SAN DIEGO — Captains have not had an easy time of it for the Sockers this year. Kaz Deyna was captain, and he is now in the doghouse with little playing time. Steve Zungul was captain, and now he plays in Tacoma.
Jean Willrich, the man who succeeded Deyna and Zungul as captain, scored three goals to lead the Sockersto a 6-5 Major Indoor Soccer League victory against the Cleveland Force Friday night at the Sports Arena.
With the victory, the Sockers (26-9) clinched a playoff spot in the Western Division with 13 games remaining in the regular season.
Mark April 10 and April 12 on your calendar. Those are the dates when the Sockers will host the first two games of the best-of-five first round playoff series.
It was inevitable that they should get there, but Willrich made it happen Friday night.
He scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season to give the Sockers a 6-3 lead midway through the final quarter. The crowd of 10,663 fans got a little tense when Cleveland made it 6-5 with 59 seconds to play, but Willrich's goals held up.
"Today was an especially good game for Jean," said Sockers Coach Ron Newman. "He seemed sharper and quicker. That was Cheezy at his best."
He was at his best when he had to be. San Diego led the Force 2-0 after one quarter, 2-1 at halftime and 4-3 after three quarters, but could not get a secure lead until Willrich opened up in the fourth period.
Appropriately, Willrich has been playing a more prominent offensive role. In the eight games since Zungul went to Tacoma and Willrich took over as captain, he has eight goals and six assists.
"At first, when Kaz gave up being captain," Willrich said, "I didn't want to do it. But the more I thought about it, I realized I should take it. I like to be captain when the players choose me."
Willrich didn't know if he was playing better because he was captain, but he claims he has his game in gear after getting off to a rough start this season.
He has 31 points in his last 19 games and his rising right-footers are finding the top of the net instead of section 8a.
"When it (scoring goals) happens, it happens," Willrich said. "These aren't excuses, but in the beginning of the season there was that . . . ball and I had those new 'Ugly Duckling' shoes."
The ball was slightly harder early in the season, and Willrich was not comfortable with it. He was obviously not comfortable with his shoes either.
Regardless of whether he was making excuses for his slow start, he was comfortable Friday night. Willrich's first goal gave San Diego a 1-0 lead and his final goals gave it a cushion.
However, two goals in-between stymied Cleveland's momentum midway through the third quarter.
And those goals were scored and set up by unexpected sources--defenders Gary Collier and Fernando Clavijo.
After the Force scored two goals within 58 seconds to take a 3-2 lead early in the third quarter, Clavijo knocked in a 20-foot left-foot bouncer from the left wing to tie the game. This was his ninth goal.
"I didn't want to take a run with the ball because my ankle hurt," Clavijo said, "but once I got down there, I figured, I might as well shoot it."
The Sockers took the lead for good when Segota took a centering pass from Collier and deftly tapped the ball into the net. Collier was on the right wing when he made this pass for his second assist of the year.
"I saw Branko open and slid it to him," Collier said. "I guess I'm better off passing than shooting."
Given the lead, the Sockers left it for their captain to put the game away.