SAN DIEGO — At times, it gets so crazy out there that Socker goalie Victor Nogueira can't get a grasp on exactly what is happening.
What's happening to the Sockers is simple. They're pedaling toward a seventh indoor soccer title, a bit closer after Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Baltimore Blast in front of 11,147 at the San Diego Sports Arena. In the Sockers' grasp is a 3-1 lead in the Major Indoor Soccer League championship series heading into Game 5 here Tuesday night.
In the case of Nogueira, nothing unusual is happening. Just a host of those body-stretching saves that helped earn him the MISL goalie of the year award.
But Sunday, there was one that stood above the rest. Less than seven minutes remained, with the Sockers clutching a one-goal lead after several blown scoring opportunities. Blast midfielder Billy Ronson drilled the ball off the boards to the left of the Socker goal. Freddie Thompson headed it from the middle of a crowd to Mike Sweeney, who kicked a few feet from the goal. Nogueira dived left and somehow covered the ball. He doesn't remember quite how.
"It was a scramble," he said. "I was just trying to get there as quickly as I could."
Socker defender George Fernandez, who probably had a better view of the play than Nogueira, shrugged it off.
"That's why he's the best keeper in the league," he said.
And that's also a big part of why Baltimore is one game from extinction, though few of the Sockers are saying this series is over. Ralph Black said it won't be easy to finish it up. Kevin Crow said the Sockers still have to lift their game a notch.
Only Fernandez would make a definitive statement when asked if there was any possibility of a Blast comeback.
"No chance," he said. "No chance."
This game left Ronson just a bit annoyed. He's looking for something extra from his team Tuesday.
"If this team isn't able to go out there and die a little, as (Blast Coach) Kenny Cooper likes to say, you might as well not even bother signing up," he said. "You've just got to spill your guts out there. I give San Diego credit. They're a champion. We've got to prove we're a champion. We've got another 60 minutes to do it."
There were minutes here and there during Game 4 that put a temporary frost on the Sockers' momentum. But timing continually worked in San Diego's favor.
Baltimore's pair of goals in the final minute of the first quarter looked ever so familiar, much like the last-minute scoring the Blast did in Game 1 that helped it to an overtime victory. First, Sweeney took a restart kick from Blast forward David Byrne and sent it by Nogueira off Brian Quinn's foot.
Thompson then met a pass off the boards from Ronson and drilled it in. Baltimore 2, Sockers 0.
But late in the second quarter, Waad Hirmez got the Sockers and the fans going. Steve Zungul knocked a restart kick back to Branko Segota who, without looking, passed the ball back to Hirmez. Hirmez drove it past Blast goalie Scott Manning, who dived to his right.
From the moment Hirmez jumped up on the plexiglass to slap hands with the fans, the Sockers took emotional control.
"We started to play well, the crowd responded," Socker Coach Ron Newman said. "It was very, very difficult for Baltimore then."
Just more than a minute after Hirmez scored, 51 seconds before halftime, Quinn scored the tying goal. The Sockers came out in the third quarter about five feet off the ground, beating Baltimore to nearly every ball in sight.
"We were in the air like that air hockey game," Segota said. "We were just flying."
It was Segota who put the Sockers over the top. He took a pass from Quinn in the middle, advanced it by midfielder Carl Valentine, who touched it with his foot, and drilled it by Manning.
Zoran Karic scored what would later become an all-important insurance goal, beating Manning with a shot to the near post. Ronson scored his 14th goal of the playoffs with 3:30 remaining in the third quarter before Nogueira pulled the Sockers through the rest of the way.
Little things indicated how much enthusiasm the Sockers had on this night. Such as Paul Dougherty's shoe flying of his right foot as he hustled in an attempt to beat a Blast defender to the ball. Or Nogueira charging well beyond the red line to dribble and make a pass.
Lost in all this was the magnificent play of Manning who, at one point, made a save more spectacular than Nogueira's, extending his feet to stop a close-range shot by Crow.
All but forgotten as the Sockers march closer to another championship is the trip to Dallas, when this team was a game from elimination.
"We've turned completely 180 degrees," Fernandez said. "We're playing really well right now."