by Joseph Reina

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints or positions of the Major Arena Soccer League.**


The Sockers earned bragging rights, but the job is far from over after a topsy-turvy regular season. San Diego and Texas will face off, as will Tacoma and Chihuahua, with both ties featuring home and away legs followed by a third Knockout Game if necessary, immediately following the second leg. The winners will then face in the Western Conference Finals for a chance to go to the Ron Newman Cup Finals.

#1 San Diego Sockers vs #4 Texas Outlaws

Despite clinching this season’s Western Conference Regular Season Championship, this season has been a step backward for the Sockers. Last year, Phil Salvagio’s side cruised through the regular season, losing just two games and accumulating 62 points. This year, those figures have dropped significantly as the Sockers won four fewer games and finished the season with 52 points, four more than second-placed Chihuahua.

They’ve lost their last two games, including Tacoma’s first win in San Diego since Dec. 22, 2018. The gap has closed between the teams at the top and San Diego, while holding the top seed, still has a point to prove in the playoffs.

The Sockers kept many pieces from last year’s MASL Shield winning season and put together the league’s third-best offense, scoring 171 goals, or just over seven per game. Their pitfall has been finding the net against sides with above-average defenses. Both Kansas City and Chihuahua swept the Sockers this season, with San Diego scoring just 21 goals in those five matches while conceding 37.

For all their shortcomings, The Sockers are still the benchmark as far as talent goes. Tavoy Morgan, Kraig Chiles, Gabriel Costa, Drew Ruggles, and Boris Pardo. These names speak for themselves and will live long in the annals of indoor soccer. Even on an off-year, they managed to clinch the first seed. That’s how strong this team’s winning pedigree is.

Their opponent in the first round will be Texas, who accounts for three of San Diego’s nine wins against playoff teams. All three games were tense contests, but the Sockers always found a way through while slowing down the Outlaws’ high-powered offense.

Head coach Tatu’s side began the season 1-3 before finding their form. After 13 games, Texas accumulated nine wins thanks to their attacking foursome of Vinicius Dantas, Sebastian Mendez, Luiz Morales, and David Ortiz, all of whom finished the season with over 30 points. In goal, Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes has impressed, amassing 15.187 saves per 60 across his 14 games. He’s protected by Uzi Tayou, who has made 84 blocks this season, good enough for second in the MASL.

After their strong first half of the season, Texas faced a nightmare stretch, playing San Diego three times, Chihuahua twice, and Monterrey once. All six games ended in losses and crushed any hope of finishing higher than fourth. After that, the run of poor form continued, as they ended the regular season with nine losses in their last 11 games.

            The Outlaws are the only team in the playoffs that finished with a negative goal differential, and they have a 2-6 record in one-score games. When facing teams that qualified for the playoffs, they won just four of 15 games, only managing to beat their Eastern Conference opponents. Against the Western Conference, they beat Dallas and Empire but lost two of their six meetings with the Sidekicks.

            That said, those stats are all in the past, and they need to focus on controlling what they can control. Morales hasn’t played since Feb. 1 against San Diego, but Dantas has been spectacular in his absence. He accumulated 20 points during March while Ortiz bagged 11 points and eight blocks during the same span.

Individually, the team is performing well; they just need to translate that into an impressive home performance. Take advantage of power plays and ensure that San Diego can’t capitalize on set pieces or man-advantages. Keep the game within reach, and their talent will give them an opportunity to steal a win.

            The Sockers need to score early and keep the Outlaws frustrated. The longer that Texas can see a way through, the harder it will be for San Diego to close it, so Chiles, Costa and Co should shoot to have at least two goals by the end of the first quarter and five by half.

Staying out of the penalty box will go a long way too. In their last two meetings, the Sockers earned more blue cards, which helped Texas keep the games as close as they were. Without that aid, San Diego has a good chance of sweeping this series in two.

Game one will be in Texas on Saturday, Apr. 6 at 8:05 p.m. EDT, before San Diego hosts game two on Monday, Apr. 8 at 10:35 p.m. EDT.

