After ending their indoor championship drought of seven years in 2021, the San Diego Sockers find themselves as favorites to take home the Ron Newman Cup for the second consecutive season.
Last year's run through the Major Arena Soccer League playoffs would have made Cinderella blush.
In a 2021 campaign that was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sockers played all of their regular season games on the road, finishing fifth (4-6) out of seven squads. They then rediscovered their magic touch, rolling through the post season with a 6-1 record and securing their first championship since the 2012-13 Professional Arena Soccer League season.
They have been nearly invincible this season with a sterling 23-0-1 record.
As in the past, this year's playoffs will follow a similar route. Each team will play at home, with the lower seeded squad hosting the first match, the higher seed the second one. If the series is tied after those contests, a 15-minute mini-game will decide the winner and who will advance to the semifinals.
There are several questions to answer in the coming weeks:
* Can the Sockers repeat?
* Can the Florida Tropics, which has been among the best teams the past several seasons, finally take the final (victory) lap of the season this spring?
* And can any of the other contenders spring a surprise or two?
An interesting factoid: The Central Division was the only division that had all four teams qualify - the Kansas City Comets, Dallas Sidekicks, Milwaukee Wave and St. Louis Ambush.
Here's a quick look at the four playoff quarterfinal series:
San Diego Sockers (23-0-1, 66 points) vs. Milwaukee Wave (10-12-1, 31)
Game 1 - Thursday, April 7 - UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, Milwaukee, Wis., 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Sunday, April 10 - Pechanga Arena, San Diego, Calif., 8:05 p.m. ET
Given their regular season record and accomplishments, overall quality, the Sockers, the MASL Shield winners with the best record and most points, must be considered heavy favorites in this series. Regardless of where a game was held, San Diego was difficult to overcome as it recorded an 11-0-1 home mark and a perfect 12-0-0 on the road.
Not surprisingly, the Western Division champions also boasted a +84-goal differential, the best in the league.
In the teams' only match-up, the Sockers registered a 13-2 victory on Feb. 27.
San Diego head coach Phil Salvagio has many weapons at his disposal. Forward Tavoy Morgan has enjoyed a career year, connecting for 39 goals, No. 2 in the league. He added 10 assists for 49 points (No. 3 in the league). Morgan has been aided by Brandon Escoto (23 g, 21 a), Leonardo De Oliveira (13 g, league-best 33 a), Charlie Gonzalez (23), who finished with an MASL-high five game-winning scores, Kraig Chiles (22 g, 19 a) and Christian Gutierrez (19 g).
Defender Juan Manuel Rojo (12 g, 13 a) has shown consistency on both sides of the ball, leading a team that conceded the fewest goals in the league (98).
Coached by Giuliano Oliviero, the Wave has a weapon or two of its own in its arsenal in the fabulous Ian Bennett, who led the MASL in goals (50) and points (62). Milwaukee, however, doesn't enjoy the same attacking depth, although Luan Oliveira (17 g) can put goals away and Marcio Leite has proven to be a solid playmaker (23 a).
For the 2018-19 MASL champions to have a chance, they probably will need to win the opening match at home, where it had a 7-4-1 record, compared to a 3-8-1 away mark.
San Diego - Boris Pardo has allowed an MASL-low 4.20 goals per game while recording a .731 save percentage (second lowest). He also registered a league-high 19 wins.
Milwaukee - Matt Perrella a 7.03 goals-against average and .691 save percentage in 13 games. Joey Kapinos is at 6.27 and .719.
Chihuahua Savage (15-7-2, 44) vs. Baltimore Blast (12-9-0, 37)
Game 1 - Friday, April 8, SECU Arena, Baltimore, Md., 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Monday, April 11, Corner Sport Arena, Chihuahua, Mexico, 9:30 p.m. ET
On paper, this could be the most competitive and intriguing quarterfinal confrontation. This is the only series in which both teams own .500 or better records.
In one of the most striking transformations this season, Chihuahua, the lone Mexican team jumped from one extreme to another. The Savage lost its first seven games but caught fire, by finishing the season on an incredible 15-2 streak under new head coach Luis Borrego. That streak included two overtime wins that went down in the books as draws.
Despite the stumbling start, Chihuahua tallied a league-high 185 goals.
Midfielder Jorge Rios led the team with 33 goals as no other player cracked the 20-goal mark. In other words, the Savage deployed a share the wealth strategy as seven players finished in double figures. Hugo Puentes and Enrique Canez each collected 19 goals while Bryan Macias and David Gonzalez contributed 15 apiece.
