Edgar Gonzalez has a hunger, a growing hunger that has been growing for the past four years.
Twice he and the Monterrey Flash reached the Major Arena Soccer League championship series, only to have their hopes dashed by the Baltimore Blast and then the Milwaukee Wave in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Gonzalez and his teammates never had an opportunity to play for MASL glory in 2019-20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling the playoffs. To make matters even more frustrating, no Mexican team participated in the truncated 2021 season.
Now, with the Chihuahua Savage, the veteran forward finds himself in familiar territory, only one win away from reaching the Ron Newman Cup final. Of course, that is easier said than done as the Savage visit the San Diego Sockers in the second leg of their semifinal series at Pechanga Arena San Diego today at 8:05 p.m. ET.
“I really want to be a champion in the league," said Gonazlez, who scored the winning overtime goal in the first leg of the series, a 7-6 victory over the defending MASL champions in Chihuahua on Monday night. "During the season we have had very good games, but in the playoffs, we hope we will get much better."
Better enough to grab that elusive title.
"I have not been able to lift the cup," Gonzalez said in an email interview. "We’re one step away from being in a final again, which is my first goal, and then to think about the title, which is my main goal and what I have yearned for since my first season."
Ditto for head coach Luis Borrego, who came close when he coached Monterrey during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons to a 19-5 record in the former and a 20-2 mark in the later.
The Savage finished this campaign in second place in the Western Division with a 15-7-2 record, behind the Sockers (23-0-1). After dropping its opening seven matches, Chihuahua has been one of the best teams in the league, finishing the regular season on a 15-2 tear.
“I always work to win, to be a champion, so that my players always have tools to apply on the field in the game," said Borrego, who was brought on as coach after that stumbling start. "Of course, I'm ready, I'm very hungry to keep learning, keep growing, from coaches, from players, from my own experience and from the theory of fast-paced soccer. So yes, I'm hungry and I think I'm prepared for what may come.”
No team during the regular season could defeat San Diego at home as the team finished with an 11-0-1 record. But Gonzalez felt the pressure will be on the Sockers on Sunday night.
“They are at home. They are losing," he said. "I think they are the ones who have to propose a little more. We are not going to change our game plan, what we have been doing. We are going to continue with our work, what we did during the season, and try to find the result. We want to win it in the match and not go to an [extra-time] game.”
More than anything else, Chihuahua enters the confrontation with a calmness.
“I would not say confident," Gonzalez said. "We are calm because we have been doing things well, working very well, but not confident, we know that it is going to be a twice as complicated game as it was at home, they are obviously going to want to win to be in the final, but we must be calm, with a winning mentality, I think we can get a good result at home in San Diego”.
Borrego had similar sentiments.
“I am not confident," he said. "I always take care of what my team can do on the field, that is why we have been working to make a good approach for Sunday, without excesses of confidence. We know that we are going to face an important team, the most important in the league, without a doubt. It will be our most important game of the entire tournament. I don't think there will be excesses of confidence. On the contrary, we have to be alert to everything that can happen on Sunday in the game in San Diego."
Monday night's first leg turned out to be one of the league's most classic playoff confrontations with countless twists and turns that included seven lead changes. No side ever led by more than one goal.
Take, for example, what transpired in the waning minutes.
After Adrian Miller gave the hosts a 6-5 lead before a capacity and enthusiastic crowd at Corner Sport Arena in Chihuahua, Mexico, San Diego tried to bring a sixth attacker onto the field. Cesar Cerda, however, left the bench early and the visitors were assessed a blue card for having too many men on the field and the Savage given a power play. Playing shorthanded and desperate for an equalizer, the Sockers pulled goalkeeper Boris Pardo just to get back to a five-on-five situation. The strategy worked as captain Kraig Chiles knotted things up at 6-6 with 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
Chihuahua remained with the man advantage in overtime and Gonzalez cashed in with his second goal of the match, only 36 seconds into the period to lift the Savage to a 7-6 triumph.
“It was a game of many emotions for both teams," Borrego said. "It was also a game of many defensive errors by both teams. Fortunately for the Savage, we gave the first strike, and asserted home advantage.”
“Defeating San Diego is always special. It is a team that is always looking for the championship, for the Savage and for me it is always important to win. We work to win. I think that emotionally it can affect San Diego a little, the tactical plan that we did make us deserve winning the game.”
Gonzalez, 32, who shared 2016-17 MASL rookie of the year honors, agreed.
“For us it was very important to get the game here at home to go to San Diego with that slight advantage," he said. "Now they are the ones who have the pressure to get the result. We are going for the victory there because we want to be in a final.
“We knew that it was going to be a complicated game because of what San Diego represents, the last champion and what the Savage represents, the only Mexican team, and because we are both very competitive. In a semifinal, I knew that the game was going to be tough."
For the second encounter, Borrego said that not much needed to be changed, except for tweaking a few things.
“To be successful, I think we have to continue doing what we are doing well in the games," he said. "Without a doubt the unity work is what has given us results. When there are individual duels, win them on offense and defense, we have to do a tactical approach that allows us to take the advantage from the beginning. ... We know the shortcomings that San Diego has. It has great players but also shortcomings like any other team. So, we are working to hurt them from the beginning if we want to come out with the victory.
"I think I don't have to change anything; the team is well packed. ... Within the tactical scheme there are surely few details that need to be changed. Perhaps what we needed to change was to have more options in plays such as corner kicks, so that they don't know how to read them, but within the tactical scheme there are surely few details that need to be changed."
The Sockers were missing three valuable attacking players in Mexico.
Midfielders Leonardo de Oliveira (lower-body injury), who was named the MASL Pass Master for the season on Thursday, Brandon Escoto (lower-body injury), and Charlie Gonzalez (visa), "who we know how important they are for San Diego," Gonzalez said.
That threesome accounted 59 goals and 61 assists during the regular season. Broken down: De Oliveira (13 goals, 33 assists), Escoto (23 goals, 12 assists) and Gonzalez (23 goals, 16 assists).
"Hopefully they will be on Sunday, so that the game would turn even more interesting,” Gonzalez said.
Regardless of who San Diego puts on the field on Sunday, Gonzalez realized he and his teammates will be in for a tussle and a half.
"We know that it is going to be a twice as complicated game as it was at home," he said. "They are obviously going to want to win to be in the final, but we must be calm, with a winning mentality. I think we can get a good result in San Diego."
If the Chihuahua Savage can accomplish that, then Edgar Gonzalez will be one step further to end four years of championship hunger.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.