Same old Turlock?

by Michael Lewis

Same old Turlock Cal Express?

It certainly looked like that way in it’s Major Arena Soccer League season opener against the Kansas City Comets on Nov 22.

Even before a ball was kicked, a headline on the SB Nation website read:

Even with three suspensions, Comets will still likely run up the score

And sure, enough, just a little over three minutes into the Comets match, it looked like the headline was going to be prophetic. The Express already found itself in a two-goal hole.

"When they scored those two goals right off the bat, everybody was doubting us," Express goalkeeper Edgar Martinez said.

Everyone but Turlock.

"We never kept our heads down," Martinez added. "We kept going forward and it was positive vibes everywhere. Nobody yelling at each other. It was amazing, that feeling. We haven't felt like that in many years."

So positive that Turlock rallied and recorded a 6-5 overtime victory at home on Juan Gonzalez's goal 1:59 into the extra period.

It got even better two days later against the San Diego Sockers, who lost but once in 24 regular-season games last year.

In their home opener, the Sockers scored first, but Express didn't see that as a detriment. The visitors rallied for a 7-6 victory as Juan Manuel Rojo, acquired from the Sockers in the preseason, converted a hat-trick, including the game-winning goal. New Express additions Gerardo Jurado (two goals) and Emmanuel Aguirre (one) also found the net. Two other players were named to the MASL team of the week – Gonzalez, a defender, and midfielder Adrian Gutierrez.

To appreciate Turlock's achievement -- a 2-0 start -- it must be noted it registered three wins last season en route to a 3-21 finish and a 6-40 record the past two seasons. In 2018-19, San Diego won all five meetings between the clubs by almost 40 goals.

"At the beginning of our franchise history we had beaten them once and taken them to overtime," Express owner and assistant coach Art Pulido said. "So, it is exciting to be able to beat them, especially two top teams in the league."

Added Martinez: "The last couple of seasons we were not good enough to be in this league, a lot of people were telling us. The first game we actually felt different. I had a good feeling about the team this season."

In this modern age of social media, it seems a verdict on everything under the sun can be pronounced in seconds. Martinez has seen comments by fans range from one end of the spectrum to the other.

"It was ridiculous. It was funny," he said. "They thought we were not good enough for this league and now they're complaining that we're too good for this league. It's really crazy. But it’s a good feeling that you have those people are looking at your games and seeing what's different now. It's a whole different vibe, a whole different system. Everything is just different, better."

Unlike many teams trying to reverse its tough fortunes, Turlock did not overhaul its roster. It brought in only three new players -- Rojo, a 21-year-old from Tijuana, Jurado and Aguirre.

Instead, it hired a new coach as much of the team’s early-season success has been attributed to Edgar "Chebo" Martinez – no relation to the goalkeeper with the same name.

Chebo has brought a strong arena background, performing in the Professional Mexican League and the Professional Arena Soccer League. He also was a fitness coach with the Sockers, Chicago Mustangs and the Mexican national team. Most recently, he was the fitness coach for the Mexican national futbol rapido team that participated in the WMF World Cup in Perth, Australia in October.

“I have found a group of players who are willing to work hard and who have great potential," Chebo said in pre-season. "These past weeks they have truly put in the work in preparation for what is to come. We hope for a positive season full of determination and sacrifices.” 

Chebo instituted a new fitness system.

"He pretty much worked them hard to get physically stronger," Pulido said. "The guys adapted to as well."

Martinez, who has backstopped Turlock the past eight seasons, has seen the difference in a new system has helped the team transition from defense to the attack more smoothly. That has cut down shots on goal and the number of cheap goals conceded.

"We have a system, how to get off the field when we're stuck and they're pressing us,” he said. “We know what to do. Last year we didn't know a lot. This year we have a system where we know how to get out of the tight spots. Everybody's moving, everybody's hustling, everybody's working hard. If we lose the ball, we'll come right back at it. We're hungry."

Then there’s a new attitude as well, which can take a team a long way. Call it the power of positive thinking.

"We have an amazing coach," Martinez said. "He has many positive vibes. It's hard for you to be down. He'll pick you back up. He'll push you to be better.

"Everything that comes from him, it's a positive vibe. The training is fun. In practice, we don't want it to finish. We want it to keep going. We took a day off. I talked to a couple of my teammates and they didn't even want to take a day off. That's how excited they are. They want to keep working hard. We all want to keep working hard. We want to get to that goal, win each game and make the playoffs. Nobody cares right now about being MVP, or nothing like that. All we want to do is win games and stay focused."

Pulido noticed that early vs. KC.

“When we went down, the attitude was different,” he said. “There was a feeling on the bench that we'll get over this one. The confidence level was extremely high in both games.”

For the first time in years, the team enjoyed a rather uneventful Thanksgiving. The Express wasn't scheduled to play on the holiday weekend. In past years, players had to leave the next day or even hours after their holiday dinner for a road match.

"We usually have to travel to Tacoma or Texas the day after, like 2 a.m. in the morning," Martinez said. "We don't have to do that this season. It's a good feeling having to spend time with the family the whole night and not just having dinner and leave for the airport."

The Express' next game will be at the Turlock Soccer Complex against the Tacoma Stars on Dec. 6. After taking last Thursday off, the team was scheduled to hit the training field again on Friday and Saturday.

"Guys get their little nicks taken care of and their mental state of being with their family is a real good day of relaxing," Pulido said.

While the 2-0 start has been quite encouraging, Pulido realized two games hardly make a season. He related what was said to the team in the locker room after the San Diego win.

"Just because we started out like this, the hardest part is to maintain this level of play," he said. "We can't afford to relax at all. So, we've got to train harder and push harder to stay at this level, play at we're out right now."

Pulido wasn't about to declare the Express the real thing just yet. The team has a goal of securing one of the Western Conference's four playoff berths, but Turlock is but two games into a 24-game season.

"It sounds like a cliché, but we should not get ahead of ourselves on anything," he said. "Let's take this in stride. its exhilarating to have these two wins against these two top teams. But when you start relaxing, you don't want to want to have it creep back into what was happening to our team in the past."

Those two victories are money in the bank. In the coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to see how Turlock can grow that investment.