by Craig Elsten

Welcome back to my corner, where we are always working to keep the turf firmly in place. No twisted ankles here. Time to look back at the weekend that was in the MASL…

Prodigal Son

We all want the MASL to succeed, and to do that, you need more than winning teams; you need stars. Explosive talent captures the eye, engages the brain and activates the heart. As such, all fans of indoor soccer (save those who play defender) should be happy about the emphatic return of Brandon Escoto.

In 2018-19, Escoto, a Sockers midfielder, was a *star*. He earned First Team All-MASL honors, led a 23-1 club in points, and won several games with late and dramatic goals. Brandon’s zig-zag run through four Tacoma Stars defenders to set up the double OT-game winning goal in the Ron Newman Cup playoffs was the stuff of legend. Furthermore, Escoto wasn’t just a good player, he was a local hero, a player born out of tough circumstance in Tijuana and succeeding in his home region.

Local television stations were taking notice, and interview requests were coming in. Also paying attention: his home country. Brandon played in the LMFR during the summer of 2020 and later was selected by Team Mexico as the star of the WMF World Cup squad sent to Perth, Australia. In the semi-finals of the tournament, Escoto chased a loose ball in the box and took a vicious kick to his left ankle, his dominant foot. While he rehabbed continuously to try and play in the Grand Final, it was clear this wasn’t a normal bruise.

Mexico beat Brazil in the Grand Final to take the WMF World Cup, but Escoto was a non-factor. Returning to the Sockers, some of Brandon’s trademark quickness and explosiveness seemed absent. Even weeks later, the burst wasn’t quite there. Escoto pressed, trying to be the same player he was before, the star. On a team of veterans with star quality of their own, the attempt seemed excessive. Tensions simmered. Confidence flagged.

The season came to a head in mid-February, after a series of struggling road trips. An off-field decision, which doesn’t require public airing, put Escoto in trouble with the club. The MASL trade deadline loomed, and the previously unthinkable became a question: could Brandon Escoto be traded to another club? The decision was eventually made against; Escoto was still a Socker, but suspended for the remainder of the season. His future in San Diego was very much in doubt.  

This past summer, Brandon played around Mexico, suited up for a couple different clubs, but stayed in contact with his teammates. When the decision was made for the Sockers to participate in the 2021 COVID-influenced season, Escoto was back in the fold.

San Diego struggled through their first two matches last weekend, looking like a club late to the training ground and seeking match fitness. One notable exception to that trend was one Brandon Escoto, who was buzzing around the field, and netted a goal late in Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Kansas City Comets.

Come Sunday in Dallas, the Sockers were on the tail end of the weekend set, and legs were leaden with fatigue. Thankfully, Escoto was flitting about the floor like a butterfly, taking on defenders, finding open spaces and letting that lethal left foot get to work. San Diego won 5-3, and Escoto scored four, including a late goal against six attackers to seal the victory. He was picked up off the floor and mobbed by his teammates.

It’s one weekend, one step. But for Brandon Escoto, it was the step forward that Sockers fans have been hoping for, almost for a year now. The prodigal son has returned.

You Can’t Spell Comets Without C-O…

Last week, we mentioned that one of the biggest keys to watch as this unique season unfolded was the impact of COVID on clubs and matches, as teams understandably struggle to keep pace with a deadly and unseen virus. Last week Tacoma was forced to shelve four players before a Sunday match, and they dropped a tough decision in St. Louis.

Friday, the Comets took things to a new level. How about EIGHT players in COVID protocol?

If this happened to a traveling team, it would cancel the game. The Comets were home and able to draw upon their reserves to field a squad. And then, that squad ran down the Sockers, and beat them!

A fan on Twitter predicted a 100-0 Sockers win between the COVID announcements and kickoff. He was only 102 goals off, in terms of margin of victory. If only Melvin Capital could have taken that bet instead of shorting GameStop, it might have been a much better Friday for them…

Team Interesting

Right now, the MASL has tiers. Competitive tiers.

Florida is in its own dominant tier. Yes, the Tropics have wobbled occasionally, and finally lost for the first time, but anyone who says Florida isn’t the obvious and runaway first selection to win the Ron Newman Cup is probably not an objective observer.

There’s a middle tier of road-only clubs trying to make hay, clubs with serious talent but undeniable impediments to success. San Diego, Tacoma, and the soon-to-enter Ontario Fury are in this tier.

There’s a lower tier, with the young Comets learning their way, and the Sidekicks, who are definitely a team in the MASL.

And then, there’s the St. Louis Ambush. I’m not sure where to place the Ambush, so I’m giving them their own tier: Interesting Tier.

Paulo? Interesting goalkeeper! Maybe not the best, definitely not the worst, but one of the most active and entertaining. Almost guaranteed to take a shot on goal per game. Duduca bulled his way to Rookie of the Year last year, and while he’s currently injured, no defender likes the idea of posting up against the Brazilian forward with futsal skills. Watching Duduca? Interesting!

The young core of the Ambush is getting better and better. Players like Ado Jahic, Vadim Cojocov and Magui Souza aren’t established names yet, but they are impacting matches. Howard Miller Jr. has flair and footskill. Free agents Richard Schmermund and Stefan Mijatovic have big shots from the back line. Max Ferdinand is the clever veteran who makes all the pieces come together.

Some matches, the Ambush defense looks not quite there. Sometimes, they jump ahead and cough up the lead. Sometimes, they fall behind and need to rally. But almost every match winds up being competitive and exciting.

So, welcome to your own tier, Team Interesting. Eventually we’ll sort you out, but for now you’re a fun outlier to our weird season.

Enjoy the games this weekend!

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Craig’s Corner is a weekly opinion column in which Craig Elsten looks at the good, the bad, and the funny in the world of arena soccer.