by Joseph Reina

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints or positions of the Major Arena Soccer League.**



#1 San Diego Sockers vs #2 Chihuahua Savage

Their paths were far from comfortable, but the cream always rises to the top. Last year’s Western Conference finalists will face off again after two enthralling first-round series ended with Chihuahua and San Diego emerging victorious, in a similar fashion. After dropping their respective away legs to Tacoma and Texas, it looked like we might get an upset or two, but calm, composed home performances from both sides put those thoughts to bed.

The tie shared much in common with last year’s iconic Western Conference Finals, with San Diego and Chihuahua reprising their roles as the respective first and second seeds. The Savage kickstarted this rivalry with a long-range walk-off goal to end the Sockers' season. Since then, they’ve won a championship, lost some key fixtures of that side, recovered, and returned to the same stage they graced a year ago.

I mentioned previously that a key for the Stars to advance would be containing their opponent’s typically high-volume shooting. In Tacoma, that worked perfectly, as the visitors accumulated just 19 shots, down 49.3% from their season average of 37.542.

The Stars used their home-field advantage to perfection, as they came from behind late in the fourth quarter thanks to goals from Nani Mendoza and Stefan Mijatovic. The game slowed down, rewarding a more systematic approach, but in Chihuahua, the Savage could play their way.

Head coach Genoni Martinez’s side thrives on mayhem. They turn high pressure into dangerous giveaways and in turn, take loads of shots and play the numbers game on offense. Watching the game, Tacoma looked shell-shocked, unable to get into the rhythm they craved, and as a result, the Savage ran riot.

Chihuahua took 35 shots, led 4-0 at the half, and always looked in control. During the resulting Knockout Game, the Savage picked up right where they left off. Carlos “Poper” Hernandez scored just eight seconds in, setting the tone for the remaining 14 minutes and 52 seconds. They scored early and they scored often, dooming the Stars to elimination.

San Diego lost 6-4 in the first leg of their tie against Texas, who returned several injured players. Luiz Morales and Erik Macias made their first appearances since Feb. 1 and Mar. 9 respectively, but it was Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes in goal whose return stole the show.

In his first game since Mar. 1, Cortes put together a monumental goalkeeping performance. His 29 saves and .879 save percentage combined with Uzi Tayou’s 10 blocks kept San Diego to just four goals in Mesquite. Only Chihuahua, Kansas City, and Milwaukee have kept the Sockers to four goals or less and now you can add Texas to that list.

Game two went the way of San Diego, after a strong start from the hosts. Brandon Escoto scored two goals in quick succession to open the first quarter. Felipe Gonzalez added a third roughly 20 seconds later and from there, the tide turned dramatically in favor of the Sockers.

Boris Pardo saved 82.4% of the shots he faced, finishing game two with fourteen saves and just three goals against. On offense, nine Sockers registered a point for a thoroughly comprehensive 8-3 win, setting up another Knockout Game. Phil Salvagio’s side carried their momentum with them and won 4-0 with a dominant display reminiscent of Chihuahua’s performance the previous evening.

As a result of both teams’ home heroics, the Western Conference Finals will feature the top-seeded San Diego Sockers and the #2 seed, Chihuahua Savage. The two teams are quite familiar with each other, having played each other three times this season, and they’re anything but friendly. Nineteen cards have been issued so far, with San Diego receiving the lion's share thanks to their six blue cards and four yellows.

All three contests have been tense and tight, though their January meeting stands out as one in which the Savage completely dominated. In his first appearance, Diego Reynoso made 16 saves and conceded just once for an astounding 0.941 save percentage. Fresh off four straight losses to Monterrey, many were questioning the Savage, but Martinez and his side found a style of soccer that suited them well, putting San Diego to the sword with a simplicity rarely seen in this league.

Since then, their battles have been much closer, but there’s no dancing around the fact that despite their lower seeding, Chihuahua are the favorites to advance. While the Sockers have proven they can play them close, the fact remains that the Savage have won all three meetings, both home and away, and with Tacoma and Monterrey’s eliminations, no team still in contention has beaten Chihuahua this season.

San Diego found a way to take care of business, and in the end, looked in complete control, but that loss in Texas raised a few concerns. I’ve said it before, they’ve struggled against teams with above-average defenses this season, and this was more proof. Chihuahua and Kansas City are the best examples, but the Stars and Outlaws showed that one-off defensive stands can slow the Sockers down too.

For the Savage to advance, it all will start at the back. Maintain a strong structure, stick to the defensive game plans, and make sure to capitalize on the counter as they’ve done so well all season. They don’t have a standalone striker to rely on in these games - only Adriano Nunes has scored more than one goal in a game for the Savage against the Sockers in 2024 - so their strength is unpredictability in attack.

San Diego’s key to winning will be controlling possession and working the ball through Chihuahua’s press, especially at Corner Sport Arena. They have the talent to convert with Tavoy Morgan, Kraig Chiles, and Gabriel Costa leading the lines, but they need to create enough chances to score, and to do that, they’ll need to control possession more than they have.

Last year’s Ron Newman Cup Champions did what they needed to do to get back to the Conference Championship game, but just as it was last year, expect intensity, some fireworks, and fantastic end-to-end play from two of the league’s best sides. Catch the first leg from Corner Sport Arena on Thursday, Apr. 18 at 10:05 p.m. EDT, and the second leg on Sunday, Apr. 21 at 8:05 p.m. EDT with the Knockout Game immediately following game two if necessary.

Eastern Conference

#3 Kansas City Comets vs #4 Milwaukee Wave

Who saw this coming? Two upsets in the opening round mean that for the first time in MASL history, a team seeded lower than first or second in their division will play in the Ron Newman Cup Finals. First, in Monterrey, David beat Goliath and then the Comets got the job done with a sweep over Utica. What comes next will be a defining chapter in the epic that is this fantastic rivalry.

Let’s not bury the lede here. Milwaukee’s escape job would make Houdini proud. After dropping game one with a deflating mental lapse, the Wave traveled to Monterrey with a mountain to climb. Hiram Ruiz’s winning goal in Milwaukee earned the Flash their 25th consecutive victory this season, keeping their perfect season intact.

And now, down a game, Giuliano Oliviero’s side needed to end that perfect season on the road, by winning not one, but two games without the likes of Marcio Leite, Ian Bennett, and most recently, Max Ferdinand and Alex Sanchez, both of whom left game one with injuries.

Despite playing well in the first half, the Wave trailed 3-1 halfway through the third quarter and it was clear that a miracle was imperative. Their answer came in the form of three goals from Javier Steinwascher, Andre Hayne, and Stuart Grable within three minutes of one another. The Flash equalized soon after, but it set up Ricardo Carvalho to break the deadlock and end Monterrey’s streak with his second goal of the night.

During the following knockout game, the Flash drew first blood, before Carvalho scored his third goal of the night to force overtime in the minigame, putting even more pressure on the Flash to find a winner. Back and forth, chance after chance, both teams’ seasons hung in the balance, until Derek Huffman fired an emphatic wallascora volley past Berna Valdovinos. There it was; The Miracle in Monterrey.

The Wave did what no team had done before. Many came close, but none succeeded. It may feel guided by recency bias, but when looking at the data, there is no hyperbole in saying this is the most improbable upset in MASL history. