SAN DIEGO SOCKERS HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS
The San Diego Sockers will become the last the Major Arena Soccer League team to kick off the 2018-19 season when they host the Rio Grande Valley Barracudas Sunday, December 16 at 8:05 p.m. E.T.
But the perennial arena soccer powerhouse certainly doesn't have any plans to finish anywhere near last among 17 teams this year, although the Sockers do want to take the last victory lap of the season come April -- as in winning the title.
"That's our goal," general manager Sean Bowers said, adding that the team is eager to follow "the rich tradition that we have."
The Sockers, coached by Phil Salvagio, have enjoyed a storied history, especially when playing with a roof over their head. They secured 14 indoor soccer championships, eight in the Major Indoor Soccer League, four in the Premier Arena Soccer League and two in the North American Soccer League. They would love to add another trophy to their collection, but it has been elusive during their four-year tenure in the MASL.
San Diego has reached and lost in the Western Conference final the past two seasons. Last year they finished atop the Pacific Division with a gaudy 19-3 record but were eliminated by the Monterrey Flash.
"One of the things we need to do better, even though we have a good record, we really need to concentrate on our away games," Bower said. "We need to be a better team on the road because that's where championships are won. That's No. 1. No. 2, the players that we brought in have connected to the veterans that we have here. I can already tell the team's chemistry is different. It will show it's true colors when our backs are against the wall and what we're made of. I like this group. We're a much more physical team. We are a team that has attitude, much more than we had two years ago, and I think those are the qualities that you need to win championships."
While one team like Utica City FC already have played four games, the Sockers will get their first kicks of the season Sunday night. And that's fine with Bowers (Rio Grande Valley is 0-1, having dropped a 4-3 home decision to the Dallas Sidekicks on Dec. 2).
"So, we get the ability to see other teams play, see styles, prepare for our home opener," said Bowers, who is in his third year as GM.
The home opener is also Ron Newman Night, honoring the late, great Sockers coach who established the winning tradition back in the 1980s. Newman passed away in August.
In his third year as GM, Bowers has tried to find the right pieces to the puzzle, so the team can continue Newman's legacy.
"The first year, even though we had a good year, it was more of a year to find out what pieces of the puzzle we were missing," he said. "Last year we were a goal or two away from playing in the final, which would have been at home. There are still little things that are missing going into this year."
Bowers said the team has gotten younger this year.
"There were bits and pieces we were looking for throughout the league to make us a better team, not only on the field, but more importantly, for professional sports off the field," he said. "We're pretty excited."
Trying to improve their squad for the 24-game regular-season and the playoff run, the Sockers made some headlines during the offseason with several major acquisitions and trades. That was surprising for a team that lost but thrice during the regular season.
"There have been some younger guys that have really played themselves into a position in our team, a guy like Brandon Escoto, He's been unbelievable. Some of our younger guys have stepped up, which allows other players on the team to be expendable. You know in professional sports if you don't do what you're supposed to do you'll always be held accountable. That's one of the things that have changed here over the last two or three years. People have become more accountable, not only on the field, but off the field. Coaches and office staff and general managers and owners, there's an expectation here in San Diego that it's really second to none. If you don't a championship here in San Diego -- we've won 14 of them -- for us, there is a very high standard for us and if we're not meeting that expectation.
"Then there's things that have to change. The player personnel has to change, so by choice, some by wish of players not wanting to be here. Our No. 1 goal is to have players that play here who want to be here, that want to be part of our organization and love to win, and have that expectation and demand excellence. I think that's something we bring every day as an organization."
The Sockers' best known deal came Nov. 14, when they sent long-time goalkeeper Chris Toth and forward Andrew Lorei to the Ontario Fury for forward Leonardo De Oliveira and defender Juan Gonzalez.
Toth is the son of Indoor Soccer Hall Famer and goalkeeping legend Zoltan Toth, backstopped the Sockers to several MISL and NASL indoor crowns from 1984-90. Last season Chris Toth shared goalkeeping responsibilities with Boris Pardo, who led the league with a 3.70 goals-against average. Toth was second and not far behind at 3.80.
"There's a rich tradition with the Sockers and Zollie has been such a big part of it," Bowers said, "especially over the last so many years and so has Chris. From the Sockers organization there was no bad blood with him. This is something that Chris wanted to do. This wasn't something that the organization necessarily wanted. I think Chris wanted to spread his wings and see what was out there and try something different. That's something we owed him because what he's done here for the Sockers. By no means did we want him to go or have him go."
As it turned out, the Sockers "were ecstatic" with what they got from Ontario, Bowers said. During an injury-plagued season in which he missed 11 games, De Oliveira still tallied 13 goals and 15 assists in 13 matches.
"One of the things that we were lacking last year was another goal-scorer and getting Leo and also getting Juan Gonzalez in another trade for us it's a pretty big deal," he added. "So we're excited about the people we got in the trade. We know we'll get back. Like I said before, the championship is our goal."
And in goal will be Pardo. In sports such as arena soccer and hockey, many times its better to have a No. 1 man guarding the cage rather than two talented keepers battling it out.
"You know, that's one of the things about being a professional athlete," Bower said. "You want to play. no matter what, whether you are No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. The goal for you as a professional athlete is to keep playing all the time. So it was very hard last having the No. 1 and No. 2 goalkeepers in the league in our eyes sharing time and the other sitting on the bench. That's a hard thing.
"Now, everybody's happy. I'm sure he's going to do well. When he plays us, I don't want him to do well. I want him to do well in all the other games, except for us. I'm very happy for him and hopefully he will get better as a person and as an athlete on the journey."
Bowers hopes his team's journey will have it ending with the Sockers parading around Pechanga Arena in San Diego, Calif. with the Ron Newman Cup sometime next spring.