SAN DIEGO — For the first time in years, the Sockers will open a season with more question marks than exclamation points.
The Sockers head into this season as challengers, rather than as defending champions. After winning five straight indoor titles (North American Soccer League titles in 1981-82 and 1983-84 and Major Indoor Soccer League titles in 1982-83, 1984-85 and 1985-86), the Sockers lost to Tacoma in the Western Division finals last season. The Sockers will be without Bob Bell's leadership for the first time since he brought professional soccer to San Diego in 1978. After losing $9 million in 10 years, Bell announced his resignation as co-managing general partner Oct. 14. Sockers Management Inc., a corporation formed by Ron Fowler, a San Diego businessman and limited partner, now controls the club.
The Sockers also will be without their team captain for the past three seasons, midfielder Jean Willrich, who was traded to the Wichita Wings earlier this week for an undisclosed draft pick.
The Sockers need a forward who can score 40 goals. At 37, Juli Veee is not the dynamic scorer he once was. Steve Zungul was sold to the Tacoma Stars two seasons ago. Ade Coker was sold to the St. Louis Steamers last season. Keder, who recently signed a one-year contract, has less than a season of MISL experience.
"We need a front player," Newman said. "Obviously, Juli has lost his pace. He doesn't have the explosion that is needed at that position. We think Keder will be a little dynamo. He may not be Tatu the first half of the season, but maybe he'll come on by the second half of the season. Branko (Segota) and Hugo (Perez) can surely play forward, and we're considering that."
Segota, Perez and Brian Quinn head a strong group of midfielders. The Sockers are solid defensively, and they have two excellent goalkeepers in Zoltan Toth and Jim Gorsek, who signed a multiyear contract Thursday.
It is up front where they need the most help.
The Sockers were hurt by a rash of injuries last season. At one point, seven regulars were out at the same time. Hoping to have his club in better shape, Newman put the team through a strenuous preseason conditioning program. There was a lot of running and there were a lot of muscle strains. Segota, Perez, Kevin Crow, Brian Schmetzer and Waad Hirmez missed part of training camp with strains. Segota and Schmetzer will not travel to Wichita for Saturday's season opener.
"I don't see a lot of positive things going on," Crow said, "but we'll have to see."
Here's a look at the Sockers, position-by-position:
Midfielders: Segota (34 goals and 41 assists in 38 games) is the team's leading offensive threat. On Sept. 8, he signed a three-year contract worth about $200,000.
"Branko is our Tatu, our Preki or Zungul," Newman said. "I think we did the right thing (to sign him). We can't afford to lose our leading goal scorer. He's young, knows the game and is wanted by everyone in the league."
Perez, who spent the summer and fall trying out with European outdoor clubs, has opted to play with the Sockers this season. He was the club's third-leading scorer with 28 goals and 16 assists last season. Quinn, limited to 22 games last season because of a sprained right knee, underwent off-season surgery.
Other midfielders include Greg Ion, a former Minnesota Striker who was acquired as a free agent during the off-season; Raffaele Ruotolo, Jacques Ladouceur and Paul Dougherty.
Forwards: Juli Veee and Keder might be joined by midfielders Segota and Perez. Veee (23 goals and 20 assists in 32 games last season) is still crafty and dangerous in spurts, but he is 37, and his legs do not allow him to do what he once did. Keder, 23, played briefly with the New York Express last season before the team folded. Newman saw Keder play in Yugoslavia over the summer, invited him to camp and signed him to a one-year contract. Hirmez is a forward/defender who had a career-high 35 points (23 goals and 12 assists) in 50 games last season.
Defenders: Crow, Fernando Clavijo and Brian Schmetzer (who will miss the opener with a sprained left knee) anchor a strong defense, which allowed only 3.74 goals per game, breaking the league mark of 3.96 set by the Baltimore Blast in 1985-86. Newcomers include Gus Mokalis, a former Lazer defender acquired as a free agent; Ralf Wilhelms, of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., who signed a one-year contract, and George Fernandez, also of the Lazers.
Goalkeepers: Zoltan Toth was 17-13 and set a club record by allowing only 3.52 goals per game last season. Jim Gorsek, who knows the team has been trying to trade him throughout the preseason, was 10-12 with a 3.89 goals-against average. Gorsek is coming off surgery for a broken hand suffered in the playoffs last season.