The Blast, which has one of the most impressive indoor resumes over the past four decades, will try to rediscover the magic of its glory days. Guided by head coach David Bascome, Baltimore has been paced by forward Lucas Roque (26 g), Jonatas Melo (22 g) and Tony Donatelli (22 g).
The teams did not meet in the regular season.
Chihuahua's Berna Valdovinos finished seventh with a 5.79 GA and had a .679 save percentage.
Baltimore's William Vanzela took fifth with a 5.45 GAA and compiled a .682 save percentage.
Florida Tropics (18-3-2, 56) vs. St. Louis Ambush (10-12-2, 31)
Game 1 - Friday, April 8, Family Arena, St. Charles, Mo., 8:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Sunday, April 10, RP Funding Center, Lakeland, Fla. 3:05 p.m. ET
The Tropics have registered an impressive 46-9-2 mark over the past three seasons but have no championships to show for their efforts. That's something head coach Clay Roberts and company would like to change.
These two rivals have played 19 times over the years, with Florida enjoying a 12-7 advantage. Not surprisingly, the Tropics are 9-2, while the Ambush 5-3 at the Family Arena. The Tropics have won both contests this season, 13-8 in Lakeland on Jan. 30 and 9-5 in St. Charles on March 6.
Florida is led by the triumvirate of midfielder Victor Parreiras (29 g, 23 a) and forwards Zach Reget (27 g, 16 a) and Ricardo Carvalho (24 g, 19 a). Four others are in double figures in goals.
The backline is paced by perennial all-star and team captain Drew Ruggles (12 a, 14 a).
The Ambush, coached by general manager Jeff Locker, squeaked into the playoffs on the final weekend of the season, defeating cross-state rivals Kansas City, the Central Division champions, 8-3 and 6-3. It showed marked improvement as St. Louis started the season with a pair of back-to-back losses to the Comets.
No St. Louis player tallied more than 20 goals as Mohamed Ndiaye (24 a), JT Thomas and William Eskay finished with 19 apiece and Roberto Kristo and Vadim Cojocov contributed 18 each.
The Tropics did not play up to expectations over the final weeks, stumbling to a 3-2 record with four games on the road. They finished the season with an 11-4 defeat at the Sockers on April 1. The team's regular season home finale April 3 was cancelled because the Blast was unable to make travel arrangements after many flights were cancelled over the weekend due to severe weather in Florida and elsewhere.
St. Louis' Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes finished second in GAA at 4.74 while recording a .784 save percentage.
The Tropics have used four goalkeepers - Jorge Navarrete (5.75 GAA, .744), Brett Petricek (6.22, .667), Rainer Hauss (6.33, .647) and Hugo Silva (3.45, .801), who is inactive. Navarrete and Rainer Hauss shared duties against San Diego.
Kansas City Comets (13-9-1, 41) vs. Dallas Sidekicks (10-12-1, 33)
Game 1 - Saturday, April 9, Credit Union of Texas Event Center, Allen, Texas 8 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Tuesday, April 12, Cable Dahmer Arena, Independence, Mo., 8 p.m. ET
In a battle of division rivals, the winner could come down to which team is in the better form.
Kansas City won the regular-season series, 4-2. But statistics can be misleading. The Comets won the first four games, but the Sidekicks emerged victorious in the last two encounters, 13-6 in Independence on March 4 and 8-3 in Allen on March 6.
Speaking of form, the Central Division winners enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The Comets haven't been the same since they started the season on a high note with a 9-1 mark.
Something will have to give in this series, as Dallas comes in off a loss.
Ageless player-head coach Leo Gibson was in the middle of the attack again (26 g, 17 a), but the Comets have been far from a one-man show. Midfielder Lucas Sousa (22 g), the 2021 MASL rookie of the year, forward Rian Marques (21 g) and defender John Sosa (14 g, 23 a) have made key contributions.
In a league in which veteran goal-scorers rule, rookie of the year candidate and forward Luiz Morales has sparked the Sidekicks with a team-high 22 goals. He has been helped by Jamie Lovegrove (19 g, 19 a) and Bradlee Baladez (14 g). The Sidekicks are directed by Ricardinho Cavalcante, who took over the coaching reins after a disappointing start to the season.
KC's Nicolau Neto has a 10-3 mark with a 4.91 GAA and .720 save percentage.
Juan Gamboa has backstopped most of the Sidekicks' matches with a 5.62 GAA and .710 save percentage.
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.