpassed Toth in every way. Pardo leads the league in wins with 22 (he didn’t start in a victory against Turlock for rest purposes) and is second in the league in GAA (3.90) as well as fourth in save percentage (.733).
However, his true value comes not in his skills as a goalie, but in his communication with the team. On the field of indoor soccer, the goalie must act as a source of unity for a team that is facing the pressure of swift strikers trying to set up shooting lanes, and Pardo has provided that in spades. His positive communication and leadership help calm the nerves of many players on defense, whereas another keeper would let his team panic when push comes to shove. Where Chiles is the captain of the offense, Pardo is the captain of the entire backfield.
Not only do teams have to deal with a potential MVP in the net, but the combo above of defensive stalwarts. Roberto and Contreras bring a mixture of passion and grit to the field. Luis “Pee Wee” Ortega, Hiram Ruiz, and Cesar Cerda (who had to switch numbers after Donovan signed) are solid two-way players that provide help on both the offense and defense.
The Road to Victory
Victory won’t come easy for San Diego. They line up against Tacoma in the Pacific Division Final on Friday at Tacoma before returning home on Saturday for Game 2 and a potential Game 3. Tacoma handed San Diego their only loss on December 22 at Pechanga Arena, but in every game since, the Sockers have handed losses to their rivals.
Should San Diego move on to the next round, they face either the Rio Grande Valley Barracudas or the Monterrey Flash. The Sockers have played each team twice and won each game, but in both instances with Rio Grande Valley and once with Monterrey, the game went into a Golden Goal overtime. While Rio Grande Valley provides an exciting challenge, the chance to knock out Monterrey in the Western Conference Final and flip the script on the Flash sounds almost irresistible to most Sockers. Monterrey would also provide more emotional motivation, as the Flash knocked the Sockers out of last year’s playoffs in the Conference Final.
What makes the task somewhat easier is having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. For each Game 2 and Game 3, the Sockers will play in the energetic confines of Pechanga Arena in front of thousands of adoring fans.
The Sockers have a long way to go still, and the journey has been long and arduous. They have talent. They have the ability. They most certainly have the motivation.
Only one thing left to do on the checklist; Win the whole damn thing.