SAN DIEGO — The Sockers are arriving at the playoffs from a different direction this season, but the road to the Major Indoor Soccer League championship still appears to run through San Diego.
"Certainly in the West the team that gets the championship will go through San Diego," said Tacoma Stars Coach Alan Hinton. "No question about it. They're always dangerous. They know how to win the playoffs. They have many, many players who have been in pressure games. And Ron (Newman) is a wily old fox."
Opponents are not about to wake a sleeping giant. Particularly a former giant that is still confident even though it suffered through what Bob Bell, Socker managing general partner, calls "a nightmare season."
"I still think that if we're on, nobody will touch us," said Socker defender Kevin Crow. "If we play at 80%, we'll be tough to beat. They're still scared of us. Even if we didn't get back all those injured guys, we'd be 50-50 to win again."
Unlike past seasons, when the five-time indoor champions usually finished with the best record in the league and had the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Sockers (27-25) finished in third place in the Western Division. They had lost seven of eight and four straight at home before Saturday's 5-4 overtime victory over Minnesota.
The Sockers will start the best-of-five opening round of the playoffs against the second-place Kansas City Comets Thursday night at Kemper Arena.
"It doesn't matter who we play," said Newman, the Socker coach. "It's whether we play well."
Even when they were playing without six injured regulars, the Sockers beat Tacoma and Baltimore (first-place teams at the time) in back-to-back games. They continually lost games by one goal. The Sockers set an MISL record with 31 one-goal games (15-16 record), topping Tacoma's mark of 27 set in 1983-84.
San Diego, which was 7-7 in overtime, tied the league mark of 14 overtime games, also set by Tacoma in 1983-84. Only Los Angeles (4-2), which finished last in the Western Division but maintained its mastery over the Sockers, and Baltimore (3-1) had winning records against the Sockers this season.
So even in the worst of times, the rest of the league didn't exactly run all over the Sockers.
"The league is more balanced," Crow said, "but I still believe if we hadn't had all those injuries and had been playing the way we can, we wouldn't have lost more than 14 to 16 games."
Not all the Sockers are quite that confident.
"I always thought if we played well, we'd win," said Socker midfielder Brian Quinn. "If we played bad, we still could win. This year, it's not as clear-cut. This year, more than any other, six or seven teams could win. But we still have a good chance."
Before the playoffs began last year, former Socker Steve Zungul--who had been traded to the Stars in midseason--said San Diego was definitely the team to beat. This year, he isn't as sure.
"They can match any team," Zungul said. "They can play well against any team. But they're definitely not what they used to be. Nobody can say how far they can go. It's hard to answer that. I wish them all luck."
Throughout this season, the Sockers were decimated by injuries. But even before the rash of injuries, they did not play with the cohesiveness and consistency that has been their trademark.
Injuries can no longer be used as an alibi.
Juli Veee, Hugo Perez and George Katakalidis are back in the lineup, and all were instrumental in the Sockers' victory Saturday night. Quinn, who has been out with a sprained right knee since Feb. 20 but who practiced with the team during the past week, is expected to play Thursday. Branko Segota (fractured right cheekbone April 10) is listed as probable for Thursday's game. Segota will wear a protective mask that has been specially designed for him. Defender Brian Schmetzer (pulled right hamstring April 10) is listed as possible for the second game against Kansas City.
The players are coming back, but does that mean they will immediately blend together? If Saturday's game is any indication, they will. On Perez's game-winning goal Saturday, Veee and Perez looked as if they had spent the last month on the field instead of in adjoining whirlpools.
"I don't think it will take long for the players to play together," Crow said. "They're intelligent players who have skill. Everyone knows each other really well."
The key is for the Sockers to play as a team and for the right players to have the ball in the right positions at the right time.
"The No. 1 thing is for us to play the ball to the strength of our big horses," Crow said. "To the big guns who are paid to win it. Everyone will have to accept their roles. We have to play to certain people's strengths offensively, and when guys on defense say something, people will have to listen.
"There are five or six individuals people will have to listen to. Then everyone contributes and benefits. People have to suck up their pride for the benefit of the team."