TACOMA, Wash. — Despite playing what Coach Ron Newman described as their best game he has seen, the Sockers needed Hugo Perez's goal with four minutes remaining to defeat the Tacoma Stars, 6-5, Saturday night at the Tacoma Dome.
The win, the Sockers' third straight, lifted them 1 1/2 games ahead of Tacoma, which was challenging for the Western Division lead.
The Sockers came out as if it were June 4, the night Tacoma knocked them out of the MISL championship series for the first time since 1981 with an 8-5 win here in Game 7 of the Western Division finals.
"They came out like I couldn't believe," Newman said. "The soccer we played, I have to call it football because it was so nice. The football we played in that first period was absolutely scintillating."
The Sockers (10-5) had Star goalkeeper Mike Dowler reeling, battering him with 12 first-quarter shots (to one for Tacoma) and endless other opportunities that easily might have produced a 6-0 lead rather than half that.
Just 6:14 in, Paul Dougherty's wobbler from the right side rebounded to Branko Segota alone in front of Dowler for an easy goal.
After another peppering of Dowler, the ball squirted out the back of an in-box convention for a Fernando Clavijo chip shot at 11:58. Then, with just three seconds to go in the period, Dougherty angled in from the left side and slid Zoran Karic's miss back past Dowler.
It was more of the same most of the second quarter, though the Sockers didn't score. The Stars were so far back on their heels, it seemed they'd never recover. In fact, defender Ralph Black, backpedaling all alone in his own box with the ball at the other end, went down with a severe ankle sprain midway though the period and had to be wheeled off on a stretcher.
But Tacoma righted itself and in the last five minutes got the 9,158 fans off their hands for the first time, closing to 3-2 on Steve Zungul's 600th career goal and Preki's 100th.
Zungul, 2:38 before the break, cut across the box and caught Peter Ward's rebound with a spinning left foot, sending the ball off the inside of the right post, the inside of the left post and in, sending keeper Jim Gorsek to his knees howling that the ball didn't cross the line.
Newman said Black's injury came at an inopportune moment.
"Black's injury was an ideal tactical ploy because it wasn't a tactical ploy, but it would have been because it took so long to get him treated and off the field. We lost our rhythm and all our momentum was gone."
At 13:38, Preki, the MISL scoring leader, crunched a 40-footer from outside the left point and suddenly the Stars were dictating the contest.
The first four goals of the second half came on power plays, two apiece, as the roughness intensified.
Tacoma tied the score on Preki's 19th goal 8:17 into the third quarter after Segota was carded for dissenting a Clavijo foul. Zungul's pass wide of the left post bounced out for Preki to run onto at the top of the arc.
Seconds later, the Sockers picked up their sixth foul and Zungul, stationed in the box, deflected another Preki rocket past Gorsek at 9:36 to lift the Stars to a 4-3 lead.
San Diego countered after a Stars sixth-foul penalty. Perez skimmed a pass through the box for Waad Hirmez to redirect at the right post at 14:06 and tied the score again at 6:33.
Dougherty, after Dowler couldn't cover a ball in a scramble at the left post, punched it in for a 5-4 advantage.
Tacoma came right back on a Preki shootout after Clavijo grabbed him on a breakaway. Preki sidestepped Gorsek at the top of the box, darted left and punched it into an open net to complete his third hat trick of the year.
Perez got the game-winner with 4:02 to play, slicing across the top of the arc for a twisting, tough-angled goal. San Diego shut down the Stars' six-attacker effort for the last 2:12.
"We're playing probably better than we've ever played," said Newman.