Sockers clinch second straight MASL Shield with 7-3 win over Empire
SAN DIEGO, CA—With six unanswered goals and a dogged defensive effort, the San Diego Sockers beat the Empire Strykers 7-3 on Sunday night at Pechanga Arena San Diego. Kraig Chiles netted the match-winning goal and added three assists as San Diego (18-2, 52 points) clinched their second straight MASL Supporters Shield, awarded to the regular season champion. The Sockers will have home-field advantage throughout the Ron Newman Cup playoffs.
“We really want home field advantage in the playoffs, we want to win the Cup,” said Chiles, “We’re here to have the first seed in playoffs and we solidified that. Winning (the Shield) with four matches left is a real kudos for the organization and a very positive thing for us all.”
The victory on Sunday was far from assured against an Empire Strykers side that came to Pechanga Arena with focus, physicality and intensity. Empire (12-7-2, 36 points) took leads of 1-0 and 3-1 before being shut out for the final 37:07 by the Sockers defense. MASL leading goal scorer Franck Tayou was held off the board for the second straight match by San Diego, as defenders Mitchell Cardenas and Guerrero Pino stayed in his pocket all night.
“Pino and myself make a point before the match to try and keep that zero next to (Franck) on the stat sheet,” said Cardenas, who added an assist on the match-winning goal, “We know that we give our team a good chance to win if we do that.”
Tavoy Morgan and Christian Gutierrez each scored a pair of goals for the Sockers, with Felipe Gonzalez and Leonardo de Oliveira adding single tallies. Boris Pardo shined once again in net with nine saves on twelve chances, lowering his goals-against average to 3.95, the only keeper below four in the MASL. Empire keeper Chris Toth was at times spectacular in trying to hold the line, stopping 17-of-22 shots.
The Sockers took the lead on a play that developed out of an intense fourth quarter sequence which saw both teams tantalizing goal. Leonardo de Oliveira threaded a perfect midfield through-ball to Cardenas, who charged in on right wing and fired. Toth was able to deflect and then nudge the ball toward the top of the crease, but Chiles ran on the loose ball and blasted a volley toward net, off the block attempt of Empire’s Maicon de Abreu and into the top of the goal for a 4-3 lead at 7:45 of the fourth quarter.
Matches between Empire and San Diego have taken on the tenor of playoff battles, and Sunday’s affair at times felt like a Finals in terms of intensity and physicality. The scoring began in surprising fashion, as Strykers captain Isreal Sesay pushed into the attacking zone along the right wall in the first seconds of the match. Sesay and Sockers defender Cesar Cerda bumped shoulders, and Sesay rode off the contact to capture the loose ball in the corner, unleashing a perfect shot into top netting for a 1-0 lead 22 seconds into the match.
The Sockers answered back on a top-arc set piece at 12:06, with Chiles slotting a pass on left wing to Leo for his 12th goal of the season. Empire answered back with a bit of gamesmanship, as de Abreu drew a foul with what replay clearly showed to be embellishment. Juan Topete stepped over the awarded right-wing free kick and perfectly keyholed a toe-poke goal inside left post, pushing the Strykers ahead 2-1 at 13:45.
A frustrated San Diego team then saw Leo take a blue card penalty for an elbow, putting the Strykers on the power play. A pass from the right corner into the crease was knocked down by the extended hand of Franck Tayou, who calmly plunked in a goal while the entire Sockers team screamed in protest. San Diego was forced to use their one replay challenge of the match, and the goal was easily overturned due to the obvious handball with a simple glance at the video review. Empire’s lead was 2-1 at the end of the first quarter.
The Strykers kept up the pressure in the second quarter, and extended their lead on a lovely effort by the likely MASL Newcomer of the Year, rookie midfielder Gabriel Costa. Working 1-v-1 on his defender, Costa stutter-stepped and faked with his right foot before left-footing a pass to Sesay at the top of the key, who calmly passed the ball into the net for his second goal of the match and a 3-1 lead at 7:53 of the frame. It was Costa’s 18th assist and 35th point of the season.
The Sockers were able to pull a goal back before halftime by getting out on the counter-attack and stretching the Empire defense. Cerda’s lead pass to Felipe Gonzalez allowed the midfielder to push up the middle of the field into the attacking zone. He quickly laid off a pass to Morgan, who electrified the crowd with a professional finish, opening his hips to rocket a volley past Toth at 13:33 for his seventeenth goal of the season. The score was 3-2 Empire heading into the half.
While San Diego was unable to score on three power play opportunities, they tied the match while trying to kill a penalty late in the third quarter. With Brandon Escoto sitting in the penalty box for an elbowing minor, the Strykers worked the power play but made a crucial mistake. In a rarely-seen example during the rule’s second year of existence, Empire was whistled for passing the ball through the keeper Toth twice in one possession, awarding the Sockers a top-arc free kick. San Diego went all-in, pulling their defenders for their set-piece strikers. The move paid off when Chiles was able to slot the ball to Morgan on the goal mouth, with Tavoy smashing the pass through Toth’s legs for a short-handed goal and a 3-3 tie at 2:44.
“We went out there and knew we needed to either shoot it in the goal or shoot it high and wide and get the rest of the subs on that field,” said Chiles of the risk, “We knew we needed to find a moment and we were lucky to find that seam pass into the corner and Tavoy finished it well.”
As the Strykers kept pushing for the comeback in the fourth quarter, the Sockers took advantage. Chiles used a perfect right-wing free kick to pass the ball to Felipe Gonzalez on back post for a 5-3 lead at 8:58 of the fourth. When Empire went to a six-attackers formation in the final five minutes, Christian Gutierrez showed up for his patented late empty-netters, putting a pair into the vacated Strykers net at 12:22 and 13:39. On his second goal and the final score of the match, Gutierrez walked in uncontested, and seeing the Strykers were not even pursuing, stopped the ball in front of the goal line and stood on it, burning off three extra seconds before tapping it home. The play enraged the Strykers, who had fingers in the face of both Gutierrez and head coach Phil Salvagio down the stretch.
With all the physicality and emotion on display, Chiles was happy his side proved once again that it has more than a few ways to beat every team in the MASL.
“We’re up for anything. If it’s going to be a battle, we’ll compete and fight. If it’s going to be a tight-fit defensive game, we’ll play defense. If it’s going to be an offensive transition game, we’ll run and gun too. We know it’s always going to be competitive, but at the same time, we rate ourselves in those tough moments.”
The Sockers now have four matches without pressure to win, having already clinched everything necessary in the regular season. However, with all four of their remaining opponents in a pitched battle for the final playoff spots in the MASL Western Conference, Chiles noted there is risk in over-rotating and coasting to the finish line.
“It’s a Catch-22 because you want to be healthy going into the playoffs, but at the same time you want to feel good and be in form and feel good about your game as well. We have a deep roster that I’m sure will be utilized, because the playoffs are the main goal.”
The league will be treated to a sixth and final regular season matchup between the Sockers and Empire on Friday, when the two teams rematch at Pechanga Arena for Military Night. The first 1,500 fans in attendance will receive a Sockers military-themed scarf, presented by Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The 7:35 match will be aired on Twitch and Sirius XM FC Channel 157. Tickets are available by calling (866) 799-GOAL or visiting sdsockers.com.