For any other team in the MASL, a 23-1 season culminating in a playoff appearance would be a resounding success.
Those other teams aren’t the San Diego Sockers, who have won the Ron Newman Championship 13 times in franchise history.
“In professional sports, everything is a game of inches,” said Sockers General Manager Sean Bowers. “Prevailing is the biggest thing. Championships for the Sockers is our goal every year.”
The Sockers came oh so close to that elusive championship last year only to fall to the Monterrey Flash in a 4-3 overtime loss in the Western Conference Final. Now, the target has been placed firmly on their backs due to their elite status.
If anything, San Diego relishes a challenge. Which is a good thing, as a majority of the league won’t just roll over and die when playing the Sockers.
So what does the season hold in store for the Sockers? Will it be another resounding championship run, or will San Diego come just short of their goal (pun fully intended).
No more Donovan
In late January, the Sockers shocked not just the indoor soccer world, but the sporting world in general when they signed U.S. soccer icon Landon Donovan to a one-year deal to finish the season. His signing brought fans and sports outlets alike flocking to Pechanga Arena to see how the star would transition from outdoor to indoor.
On paper, Donovan found success. He accrued 16 total points with five goals and eleven assists on the pitch in his first season of indoor play. His biggest impact, however, was off the field and in the locker room.
“Landon was a great locker room guy,” said goalkeeper Boris Pardo. “He helped us out when he played with.”
His experience and leadership helped the younger players on the Sockers while his presence certainly boosted ticket sales and generated interest in the club, but he is gone now.
Donovan was a spearhead of the San Diego Loyal, who is entering the Division II United Soccer League (a division directly below the MLS) as an expansion team in 2020. After being named the manager of the Loyal, Donovan took his leave from the Sockers after finishing the season.
Donovan is gone, and his production will be missed, but the Sockers still have other weapons on their team.
A blend of old and new
Even with a loss of Donovan, San Diego is still loaded with offensive firepower.
One key member was MVP candidate Brandon Escoto, who was named to the All-League First Team after a breakout 2019 season saw him net 55 total points with 32 goals and 23 assists. Despite taking 40 more shots this season, his .294 shot percentage was 0.015 percent higher than the .279 shot percentage he had last year.
Kraig Chiles and Brian Farber return from last year as the veteran 1-2 punch that can score from anywhere. A trio of Sockers in Hiram Ruiz, Travis Pittman, and Taylor Bond can each cover the entire field and contribute on both offense and defense.
Raymundo Contreras returns as the captain of the defense alongside Ze Roberto. Cesar Cerda was named to the All-League 2nd Team and can also provide pressure on offense while Guerrero Pino and the return of Erick Tovar
But what would an offseason be without new additions? Strengthening the defense is Emmanuel Aguirre of Rio Grande Valley while defender Luis Piffer returns to San Diego after a four-year hiatus.
One of the biggest gets in the offseason was the move for Utica FC midfielder Slavisa Ubiparipovic in exchange for Christian Segura. He set a career-high with 40 points last season and has played in 158 total games in his nine-year career. For his part, Ubiparipovic will have to adjust from the East Coast offense to a West Coast offense
“West Coast and East Coast soccer is always a little different,” Ubiparipovic commented. “West Coast is a little more freestyle while East Coast is a little more tactical and structured.”
This doesn’t begin to crack the surface of playmakers donning a San Diego jersey. Eddie Velez, Leo De Oliviera, and Luis Ortega all have roles off the bench while the freshly signed Cesar Romero adds some extra firepower to an already impressive arsenal.
At goalkeeper, Pardo returns after his 239 saves and .733 save percentage earned him the nod as the MASL Goalkeeper of the Year. Pardo was something of an iron man in the net, starting 23 out of 24 games for San Diego and logged over 1500 minutes of both regular season and playoff action.
To that extent, the Sockers went out and signed Diego Arriaga from Rio Grande Valley to serve as a key depth piece. He is no slouch in the net, posting a .737 save percentage in 20 games. He will be expected to make a spot start to give Pardo a breather, especially during back-to-back matches.
So, even with the loss of Donovan, the San Diego front office didn’t hold their heads and become complacent in the offseason. They instead reloaded with fresh new faces to blend with the veteran playmakers.