Pechanga Arena- San Diego, California
The emotions at Pechanga Arena flew up and down like a rollercoaster. With highs of raucous uproars to lows of stunned silence, every emotion was displayed by the 3,307 fans in attendance. Thirteen goals, three different ties, and four lead changes all equated to an arena crackling with more tension than the final standoff in Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Oh, and throughout the entirety of the game, the Sockers went without their veteran captain Kraig Chiles.
Just before the starting whistle, the MASL came down on Chiles as well as Tacoma’s Phillip Lund for their actions in the previous game, handing each player a one-game suspension that was effective immediately. The suspension essentially wiped out not just a key goal scorer for the Sockers, but also the leader of the team both off and on the field.
“We found out when we were leaving the hotel about 15 minutes before we got here (Pechanga Arena)” said Brian Farber, who wore the captain’s band for Game 2. “Definitely a different mindset when you don’t have your leader, Kraig is our offensive firepower, but he is also a great vocal leader in the locker room… he gets the guys going.”
Because of the news, the Sockers had to adjust on the fly and change up their rotations. But, even with the loss of Chiles for the game, it wouldn’t stop San Diego from playing the same high-tempo offense that got them in the playoffs.
In Friday’s game during the first quarter, it was the Stars who started hot, but that was far from the case on Saturday. Instead, San Diego slammed their foot on the gas pedal and drew first blood thanks to Eddie Velez’ chip shot goal over the head of Danny Waltman. Later on, Brandon Escoto, who didn’t hear his name called at all in the previous game, struck for his first goal of the game off of a reset penalty.
“It really doesn’t matter who makes it,” a humble Escoto said after the game on his performance, “as long as we all work together as a team.”
Escoto made the score 3-0 in the tenth minute of the quarter on a shot that tailed away from a lunging Waltman, but the Stars quickly reduced the lead to two goals before the quarter ended on a goal by Adam West.
Just because San Diego had a two-goal lead in the second quarter didn’t mean Tacoma would just lie down and admit defeat. The Stars took advantage of some admittedly poor defense from the Sockers to bring themselves within one on a goal from Vince McCluskey and later tied the game on Lamar Neagle’s goal in the sixth minute of the quarter.
“Tacoma’s record is no indication of their team, they can beat anybody on any night,” Farber said on Tacoma’s performance, “They’ve got offensive firepower, they got guys that can run, and they match up with us really well.”
The Sockers, for their part, continued to pester Waltman in the second quarter with shots but, even with a power play opportunity, were either blocked by the athletic keeper or barely missed the net.
Velez admitted that “we started good and with high intensity, but then the intensity declined… we can’t become complacent.”
The message at halftime got through, as the Sockers broke their scoring drought early in the third quarter on Velez’ second goal of the night to retake the lead 4-3. The lead looked safe for the rest of the quarter even as Tacoma kept hitting shots and shots at Boris Pardo, but one eventually snuck past the experienced keeper. The “one” came from the MASL’s leading points scorer Nick Perrera, who struck a shot right past Pardo to tie the game yet again.
With 15 minutes remaining in a tied game, all San Diego had to do was get one goal. Unfortunately, that was also Tacoma’s objective in the fourth quarter, taking the lead on an early from Dan Antoniuk and padded their newly found lead on Perrera’s second goal of the night, taking a 6-4 lead.
But Tacoma made one fatal mistake; their forget about the tenacious “never-say-die” attitude that has helped San Diego win 21 straight games. Pinning their hopes on sixth attacker Hiram “Pollo” Ruiz, the Sockers got to work on tying the game up. “It was a team effort, the moment presented itself, and we practiced it during practice,” Ruiz said in the sixth-man strategy. San Diego came within one after Escoto secured his hat trick with a goal in the twelfth minute.
When one puts in a sixth attacker and pulls their goalie, it is the equivalent of going all in during a game of poker. The potential for a huge payoff is tempting, but one mistake in judgment can all but end the hand. It seemed like the sixth attacker gamble wouldn’t pay off in the end but, with the Sockers 13 seconds away from defeat and a Game 3 mini-game, Ruiz made a pass to Christian Segura on the outside of the box, and the midfielder who hadn’t scored since April 4 skidded a shot underneath Waltman’s gloves to tie the game at it’s most crucial point.
“It was a surprise… I had the opportunity to hit the ball, so I took the shot,” the exasperated Segura said after the game.
After the wild fourth quarter, it was now time for playoff overtime. In the playoffs, there are no shootouts; score and you win. “We’ve been here before,” Pardo said on the overtime “we stayed together, we stayed positive, and we looked at the matchups… it’s almost like when our backs are against the wall; we don’t bow down. We step up to the situation.”
One overtime passed by with the Sockers taking shot after shot, but Waltman put on a Superman-esque performance and stopped everything in his path. But, while the Sockers still looked relatively fresh despite playing over 60 minutes of soccer, the Stars were starting to look… sluggish.
Said sluggishness didn’t help Tacoma in the second overtime, as San Diego continued to race down the field to fire on the goal, but again they were thwarted by Super Waltman. With time trickling down once again, Waltman and the Stars were finally brought to their knees by their newly-found kryptonite; Eddie “El Vaquero” Velez. The veteran got some help from Escoto, who drew the defense’s attention towards him by weaving around the box while leaving Velez open in the box. A deft pass with an even defter shot ended the rebellious Stars’ playoff dreams and sent Pechanga Arena into a frenzy as Velez celebrated a walk-off golden goal with his teammates.
Velez provided some insight on the shot after the game. “It was a play where a teammate had rebounded the ball off the wall. It was in front of me, so I made sure the shot was good.”
After thanking the crowd and the city of San Diego for their support, the Sockers walked off the field with their heads held high; their winning streak was preserved but, more importantly, the Boys in Blue were moving on to the next round of the playoffs. For now, they wait for the outcome of the Rio Grande Valley and Monterrey game to determine who they will face next on their quest to the Ron Newman Cup.