SAN DIEGO — The Sockers have looked forward to visits by Tacoma the way fraternity brothers look forward to Friday nights--as convenient excuses to overindulge.
But they won't be worrying about hangovers this morning. The Sockers kept things relatively quiet in their 8-3 victory Sunday in front of 8,864 at the Sports Arena.
Even Tacoma Coach Keith Weller seemed a bit surprised when he looked at the post-game score sheet.
"There was only one goal in the fourth quarter?" he asked.
You'll forgive Weller for imagining worse. In the Stars' previous three games against the Sockers, they gave up a combined 30 goals.
And while by some standards this one could be called a blowout, it lacked the usual deluge of offense.
"There was something not quite there," said Sockers' Coach Ron Newman, unable to put his finger on anything. "Maybe we just weren't as confident in those first few minutes."
Newman was alluding to the second minute in particular. That's when first-year midfielder Alex Khapsalis tried clearing the ball out of his defensive end, but instead made a perfect pass to Tacoma's Dale Mitchell at the red line.
Mitchell didn't even have to think. He first-timed the ball just inside the right post to give Tacoma a 1-0 lead.
When it happened, Newman couldn't contain in his anger. Afterward, maybe because the Sockers answered Mitchell's quick goal with four of their own, the coach couldn't contain in his sense of humor and targeted the 32-year-old native of Kiev, Belorus, with a one-liner.
"In the second half," Newman said, "our players marked Happy (Khapsalis' nickname) much tighter."
But seriously, folks, the Sockers' offense showed another facet in earning its latest victory, No. 20, which ensures at least a .500 season even if the Sockers lose their remaining 14 games.
They did it not so much with speed, but with passing.
The result was that six Sockers scored. Even defender David Banks got into the act, taking a quick corner kick from Thompson Usiyan late in the second quarter and turning it into his first goal since Jan. 3, ending an 11-game dry spell.
Not quite as astonishing was that Paul Wright extended his goal-scoring streak to 11 games and maintained his lead in the individual scoring race.
To do so, he had to throw a new twist at the Stars.
To this point in his four-year career, Wright has been able to put in his wake every defender in front of him with a quick first dribble to his right. He never went left and opponents apparently had noticed.
But with 11 minutes expired in Sunday's third quarter, Wright decided to take advantage of the one-sided defenses he had created and caught Bill Crook leaning the wrong way.
This time Wright went around Crook by dribbling to his left, which also happened to be toward the center of the field. That opened a path to the net, one large enough that Wright actually was able to score with his other foot from about 35 feet out.
"If I have to go left, I will," Wright said about the move. "But I'm not nearly as confident with my left foot."
It was his 39th goal of the season, which eclipsed the 38 he scored last year as his all-time season high.
Usiyan also scored twice for the Sockers, offering an interesting contrast of styles. While Wright uses speed, Usiyan is one of the few players remaining in the Major Soccer League who handles the ball with his back to his goal, shielding it from the defender and allowing him to spin either way and either pass or shoot.
"It seems like I'm one of the last of the breed," Usiyan said. "You have to be more confident playing like that, and it wouldn't work if I didn't have some great players who keep giving me the ball. I think San Diego is the only team that can blend these two styles together."
His first goal came on a half-scissors kick, and his second came after he accepted a long pass off the end boards from Terry Woodberry. He spun around on it before surprising goalie Mike Dowler with a shot that made its way between the goalie's legs.
Defensive runner Wes Wade limped off the field with just over a minute remaining, but afterward said he only suffered a bruise on his knee and should be OK.