by Craig Elsten

INDEPENDENCE, MO—Through a season of adversity, a team worthy of competing for a Ron Newman Cup championship has been forged. On Saturday, that team took its biggest step forward in eight seasons. 

Christian Gutierrez broke a 3-3 tie with a goal at 13:16 of the fourth quarter, as the San Diego Sockers held off the Florida Tropics 4-3, upsetting the top team in the Major Arena Soccer League and staking claim to a berth in the Ron Newman Cup Finals. San Diego will face either Ontario or Kansas City in the championship round, depending on the result of the second semi-final at Cable Dahmer Arena, to be played later. 

The Sockers are 4-0 in the playoffs, with all four games decided by a single goal, three in overtime. This time, it only took sixty minutes to secure the win; sixty minutes fraught with tension. San Diego was out-shot by Florida 40-16, including 40-10 in the final three quarters. The Sockers blocked a season-high 19 shots, and William Vanzela stopped 18 of 21 in net to secure the win. 

“Just another day in the office for me,” said a smiling Vanzela of the heavy workload, “We’ve learned who we are as a team. It took us a long time to figure it out, but toward the end of the season we figured out we are the best defensive team in the league.”

Brandon Escoto, Kraig Chiles, and Leonardo de Oliveira also scored goals for the Sockers, who led 2-0 at halftime and 2-1 after three quarters. Leo’s power-play goal gave San Diego a 3-1 lead in the early fourth quarter, only to see the Tropics rally back. Ian Bennett’s goal with six attackers on the field, his second of the match, tied the score at 3-3 with 2:15 left in regulation. 

“We maintained our focus,” said Chiles of the late adversity, “It’s four quarters. We dug deep, and we’ve been in this scenario before. We’re coming together as a team. There was no quit, no complaining. We were confident.”

Confidence comes from the repetition of success, and at this point, seeing Christian Gutierrez on the field late is a confidence builder for the Sockers.

“You know, when it’s all said and done, get the ball to ‘Gladiador’ late in the game and say a prayer,” said Chiles, “and he’s gonna pipe it in there!”

The confidence is soaring inside Gutierrez as well, as he sees years of hard work translate into postseason success.

“I didn’t have too much confidence in the (regular) season, because I didn’t have many goals,” said Gutierrez after the match, “In the playoffs, the team believes in me, and late in the game they say ‘let’s go’”. 

The Sockers came to the field knowing they would need to match the intensity of the #1 seeded Tropics, who lost 5-4 in overtime on Friday, their first competitive match in three weeks. San Diego answered the bell and then some in the opening quarter on Saturday, holding Florida without a shot in the opening fifteen minutes. Late in the quarter, the Sockers found the lead. Tracking a wall pass from Tavoy Morgan, Escoto followed his own shot and put in the rebound with only 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter for the game’s first goal.

The Tropics started to find the net in the second quarter with shots, but had a hard time finding a clear look at goal. While Vanzela made six saves in the quarter, a late penalty on Florida’s VcMor Eligwe for a trip gave San Diego a power-play opportunity. In the closing seconds of the man advantage, Escoto lifted a shot/pass to the left post from the right-wing. Chiles was there, and the ball deflected in off his chest for a 2-0 lead at 13:36. 

At least, it was supposed to go off his chest. Or, it mostly went off his chest, but maybe a bit of arm as well. The Tropics did not challenge the call on the field, but TV replays indicated that Chiles’ arm may have drifted a little further from his torso than he realized at the time. 

“It hit my chest or my shoulder, and we were lucky enough to get it in,” said Chiles of the goal, referred to as the ‘Armband of God’ on the MASL broadcast by color analyst Erik Burgrud, “Honestly, I don’t think it was a handball, but it could go either way on any given night. I was lucky enough to have it squeak in.”

A Bennett power play header goal at 4:21 of the third quarter made the score 2-1, but the pressure was mounting on the San Diego defense, as the Tropics out-shot the Sockers 30-6 in the final thirty minutes. Time after time, shots and centering feeds were knocked out of the middle by a team committed to defending their goal. 

“If I have a teammate that’s diving in front of me, I’ll dive in front of him as well,” said Vanzela, “That’s the spirit of this locker room. We’re gonna take one for the team. So many guys were blocking shots, I couldn’t even tell who it was. Good defense wins championships!”

Both head coaches used a successful replay challenge to alter the flow of the game in the fourth quarter. San Diego’s Phil Salvagio successfully challenged a foul in the crease, gaining a blue card power play for his team. Leonardo de Oliveira converted the opportunity into a goal with a brilliant back-heel score at 5:59 of the fourth quarter. 

Florida’s Clay Roberts threw his flag with just under six minutes left in the game, and was also successful in challenging a common foul into a blue card. While the Tropics didn’t score on the ensuing power play, they were able to knot the score moments later on Bennett’s sixth attacker goal. 

The Sockers now await the result of the evening semi-final to determine their final road trip of an all-road 2021 MASL season. If Ontario prevails, the Ron Newman Cup Finals will be staged at Toyota Arena in Ontario, CA. If the Comets rally back to win, the Finals will be held at The Family Arena in St. Louis, MO. Either way, the Finals dates will be April 9 and 11, with the matches available for viewing exclusively on MASL pay-per-view on Facebook.