TACOMA, Wash. — The Steve Zungul and Branko Segota scoring shows will be playing in the same city starting tonight.
"There are only two superstars in this league," said Tacoma Coach Alan Hinton, whose team will play the Sockers in the Western Division final beginning tonight in the Tacoma Dome. "One is Zungul and one is Segota."
It wasn't always that way. Zungul, 32, is seven years older than Segota and often has assumed the role of mentor. But the student-teacher relationship never kept the Yugoslav natives from being good friends.
When Segota entered the Major Indoor Soccer League, Zungul was there to ease the transition. They played together on the New York Arrows, the Golden Bay Earthquakes and the Sockers.
Segota kept scoring goals and eventually rose to third in the league in scoring last season. Zungul, who led the MISL five times in scoring, kept encouraging and giving Segota advice--on the field, off the field, just for fun, just about money. He still is, even though the Sockers sold Zungul to Tacoma in the middle of last season.
"Branko--he's already there (among the league's elite)," Zungul said. "I've told him he should control from the beginning of the season to the end."
And there's still encouragement from the ever-watchful Zungul.
"I talked to Branko before the last two games, and I told him to play good or I'd dump him in a garbage bin," Zungul said about the Kansas City series, in which Segota had a club playoff-record five goals and an assist in a 9-5 fifth-game victory Wednesday over Kansas City.
"When Branko started shooting from the red line," said Zungul, who watched the game on television, "I knew it was over."
Zungul's advice hasn't always paid off. The friendship almost got them into trouble this season when Segota turned down a chance to be the MISL's highest-paid player--a six-year, $1.25-million deal.
Segota said Zungul, a shrewd businessman, had given him some advice. Zungul, who has negotiated contracts for himself and teammate Preki, said it was just friendly discussion. Bill Kentling, the MISL commissioner, investigated possible tampering by Zungul and Tacoma.
It all ended well for the friends. Kentling later ruled that there was no tampering. Now Segota is close to signing a four-year, $1-million contract with the Sockers, according to Bob Bell, the Socker managing general partner. And Coach Ron Newman thinks that might be helping Segota's play.
Against the Comets, Segota was the series' leading scorer with eight goals and five assists in three games. He missed the first two games of the series and the last seven regular-season games with a fractured cheekbone.
"I think he's playing better than he has all season," Newman said. "He's playing better than ever. We didn't know how brave he would be with that fractured cheekbone and how much contact he would be able to take.
"Now he doesn't appear to be at all worried about his face. I even saw him head a ball yesterday."
Said Segota, who missed 14 regular-season games with various injuries: "I'm still cautious about it when I get a head ball, but it's not that bad. If someone comes up, I'll be a little hesitant."
It has not been an easy season for Zungul, either. He also has been continually hampered by injuries but has missed only one regular-season game.
"It's the old story," said Zungul, who wears an elastic band and takes painkillers for an arthritic hip he has aggravated this season. "Lots of injuries. But mentally, my soul is fine."
It looked that way in Tacoma's first-round playoff victory over the Wichita Wings. Zungul scored 10 times and had seven assists in the series. In the fifth game, Zungul had three goals and an assist in a 4-2 victory.
But so much of Zungul's game is mental. And inspirational. At times, he even plays doctor. Before the fifth game against Wichita, Zungul gave Preki, who had a bruised thigh, a rubdown with a special European ointment. Preki played.
Zungul is a leader as much as a scorer. Just ask the Sockers, who often have said they have lacked a take-charge player since Zungul was sold to the Stars.
Last year, Zungul led the Stars into the playoffs and past Wichita in the first round before losing to the Sockers in four games.
"We're still a young team, but we're definitely improved from last year," said Zungul, who helped the Stars finish first in the Western Division with the best record in the league this season (35-17).
"We'll enjoy playing against each other," said Segota, who led the Sockers with eight goals and four assists in six games against Tacoma this season.
"Branko seems to raise his game against Steve," Newman said.
And Zungul always enjoys being with his "good friends."
"Branko and (Fernando) Clavijo owe me a dinner," Zungul said. "Zoltan (Toth) is cheap. He never buys me anything. And I have even cooked for him."
Bob Bell, the Sockers' managing general partner, said that beating the Comets Wednesday was probably worth between $300,000 and $400,000 for San Diego. He based that on an additional two or three home games against Tacoma and the potential for two or three more home games in the championship series, getting 30% of road receipts and getting radio and television rights. Bell said the Sockers would have lost money for the year if they had not beaten the Comets. If the Sockers reach the finals, Bell said they could earn a profit. He would not say how much, however. . . . Said Bell, who was so nervous he ran on the beach near his home in Coronado rather than watch the game: "I've got blisters from walking and running for two hours." When he got home, Bell turned on the radio and the game was still going on. The Sockers were leading, 6-5, in the final quarter. Bell said he had to listen. "I had two mini-heart attacks during those eight minutes," he said.