by Craig Elsten/Sockers

SAN DIEGO, CA - When the chips were down and the San Diego Sockers needed two wins in one night, the defending Ron Newman Cup champions showed their heart and talent to a grateful crowd, beating the Chihuahua Savage 6-2 and 4-1 to win their best-of-three semifinal series two games to one on Sunday night in front of 2,271 at Pechanga Arena. The Sockers advance to face the Florida Tropics in the Finals, which will begin over the weekend in Florida.

Felipe Gonzalez’s header goal 12:41 into the third quarter gave the Sockers the lead for good as San Diego muscled their way to a nervy 6-2 win in the full 60-minute Game Two, using a 3-0 fourth quarter to clinch their spot in the deciding knockout game, a 15-minute match played 15 minutes after the final horn. The Sockers prevailed 4-1 there, with Christian Gutierrez scoring a goal with two assists and Juan Manuel Rojo salting the match with two late goals.

The best team in the MASL earned their expected spot in the 2022 Ron Newman Cup Finals, but not without the type of effort reserved for a champion, pitted against a club that could equally earn the claim. Head coaches Phil Salvagio of the Sockers and Luis Jaime Borrego of the Savage engaged in a heartfelt hug after the match, reflecting the passion of the challenge between two committed clubs.

“We battle each other hard, but at the end of the day it’s a game, and somebody has to win and somebody has to lose,” said Salvagio after earning his second straight trip to the championship series, “Chihuahua’s a fantastic team. That was a great series. You can’t get closer and better than those three games were. It’s live or die.”

The Sockers lived to see the Finals with a committed defensive effort that blocked nine shots in front of all-MASL keeper Boris Pardo, who stopped six of eight shots on net in Game Two. Pardo added three saves on four shots in Game Three.

“After the game we lost in Chihuahua (in Game One on Monday, 7-6 in OT), we knew we would have to take care of business in the first game (tonight),” said Pardo, “We knew it would be a different game on the bigger field here. The boys showed a lot of character in the locker room to stay calm and just work out the things that we needed to do.”

The Sockers led 2-0 at halftime in Game Two despite Chihuahua’s best efforts. Charlie Gonzalez and Luis “Peewee” Ortega scored goals against the run of play for San Diego, while the Savage saw extended possession and great chances come up empty.

Bryan Aguilar and Carlos “Poper” Hernandez” netted for Chihuahua in the third quarter at 9:08 and 10:32 to tie the match, before Felipe Gonzalez came up with the heroics that would put San Diego ahead for good. Anticipating a cross into the box from midfielder Sean Callahan, Felipe ran parallel to the goal across the crease before leaping and heading the cross into the net at 12:41 of the third. The spectacular score put San Diego ahead 3-2, a lead they would protect into the fourth quarter.

Kraig Chiles, San Diego’s all-time leading scorer, spoke only once on Sunday night but at a crucial time. His leaping shot at a sharp angle from the inside of his left foot off a Felipe Gonzalez entry cross found pay dirt at 7:03 of the fourth quarter to put the Sockers ahead 4-2. Christian Gutierrez and Tavoy Morgan netted at 13:19 and 13:39 respectively to salt away the match and force the deciding Game Three.

In the “knockout game”, the Sockers scored first when Gutierrez allowed a rolling cross from Gerardo Jurado to cross his body, contorting to rifle a shot home for his second goal of the night and a 1-0 lead at 3:05. Jorge “Pareja” Rios answered with his only goal of the series. The Savage’ leading scorer in the regular season converted his own rebound into the top netting at 4:03 to level the match at 1-1.

Controversy and instant replay followed, in the stretch of the match that decided the series. A loose ball kicked forward sent in Chihuahua’s Enrique Cañez alone on net. Pardo came all the way out to his red line to challenge, and leaped to try and affect Cañez’s chip shot attempt. The ball was blocked and pinned off the line by San Diego’s Guerrero Pino, while the Savage bench screamed for a deliberate handball (which would result in a shootout and power play).

As play continued live for over a minute, the Sockers would pounce for the game-winning goal. Defender Cesar Cerda jumped on a steal at the Savage red line, feeding Brandon Escoto for a goal from the low-left wing at 9:28 for a 2-1 lead. Savage head coach Luis Jaime Borrego then jumped on the field (earning a yellow card) to throw his challenge flag, looking for the Pardo handball. MASL director of officials Ryan Cigich, the lead referee for the match, went to video replay to determine that Pardo never touched the ball, and the goal that followed counted.

“I never touched it,” said Pardo firmly after the match.

As Chihuahua pulled their keeper Berna Valdovinos forward to join the attack, San Diego’s counter which has served them well all season propelled the club into their second straight Final. Christian Gutierrez and Juan Manuel Rojo combined on a pair of counter goals at 13:43 and 14:35 to seal the victory.

The Sockers will face the Florida Tropics in Game One of the 2022 Ron Newman Cup Finals on either Friday or Sunday, to be announced by the MASL. The return leg, and Grand Final conclusion to the 2021-22 season, will begin at 5:05pm on Sunday, May 8 at Pechanga Arena San Diego. Tickets will go on sale Monday at or (866) 799-GOAL.