Sockers stumble early and fall 6-5 at Chihuahua in Match One
CHIHUAHUA, MX—Rookie Javier Gallegos scored what turned out to be the match-winning goal 9:56 into the fourth quarter, and a late comeback attempt came up short as the San Diego Sockers dropped a 6-5 result on Tuesday night to the Chihuahua Savage at Corner Sport Arena in Chihuahua. San Diego now must win twice at home on Friday night in order to claim the Western Conference Final and advance to their third straight Ron Newman Cup Finals.
Kraig Chiles had two goals and an assist for the Sockers, but San Diego was unable to cash in on three critical power play opportunities to control the game, including one with 2:40 remaining in the fourth quarter. The runaway winners of the Major Arena Soccer League regular season now have some real work to do to prevent their glorious season (22-2, 2-1 playoffs) ending with nothing to show for it.
While a lengthy match saw many twists and turns, the Sockers should only point to the start to see where their path to victory went astray. San Diego was gifted two power plays in the opening quarter on an offensive deliberate handball and a too-many-men blue card penalty, but managed only one shot on goal between the four minutes of man advantage. In the closing seconds of a quarter they otherwise controlled, a ball that spilled loose in the crease allowed Chihuahua rookie Luis Gilberto Lopez to literally tap in a sitter from inches away for a 1-0 lead at 14:09 which loomed quite large hours later.
The Savage rode the momentum of their raucous sellout crowd of 2,500 and their tiny, forbidding field to turn the early one-goal lead into three. On a free kick in the fourth minute of the second quarter, Carlos “Poper” Hernandez’s shot-pass bounded off the boards as goalkeeper Boris Pardo dove low to try and grab the ball. Instead, the carom bounced high over him to the waiting head of Enrique Cañez, who was able to nod home a header while standing still at 3:36 for a 2-0 lead point-blank.
Just seconds later, another free kick from outside was stopped but not controlled in the crease, landing perfectly to Bryan Macias for an easy finish and a 3-0 Chihuahua advantage, the second goal in 20 seconds for the Savage. The Sockers took a timeout, and began their quest to forage their way back into the match.
San Diego’s target forwards kept their work rate high, and eventually found the herky-jerky rhythm of playing on a much smaller and bouncier field than their home turf. Chiles tracked a missed shot that pinballed off the plastic boards, wedging in the first Sockers goal of the night at 8:31 of the second quarter. Tavoy Morgan kept working on a low, loose bouncing ball and dug out a shot at sharp angle that pierced the side of the net at 10:59 for 3-2.
The Sockers guarded their 3-2 deficit into the locker room at halftime, then used a replay challenge to forge a tie. San Diego midfielder Brandon Escoto, who was held scoreless on the night, took a hard foul from Chihuahua’s Erick Ponce and then as he ran by, Ponce offered a quick rabbit punch to Escoto’s ribs while the referee was looking away. MASL Coach of the Year Phil Salvagio threw his one and only challenge flag, and the officials reviewed the play, showing Ponce a blue and yellow card for a major penalty. Felipe Gonzalez finished the power play chance on a Chiles assist at 2:34 to knot the score at 3-3, and it appeared for the moment that momentum was back with the champions.
However, one of the league’s most underrated clutch players showed his bonafides at the right time to put the Savage back on top. Playing without top scorers Hugo Puentes (ankle) and Edgar Gonzalez (knee), Chihuahua turned to crafty left-footed defender Roberto Escalante. His wing half-volley on a Macias assist at 5:33 put Chihuahua quickly back ahead 4-3. Late in the quarter at 12:55, Jorge Rios found a loose ball to his liking down low and rifled home his second goal of the playoffs for a 5-3 lead, which the Savage held into the quarter break.
Tavoy Morgan’s second of the night at 2:49 of the fourth quarter put San Diego back in striking range, but after a series of close chances, the Sockers couldn’t find the equalizer. Then, a game-changing penalty on a blue card shown to Sockers defender Luis “Peewee” Ortega for a late tackle wound up turning the tide. While San Diego was able to kill the two-minute penalty and twice saw the Savage ring the post, the third time turned out to be the charm. Ponce’s shot from right wing hit the left post and caromed past Pardo to Gallegos at close range, who was able to muscle home the eventual match-winner at 9:56.
The Sockers kept up the attack, and Chiles’ second goal of the night, a fearsome volley deflected inside right post at 11:30, put San Diego back within a single score. Ponce then gifted the Sockers a chance to tie when he was shown a dissent yellow card for arguing with the officials with 2:40 remaining. It was the third card taken by Ponce on the match, an automatic red card ejection and two-minute power play. However, even with pulling Pardo halfway through for a sixth attacker, the equalizer would not appear. The best chance came with 20 seconds remaining when Chihuahua slide-tackled a Cerda pass down low that was intended for Christian Gutierrez, waiting for a back post tap-in.
San Diego now flies home with their season and possible three-peat legacy on the line. The Savage was here a year before and lost 6-2 in Match Two, and 4-1 in the Knockout Game. Chihuahua will be looking to rewrite the script and book their first trip in franchise history to the Ron Newman Cup Finals. Match Two will kick off Friday at Pechanga Arena at 7:35pm and be carried live on Twitch in English (@masl_soccer) and Spanish (@sandiegosockers). Only a Sockers win would trigger a Knockout Game, which would begin within 15 minutes of the Match Two final horn. Tickets are available by visiting sdsockers.com or calling (866) 799-GOAL.