PREVIEW THE WESTERN DIVISION WITH MICHAEL LEWIS
Given their success during the 2021 season, there might be a battle royale between the San Diego Sockers and Ontario Fury for Western Division glory during the 2021-22 Major Arena Soccer League campaign.
After struggling through a rare underachieving regular season, the Sockers caught fire and captured their first MASL title.
San Diego defeated Ontario in the championship series as the Fury enjoyed its best regular season in years while securing second place in the overall standings.
The Tacoma Stars will try to rediscover former success, while the Chihuahua Savage, formerly the Soles de Sonora, are under new ownership, and will be the lone team from Mexico.
The Sockers' 2021 season had to be one of indoor soccer's greatest rags-to-riches seasons or Cinderella stories ever.
For eight seasons, San Diego boasted one of the best teams and records in the league, but somehow fell short of capturing the title or the Ron Newman Cup.
During the 2021 season, the Sockers were forced to play their entire season outside of San Diego due to the pandemic. That was 17 road matches, including seven in the postseason.
They struggled to a 4-6 record and a fifth-place regular season finish and tallied a league-low 41 goals. But they qualified for the playoffs and went on one of the greatest postseason runs in MASL history. They dispatched the Tacoma Stars in the quarterfinals and then the Florida Tropics in the semifinals before besting the Ontario Fury in the championship series, winning the mini-game.
The title was the Sockers' 15th indoor crown in their storied history and first since 2013.
This year, the Sockers want to put it together on both ends - during the regular and postseasons.
They certainly have the core as 15 players return from that championship side, including forward Leonardo de Oliveira (7 goals, 8 assists), the playoff MVP (3 goals in the final series) midfielder Brandon Escoto (11 goals, 2 assists), who added another 11 points on the strength of six goals and five assists during that playoff run, and defender Cesar Cerda (6 goals, 3 assists). Cerda, an All MASL first team selection, struck for the winning goal with 54 seconds remaining in the mini-game to give San Diego a 2-1 win over the Ontario Fury and its elusive MASL championship.
Captain Kraig Chiles, who had four goals and two assists in four regular-season matches before adding three goals and two assists in six playoff games, is ready for another title run in his illustrious career at the age of 37.
Escoto, de Oliveira and Cerda weren't the only players who raised their games in the postseason. Midfielder Christian Gutierrez, who tallied twice in eight regular-season contests, struck for three game-winning playoff goals.
The Sockers bolstered their midfield by adding second team MASL all-star Juan Carlos "Charlie" Gonzalez from the Ontario Fury. After a productive 2021 regular season, Gonzalez continued his standout campaign with another impressive haul - five goals and 11 assists in six playoffs games.
Boris Pardo who finished second among MASL goalkeepers in GAA (4.17), also returns to anchor the defense.
San Diego also bulked up, signing forward Tavoy Morgan, who played with the team while on loan from Harrisburg last season, registering two goals and three assists in seven playoff contests.
So close, oh so close.
The Fury enjoyed its best season since the 2016-17 campaign. Not only did the team finish second during the regular season (7-3) to the Tropics, but the squad also took the Sockers to a mini-game in the championship series, losing 2-1.
Ontario should be one of the favorites to go deep in the playoffs because the team has just about every key player returning.
The impressive list: defender of the year Robert Palmer, goalkeeper of the year Claysson De Lima and two other players on the All MASL first team - forward Franck Tayou and midfielder Justin Stinson (10 goals, 7 assists). Midfielder Maicon De Abreu (14 goals, 10 assists) made the third team. Defender Uzi Tayou was an honorable mention pick and as way forward Abdul Mansaray as a rookie honorable mention.
And oh yes, there's coach of the year Jimmy Nordberg.
Not surprisingly, Tayou enjoyed two outstanding seasons. In nine regular-season matches, the unstoppable finished with 14 goals (third in the league) and 20 points (fourth). In eight playoff games, he raised his game to a ridiculous level, striking for a league-best 14 goals, seven more than his nearest competitor, and a leading 15 points.
The Fury also added forward Willie Spurr, who played with Tacoma earlier this year.
One of Ontario's strengths will be in goal, where Claysson De Lima enjoyed a fine season. Chris Toth, a three-time MASL goalkeeper of the year and a regular on the U.S. Beach Soccer team, joined the team from the Tacoma Stars in the offseason.
Always one of the most competitive sides around, the Stars struggled to a 4-7 record and a sixth-place finish in 2021, something they would like to leave well behind them. After all, Tacoma was forced to play every game on the road because its home venue, the ShoWare Center, was unavailable due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Under coach Mike Jennings, the Stars are rebuilding, although they have a few familiar faces back. Forward Nick Perera has been Tacoma's main offensive force the last several years. Named to the All-MASL third team, Perera averaged two points a game over 10 matches on the strength of seven goals and 13 assists.
He will be aided on the attack by two other returnees, midfielder and captain Mike Ramos (8 goals, 6 assists) and forward Vini Dantas (11 goals, 2 assists), an honorable mention selection.
Goalkeeper Danny Waltman (1-3, 6.49 GAA), whose father was a member of a group that owned the Stars in the 1980s and 1990s, is back for a seventh season with the club.
Tacoma begins the campaign hosting the Sockers on Saturday, Dec. 11.
CHIHUAHUA SAVAGEFormerly the Soles de Sonora, the Savage have new ownership in the form of majority owner Joel Torres.
Head Coach Everardo Sanchez still was putting a team together, although there are a few familiar names on the squad that also performed for Sonora. That included forwards Enrique Canez (33 goals, 10 assists) and Alejandro Leyva, who enjoyed career year with 12 goals and eight assists in 16 appearances during the 2019-20 season, and defender Adrian Miller.
Also expected to make an impact are two former Monterrey Flash players - Hugo Puentes, who has established a reputation as a reliable attacker in the league as he recorded 22 goals and 10 assists two seasons ago, and Roberto Escalante.
Chihuahua starts its season at Ontario on Dec. 15 and plays at San Diego four days later. The team will play its first four matches on the road before hosting the Sockers in its home opener on Friday, Jan. 21.