by Craig Elsten

INDEPENDENCE, MO — No matter how tortured the path, the Sockers have had a golden destination in the 2021 Ron Newman Cup playoffs. 

Brian Farber scored a golden goal at 7:57 of sudden-death overtime, as the San Diego Sockers escaped with a 5-4 victory over the Florida Tropics on Thursday afternoon at Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence, Missouri. The Sockers take a 1-0 lead in the Major Arena Soccer League 2021 Ron Newman Cup semi-finals, with Game Two scheduled from 12pm PDT on Saturday. 

The game-winning play was orchestrated by Christian Gutierrez, the San Diego midfielder who had scored the golden goal in both of the Sockers’ previous playoff wins. Stealing a slowly-timed pass in defensive midfield, Gutierrez passed to an open Nelson Santana and raced downfield on a counter-attack. Santana let Farber pass by before feeding Gutierrez on the right-wing, who crossed the ball back to Farber on the left post. The captain’s shot was partially stuffed by Tropics keeper Hugo Silva, but squeezed its way over the line before being brought back. MASL officials reviewed the goal, and upheld the call of the live goal judge. 

“It got played out and Nelson had the ball,” said Farber of the play, “I wasn’t sure if I should go through or not, but I saw the space underneath. I was trying to open up the play for Christian and it worked just as we planned. Luckily I got it in there, barely!”

Boris Pardo improved to 2-0 in net for the Sockers this playoff, stopping 7 of 11 shots, including a chance in the literal last second of regulation. San Diego led 3-1 going into the fourth quarter before surrendering three straight goals to the top-seeded Tropics, including Ian Bennett’s go-ahead score with 2:37 left to play. The Sockers went to a sixth attacker, and tied the match on Tavoy Morgan’s goal in the crease, on an assist from Hiram “Pollo” Ruiz, with 1:38 to play.

Ruiz had a goal and assist, and leads the Sockers in playoff points with (5-1=6) in three games. His pass from the low-left corner found Morgan lurking near the middle of the crease, and he was able to push the ball into an open side-net for the late equalizer.

“Today it’s all about teamwork and how we put ourselves together in practice,” said Morgan, “We stayed focused, and we came out with the victory.”

Of the equalizer, Morgan said, “I was thinking to shoot, I know we need back a goal to give my team a chance. That was a very important goal, and then our captain came and gave us a victory with the golden goal.”

After a 4-6 regular season, the Sockers are 3-0 in the playoffs, but all three games have required a trip into sudden-death overtime. All three games have also seen San Diego surrender a fourth-quarter lead, only to prevail. Still and all, one more win, regardless of shape or form, would put the Sockers into the MASL Ron Newman Cup finals.

San Diego opened the scoring halfway through a tense and physical first quarter. Leonardo de Oliveira sent a long arcing pass from in front of the penalty boxes at midfield all the way to the right goal wall, where Felipe Gonzalez one-timed the ball off the boards. Taylor Bond was in the crease and left-footed the ball home past a defender on the line, good for a 1-0 lead at 7:59. The score held through the end of 15 minutes. 

The second saw the Tropics strike back early, with Chad Vandegriffe jumping up in midfield to steal a throw-out on the wall, creating an instant 2-on-1 break. Vandegriffe centered the ball to VcMor Eligwe, who fired a first-touch shot hard into the net, leveling the score 1-1 at 2:40. 

The physical play continued through the first half, and excellent target forward work by San Diego’s Tavoy Morgan helped draw four personal fouls against Tropics defender Rafa Alves, good for a blue card penalty. On the ensuing power play, it was “Pollo” on the strike once again, ripping a shot from the left-wing on the first touch past Hugo Silva and into the right corner of the net for his team-leading fifth goal of the playoffs. The Sockers led 2-1 at 12:13, and carried the lead into halftime, out-shooting the Tropics 13-9 for the half. 

A brilliant link-up provided the only goal of the third, as San Diego extended their advantage. Playing a long lead pass by Mitchell Cardenas just inside the attacking yellow line, Tavoy Morgan chipped a back-heel pass in the air to Gonzalez, who was racing up the middle. Felipe took one touch and then lofted the ball over Silva for a 3-1 lead at 9:43. 

Back came the Tropics, ready to show the indoor soccer world why they earned the top seed in the league this season. The rally began with a bit of luck, as Joshio Sandoval neatly skipped past Brandon Escoto on the attack down the right wall, but then saw his centering shot/pass deflect off Cardenas, leaving Pardo helpless to the carom as the ball trickled in for a 3-2 score at 2:53. 

Less than four minutes later, it was Sandoval again, this time running into the crease in time to find an Eligwe wall pass to the left of the near post. The point-blank chip found its way home and the match was tied 3-3 at 6:25. Florida’s lead came at 12:23 on a steal by Bennett, who quickly turned away from Pollo and stepped in on goal, rolling a shot between both Pardo and Marcio Leite’s leg block attempts for a short-lived 4-3 advantage. The Sockers challenged the play, asserting that Bennett fouled Ruiz in pursuit of possession, but was denied the overturn. 

Florida came within inches of stealing the win in the game’s final second, as Sandoval found the ball at his feet on the right elbow with less than two seconds on the clock. He side-footed the ball at the net, but Pardo read the play perfectly, stepping up for a leg save as the clock ticked under one. 

The Sockers and Tropics will meet once again in Game Two from Cable Dahmer Arena, with kickoff set for 12pm PDT on Saturday afternoon. Should Florida prevail, a 15-minute Game Three will take place 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game Two. The action will be available exclusively on MASL Facebook pay-per-view.