#2 Chihuahua Savage vs #3 Tacoma Stars

This is the big one for me. It feels unfair that one of these sides will go home after only the first round. The quality on display is as high as any other matchup, if not higher. There’s tension, superstars, and I can almost guarantee there’ll be some drama too.

            For Chihuahua, there’s unfinished business. Until Mar. 15, the Savage had beaten every team not from Monterrey. They soared thanks to the league’s best defense and looked like favorites in the West despite sitting well behind San Diego in the standings. Then Chihuahua visited Tacoma and fell not once but twice in two of the season’s most entertaining games.

            Tacoma had just signed Justin Stinson and Stefan Mijatovic on loan from Empire and immediately, the Stars jumped from an above-average playoff team to serious title contenders.

They’ve now won a franchise record nine straight games and are on the fifth-longest winning streak entering the playoffs in MASL history.

            Stinson and Mijatovic have combined for 25 points, but even more importantly, they’re bringing out the best in the rest of Tacoma’s already strong lineup. Since the beginning of March, Alessandro Canale, Jamael Cox, Nani Mendoza, and Michael Ramos together have added 54 points, and Nick Perera has only played once during that span. There’s no hyperbole here. This team is stacked.

            That’s without mentioning the MASL’s all-time save leader Chris Toth, who has exploded in the final part of the season. Since Mar. 1, Toth has faced 139 shots and made 104 saves for a save percentage of 74.8%. He’s also managed three assists during that time, including his spectacular dime to Canale for the Stars’ first winning goal against the Savage.

Now, back to Chihuahua, who are by no means slouches. I’ve discussed their defensive fortitude in previous pieces, but it’s worth covering again. The Savage smother their opponents, forcing them into disadvantageous shooting chances, many of which are missed, blocked, or saved by Diego Reynoso in goal.

The league-wide goal-per-shot average is roughly 0.22, but Chihuahua’s is 0.176. Eleven players finished the season with double-digit blocks, while Reynoso has the lowest goals-against average and the second-highest save percentage. They’re absolutely among the strongest teams defensively, but in attack, they’ve struggled.

Genoni Martinez’s side takes a lot of shots. Like, way more than any other team. The league average is close to 28 shots per game, but the Savage take nearly 10 more, which balances out their below-average finishing ability. On average, each shot is worth roughly 0.22 goals, but for Chihuahua, that number plummets to 0.171, among the worst in the league.

It’s not a complete indictment of their players because they’ve found a way to win by playing the numbers game. They don’t necessarily need to be efficient if they’re comfortable generating a ton of chances, knowing that they’ll convert enough of them.

That takes me to another of Chihuahua’s strengths: Depth. While most teams have an out-and-out scorer, the Savage have no such person. Hugo Puentes is their closest fit to the mold, but even he averages less than a goal per game this season. Instead, they have eleven players who finished the season with over ten points, so no matter which line is on the field, there are players who can make life difficult for defenders.

For Tacoma, the keys to the game will be taking advantage of their home-field advantage in game one, thus making life difficult for Chihuahua on Sunday. Winning at Corner Sport Arena is a tough ask, only Monterrey has managed it this season, but if the Stars can slow the game down to their speed and reduce the number of shots Chihuahua takes, they will have a good chance of advancing.

The Savage need to make this tie chaotic. Their high-tempo, “go, go, go” style breeds unpredictability, which is hard to prepare for and conversely, hard to stop. Beating Tacoma right now will be difficult, but the Savage has the talent to go into any game and expect a win. If the Savage can keep the score low, they’ll have a very good chance of winning the game and by proxy, the tie. But if Tacoma starts to cook offensively, I’m not sure Chihuahua will be able to keep up. With that said, I expect a mini-game here.

Tacoma hosts the first leg on Friday, Apr. 5 at 10:05 p.m. EDT before the two sides travel down to Chihuahua for the second leg on Sunday, Apr. 7 at 8:05 p.m. EDT.