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San Diego Sportscene

Finally, Soccer's Cadillacs Are Playing for the Title

May 18, 1985|Dave Distel

Do you want Toronto and Seattle in a World Series? How about Indianapolis and St. Louis in a Super Bowl? Or Golden State and Atlanta for the National Basketball Assn. championship?

One upstart can be charming. In fact, the whole world rallies behind an underdog. Wasn't Villanova just darling?

However, two upstarts seem to disturb our sense of order and continuity. We expect a championship event to involve a certifiable champion simply because we find security in tradition. Two Cinderellas would spoil the Prom.

Earlier this week, Tuesday night to be precise, Ron Newman was quite concerned that the Major Indoor Soccer League would be stuck with a pair of ugly ducklings in its championship series.

"Oh no," he lamented, "not Minnesota and Cleveland. What a bloody shame that would be. . . ."

Newman, the coach of the Sockers, was pacing under the Sports Arena stands while his team was warming up for the fifth and final game of the controversial series with Minnesota. He had just been informed that Cleveland was ahead of Baltimore, 4-2, and it was the fourth quarter.

While far from conceding that Minnesota would beat his lads, Newman was fearful that anything could happen. After all, the Sockers were only playing Game 5 because a win in Game 4 had been reversed by the MISL's commissioner. At about this time, he could be excused for suspecting villains lurked in every closet.

Angered by the perceived injustice of the commissioner's ruling, the Sockers vented their wrath on the Strikers. The score was 7-0, and it could have been declared a technical knockout in the first quarter.

The champagne having been expended after that "victory" in Game 4, the Sockers retired quietly to their locker room Tuesday night. Why celebrate something they felt they had already won?

"Life is fair," owner Bob Bell said. "That should be the headline."

And the players themselves had only one question on their minds.

"Did Baltimore win?" they asked, individually and collectively.

Not, "Who won?" They wanted to know if Baltimore won. They wanted Baltimore. Not Cleveland.

Indeed, Baltimore had rallied to win, 7-4. Advised that Baltimore would, in fact, be party to the finals, the Sockers seemed as much inclined to celebrate the Blast's win as their own.

On the other side of the continent, Baltimore was anxiously awaiting the results of the Sockers' game. After all, the Blast wanted San Diego. Not Minnesota.

And Baltimore got what it wanted as well.

"This is like a dream," Baltimore Coach Kenny Cooper said. "I've hoped and prayed for this series. It's been like a two-year crusade."

Two years ago, you will recall, these same two teams played for the MISL title. It was the toughest series the Sockers have so far encountered en route to their three successive indoor championships, though it did not seem like it at the start.

The Sockers won the first two games in San Diego, 6-0 and 7-0, and the series looked like yet another yawner. At that point, the Sockers had won 13 playoff games over two years without a loss. Obviously, no one was going to threaten these guys.

But Baltimore did. It went home and won twice, 4-3 and 7-6, and suddenly the series was turned into a hurricane rather than a breeze. The Sockers returned home and won, 3-1, and Baltimore has since craved a rematch.

The rematch could not have happen last year, when the same two teams were once again clearly the best. The Sockers had returned to the North American Soccer League and Baltimore was still in the MISL.

Baltimore won the MISL, but it was not the same because the Sockers were not there. The Sockers won the NASL, but it was not the same because Baltimore was not there.

Winning was nice, but it wasn't everything. A rather significant question would go unanswered. Who was the best indoor soccer side in the land?

There will be no unanswered questions in 1984-85. Indoor soccer's heavyweights, once again in the same league, climbed into the ring at the Sports Arena Friday night.

"These teams," said Cooper, "are the Cadillacs of indoor soccer."

And these Cadillacs will play a destruction derby of a seven-game series. If these teams were Cadillacs, I wouldn't want to be carrying the insurance on either one of them in the days to come.

I don't think either side will sweep this affair. It's not because neither side is good enough to win four in a row, but rather that neither is bad enough to lose four in a row. In truth, either of these teams would sweep an average opponent.

As if the San Diego fans had to be convinced that the local heroes have a chore ahead of them, the Blast took a 2-0 lead Friday night and turned away the Sockers' relentless offense well into the second period.

Remember too that the Sockers met Baltimore three times during the regular season, and the Sockers lost all three times.

Could it be that the Sockers were in trouble? Could it be that Baltimore could beat them even without the commissioner's help?

However, a 2-0 lead for Baltimore was hardly secure Friday night. When Steve Zungul and Branko Segota get their act in gear, they make the goalkeeper feel like a guy trying to repair a revolving door during rush hour.

Zungul and Segota combined for three goals in the last 7:24 of the second period. When they are on the floor together, it's no time to go for a soft drink.

In this series, there will be little time for anyone to relax. Two-goal leads will be tenuous. In truth, I think two- game leads might even be scary.

In the future, I suspect MISL championship series will be measured against this one. These teams have been dreaming about this for two years. They have wanted each other, and they have each other. I hope they enjoy it, because I suspect this dance is going to last for awhile.

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