SAN DIEGO — The ball took a few crazy bounces off and between Socker defender Kevin Crow and goalie Victor Nogueira. The Ping-Pong action prevented a Dallas player from cashing in on what appeared to be a certain goal. Nogueira grabbed it; Crow turned and made the sign of the cross on his chest.
That was Wednesday night. A minute remained in what was to become a 7-4 Socker victory in the first game of the Major Indoor Soccer League playoffs. This conclusion might be drawn: somebody, somewhere, is somehow looking out for the Sockers.
As they try to make it two in a row at 7:35 tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena, there is a feeling creeping up that this best-of-seven series might not be too difficult, too nerve-wracking or even too long. Everything is moving smoothly. Good timing, no?
Example: Branko Segota, team leader in points (63), is back in the lineup following a month-long bout with a hamstring injury. He scored Wednesday, though he didn't have the usual snap in his shot. Several times he made great moves, then hesitated before pulling the trigger.
"He has strained (the hamstring) three times this season, so he's got to be a little gun-shy," Socker Trainer Bill Taylor said. "That's to be expected. That's human instinct."
Barring reinjury, Segota can only get better. He is clear for tonight, and Taylor said he should be back to 100% by Friday, when Game 3 is scheduled in Dallas. Full strength or not, he figures to be a factor,
"Branko has that type of ability that the rest of us don't have," midfielder Brian Quinn said. "If you look at him in 20 years, he'll still have those kind of natural traits. The only thing he's missing is conditioning."
The rest of the Sockers, Taylor said, are the healthiest they have been all season. There are a few nicks and bruises, but everybody is available, giving Socker Coach Ron Newman more options.
And the way Newman sees it, if the Sockers can play the way they did Wednesday and still come out on top, they're in decent shape.
"I don't believe we can play as badly as that again," he said. "We pretty much deserved to lose."
Indeed, it wasn't picturesque.
"You could tell we took 2 1/2 weeks off," defender Ralph Black said. "I think everybody had a mistake. That's not normal. The second game you'll see a much different Sockers team."
The Sockers have defeated Dallas in all five meetings in the Sports Arena. Look for the Sidekicks to make a strategy change tonight and play a bit more defensively. Wednesday, they opened up their attack and were burned several times, particularly by forward Steve Zungul, who scored twice and had three assists.
Quinn said the Sockers respect Dallas' style, which is scrappy, consistent and very physical.
"Our guys can accept that," Quinn said. "It's when (a team) plays dirty that you get frustrated."
The only thing that isn't thumbs up for the Sockers is fan support. Wednesday's attendance of 6,483 was third lowest of the season.
"Very disappointing," defender Waad Hirmez said. "But they were loud. I tried to get them going, and they responded great."
What will it take to generate more interest?
"We've got to try to turn the city on again," Quinn said. "We've just got to keep continually winning."
Tonight's game will be aired on XTRA (690) and XEXX Spanish Radio (1420) . . . Steve Zungul scored the third game-winner Wednesday of his 14-game Sockers' playoff career. He has had five points or more in three career playoff games with the Sockers.