by Michael Lewis

One game hardly makes a season, but a victory in an enemy arena, a comeback win against the defending league champions and your fiercest rivals can go a long way in boosting a team's morale, momentum and confidence.

Just ask the Ontario Fury players, who showed their resolve against the San Diego Sockers to post a stunning 8-7 triumph last Sunday.

"In this league, if you want to win the championship, you've got to win away," said defender Robert Palmer, who scored the equalizing goal in a frantic fourth quarter. "You got to go to a tough environment and be able to grind out games and get results. You can't just be good at home."

It was the Fury's second win in San Diego - ending a six-year drought going back to a 4-3 triumph on Nov. 21, 2015.

"Getting a win in San Diego is difficult," Fury head coach Jimmy Nordberg said. "The environment is very, very good. San Diego is very good. Phil [Salvagio, the coach] does a great job with them. ... I was extremely proud. With the [new] point format it's important that you can go down to San Diego and pick up points. That's huge because there's not many teams that are going to do that."

To appreciate the Fury's accomplishment, we need to delve into the teams’ histories.

The Sockers, one of the great indoor soccer franchises dating back to the Major Indoor Soccer League and North American Soccer League, have won an astounding 15 indoor championships.

 In contrast, the Fury is the relative new kid on the block. The club began in the Professional Arena Soccer League in 2013-14 before jumping to the MASL for the 2014-15. Ontario has no championship banners to proclaim, but has put out competitive sides, posting records of .500 or more in five of its seven MASL campaigns.

Despite finishing 4-6 and fifth out of seven teams during the 2021 season, the Sockers found their rhythm and momentum during the playoffs, embarking on one of the greatest MASL postseason runs. They dispatched the Tacoma Stars and Florida Tropics in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. 

The Fury defeated the Dallas Sidekicks and Kansas City Comets in their respective series. Each match of the KC series was decided by one goal, including the mini-game.

"I think last year's playoffs were the most exciting," said Palmer, a 10-year veteran who has seen his share of playoff games as a player and spectator.

That set up a Ron Newman Cup final series between franchises that were 97 miles apart on Interstate-15 in Southern California.

"The championship series was intense," said Nordberg, the MASL coach of the year. "It was great. You had the I-15 Freeway series, teams that have played each other very often. We know what the other team is trying to do. Pretty predictable on some of that stuff. It was great because the communities are close enough together. And you've got two completely different franchises where San Diego Sockers is probably the most storied franchise in the league. And you’ve got the very, very young franchise trying to make a name for itself.

"Everybody digging their feet in and trying to put their best foot forward. I personally think that it was one of the best finals this league has ever seen."

The Sockers won the first encounter, 7-3, on April 16. The Fury knotted the series up with a 6-5 victory on April 18, but not before there were some heroics by both sides. After San Diego rallied from a three-goal deficit to force overtime, Palmer decided matter with a goal 49 seconds into the extra session.

A mini-game was necessary to determine the champion. Ontario drew first blood on Abdul Mansaray's goal at 8:44. The visitors equalized on Marcio Leite's score at 8:58. After San Diego survived an Ontario power play due to a blue card awarded to captain Kraig Chiles, disaster struck for the Fury. 

With 91 seconds remaining, two Fury players collided in an aerial challenge as goalkeeper Claysson De Lima fell hard to the ground. After receiving medical attention, de Lima was forced to leave the game for concussion protocol. Jesus Molina, who hadn't played a minute that season, came in cold. 

Less than a minute later, Sockers goalkeeper William Vanzela played a long ball to Chiles. He flipped it over his head to an onrushing Cesar Cerda, who one-timed it into the corner of the goal for what proved to be the game-winner with 56 seconds remaining in the period.

"The indoor game is crazy and sometimes you miss your chance it can turn into an opportunity for the other team going the other way," Palmer said. "You just need the ball to bounce your way sometimes."

Molina was replaced by a sixth attacker as Ontario went on the offensive. 

 "The ball rattled around," Nordberg said. "We had six, seven very good chances. There's two very, very questionable handball calls that could have been made that even add to the drama. It's literally a game of inches."

Fast forwarding to the 2021-22 season, in the teams' first encounter in San Diego on Jan. 2, Ontario grabbed a 3-0 advantage in the third quarter before seeing it go down the drain. The Sockers tallied six consecutive goals to rally for a 6-3 win.

"The Sockers were better on that night," Nordberg said.

Sunday's confrontation also went south in a hurry for the Fury, which surrendered four consecutive goals and faced with a 5-1 deficit in the second quarter.

Slowly, but surely, Ontario chipped away and grabbed a 7-6 lead on Palmer's goal with 83 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Charlie Gonzalez's score helped San Diego equalize with 22 second left in regulation to force another overtime.

This time, Fury did not let history repeat itself. Jorge Deleon struck only 31 seconds for the sudden-death victory in a classic confrontation.

"It's huge," Nordberg said. "It's a big test of character and mental strength.

"I thought watching the game back it was one of the top games in the MASL this year."

Over the past five seasons, Nordberg has seen the rivalry grow and turn "heated."

"I think there's a lot of history between the two clubs over the past five, six years," he added. "There's respect. Obviously, I think that there's a lot of turf wars because these guys know each other so well. We play each other so often. They go play outside of the MASL, fustal. There's a lot of pride."

When the Fury started winning more against San Diego, matches were taken up a notch or two.

"It's a lot more respect and it's more intense, because there's no blowouts," Palmer said. "The games are pretty close. The games are really feisty at times."

Entering this weekend's competition, the Fury (3-2-0, 8 points) is in second place in the West Division, trailing the Sockers (3-0-1, 10) by two points. Not surprisingly, these teams will tussle again this week, at Toyota Arena in Ontario, Sunday at 3:05 p.m. PT.

Beyond Sunday, they will play three more times - Jan. 26, Feb. 15 and the regular-season finale on April 3. That will mean one-fourth of their schedules will be rivalry encounters.

"I think sometimes it doesn't necessarily make for an equal playing field for the league because I do feel that San Diego and Ontario are two of the better teams in this league," Nordberg said. "If we keep fighting out for points, it may hurt one of these two teams when it comes to the playoffs."

Still, given the pedigree of both sides, it wouldn't surprising if they meet again in the postseason.

"Both these teams are built to make the playoffs,” Nordberg said. “Obviously not a lot of turnover in the two groups from last year. You've got a lot of players that have played deep in the playoffs and that matters. We both made movements to make this better. That's what our goal is." 

Ontario has plenty of talent to make another serious run.

All-star forward Franck Tayou, a four-time league MVP and all-star, is second in the league in goal-scoring (9). He has had help thanks to midfielders Justin Stinson (6 goals, 2 assists) and Jesus Pacheco (4 goals, 3 assists). The backline is led by Palmer, the MASL defender of the year, Thiago Goncalves (five assists) and league honorable mention selection Uzi Tayou. 

The team also boasts arguably the best tandem in the net in De Lima, the 2021 goalkeeper of the year, and perennial all-star Chris Toth, who played with Tacoma last season.

 Palmer noted that new challenges lie ahead.

 "We have to realize that before maybe teams weren't paying so much attention to us because we don't have that history behind teams like Kansas City, St. Louis, San Diego or Baltimore," he said. "But after what we did last year, it will be much harder to get to the finals this year. Because now teams are coming for us, trying to plan accordingly for us.

"The good thing is we have a lot of experience. We’re looking really hungry to get over the hurdle of winning the championship. We just have to stay sharp, stay focused, and keep learning and add new things to our arsenal."

 Championship teams are forged during the regular season.

"Probably the most important thing is staying healthy so we can always have that rhythm, that same momentum," Palmer said. 

"We have to do the little things right and build good habits now. It's a mentality of having good habits and in doing thing right through it when it matters the most. We’ve already been doing that. Once we keep doing those things and grinding out games and winning games, mentally [we can] pull through the season.”

So, the Ontario Fury can have another shot at the Ron Newman Cup.


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, will be published soon.