by Craig Elsten/Sockers

Tavoy Morgan’s second-half hat trick propelled the San Diego Sockers to their 16th straight win on Sunday night, a hard-fought 8-6 victory over the Tacoma Stars at Pechanga Arena San Diego. The Sockers (19-0-1, 54 points) solidified their hold on the top place in the MASL standings table, moving five points ahead of second-place Florida, while clinching no worse than second place in the season-end table.

That’s the good news. The bad news left a pall hanging over the Sockers locker room after the match.

Sockers forward Christian Gutierrez, an integral part of San Diego’s defense and a 17-goal scorer at forward, suffered a third-quarter ankle injury in a collision that left him requiring assistance to leave the floor. Gutierrez will have X-rays on Monday, but the training staff fears a major injury that could end Gutierrez’s season.

“We’ve just got to play for him, and do everything he was doing,” said Morgan after the match, “We’ll have to get guys involved, pressuring guys and finishing our chances. We’re gonna be okay.”

San Diego entered the match stretched to the limit due to injury and illness, then lost two players during the match. Midfielder Andy Reyes, who scored his first Sockers goal in the second quarter, suffered a pulled left hamstring in the third quarter that forced him to the locker room.

Already missing captain Kraig Chiles (hamstring), midfielders Felipe Gonzalez (hamstring) and Gerardo Jurado (ankle), defender Guerrero Pino (protocol), and midfielder Sean Callahan (hamstring), the Sockers got more bad news on Sunday morning when defender Cesar Cerda (illness) called in sick. The Sockers were forced to turn to 40-year-old forward Eduardo Velez to make his season debut, and 39-year-old midfielder Brian Farber to play for the first time since January 9, having just returned to training this week. By match’s end, both Farber and Velez were taking regular shifts on the floor, the Sockers reduced to 14 active and healthy players.

Not to be ignored was a valiant effort from the Tacoma Stars (5-12-2), who led 4-2 at the half and pushed the Sockers from start to finish for the second time this season at Pechanga Arena. Nick Perera’s fourth-quarter set-piece goal from Jamael Cox (hat trick, assist) gave the Stars a 6-5 lead at 4:19, their second goal off a set-piece in three minutes.

San Diego turned the match around on a brilliant effort from Morgan, who had already netted his 30th and 31st goals of the season in the third quarter. Tavoy leaped for a long aerial distribution from goalkeeper Boris Pardo, launching a snap header off the goal wall. Morgan followed his rebound and left-footed the ball over Danny Waltman for the equalizer at 5:10.

After having three potential goals just miss crossing the line earlier in the match, Morgan’s fortunes turned at exactly the right time.

I was taking a lot of shots, trying to be patient, doing what my teammates tell me to do, and the goals came, I was happy with it!” said a beaming Morgan afterwards.

Brandon Escoto put the final two goals home for San Diego. The match-winner came at 6:34, finishing a 3-v-1 counterattack and smashing home Juan Manuel Rojo’s pass into a half-empty net. The Sockers did well down the stretch to kill time, possessing so that the Stars could not turn to the sixth attacker until there were 71 seconds remaining. Alex Caceres’ shot with 30 seconds left took a deflection that left Pardo helpless to the result, but the ball clattered wide. Escoto got a long lead pass from Leonardo de Oliveira (two assists) with 10 seconds left and walked the ball into the open goal with 4 seconds remaining to seal the victory.

San Diego now returns to the road next weekend for back-to-back matches Saturday in Baltimore, and Sunday in Harrisburg. The Sockers could be without every player except Cerda who missed Sunday’s match, putting San Diego into a position where they may need to sign players from the outside to fill up the roster for the trip.

The Sockers will return home for the final two matches of the season the following week, including a showdown against the Florida Tropics on Thursday, March 31st. $5 GA tickets for “Nopening Night” are available by phone at (866) 799-GOAL or via the link on the Sockers’ Instagram profile, @sandiegosockers.