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Soccer's Former Bullies Get Sand in Their Faces

May 13, 1987|Dave Distel

Indoor soccer's block bullies haven't been quite so fearsome this year. Bandages and casts and crutches have not exactly made them weaklings, but they have had a few grains of sand kicked in their faces.

In their quest for a sixth consecutive indoor soccer title, the Sockers are coming at it from a different direction this time.

Underdogs.

"No one has much sympathy for us," said Ron Newman, coach of the beleaguered champions. "When we're down like this, everyone likes to have a kick at us."

That's the way it has gone this year in the Major Indoor Soccer League, which previously may as well have been the Major Indoor Sockers' League.

These Sockers are seemingly as vulnerable as a political candidate with his picture on the checkout stand tabloids. Real trouble.

Kansas City got the first shot at the dastardly villains in the opening round of the playoffs. No one ever before thought in terms of "getting a shot" at the Sockers. Guys who'd want to play the Sockers would pick a fight with New York Giant linebackers.

There has been no such intimidation this year.

"It has been a strange year," Newman said early Tuesday. "It's almost as if we haven't played this year."

Indeed, the regular season came and went without a trace of the Sockers' normal dash and dare. They muddled along to a 27-25 record, good for nothing but a fringe invitation to the playoffs they have owned for so long.

Injuries had much to do with this dilemma. MISL opponents have been narrowing the gap each year anyway, but this year's injuries opened the gap in the other direction.

"We've had one problem after another," Newman lamented, again realizing little would be forthcoming in the way of condolences. "I'd like to know how many times we had the same team on the field for consecutive weeks."

Injuries were not even kind enough to spread themselves out among the various positions. At one point, attackers Juli Veee, Brian Quinn and Hugo Perez were all out. Just about time they were being nursed back to health, Branko Segota went out with a broken cheekbone.

It would have been sad if anyone else in the MISL really cared.

And so it was that the Sockers finished tied for third in the Western Division, eight games behind first place Tacoma. This was a re-enactment of "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" . . . or maybe "Damn Sockers."

Newman was acting deceivingly resigned to a dismal fate Tuesday morning.

"Everybody in the league feels it would be better for the league if we didn't win it again," he sighed. "Maybe they're right."

But . . .

"If we win it this year," he said, "it would really be something special. It would be incredible. But it'll really be a struggle. It's really been a struggle."

And he perked up, like a cat with the canary unwittingly perched on his nose.

After all, the Sockers split those first two games in Kansas City. They gave away the home-field advantage in the regular season, but they went right out and got it back.

Jan Goossens, Kansas City's star, was certainly wary. He was with Minnesota a year ago when the Strikers led three games to one in the best-of-seven final series . . . and lost.

"I thought there was no way they'd win that fifth championship, and then they did," he said. "This year, I thought no way . . . and then we played them and they're great."

Such rhetoric did not delude the cautious Newman into advising his lads this one was as good as over. In fact, he is not so certain this home-field thing is all that it used to be.

"I don't think it's that critical anymore," he said. "Teams keep winning away from home, maybe because the schedule's so much longer and everyone's getting to know the fields on the road as well as they know the one at home. I don't feel as uncomfortable on the road, but I don't feel as infallible at home."

This has been a year in which the Sockers have not been infallible anywhere. The year the Newman Sockers fall short would, in its way, be like the year the Auerbach Celtics fell short or the Wooden Bruins finally lost.

In an era in which dynasties are measured in weeks and months, the Sockers have stretched their's to five years. This has been a dynasty fitting the definition of the word.

However, this dynasty may indeed be going the way of the Ming. There is nothing infallible about playing at home, where the Sockers had won 26 consecutive playoff games before losing in last year's final series.

In fact, on Tuesday night, home was oh-not-so-sweet . . . even after leading, 6-3, in the second half. Kansas City won, 9-7. These were the games the Sockers used to win, 12-3, or 14-3.

Not this game, and not this year. Kansas City came to the beach and kicked an avalanche of sand all over the bullies.

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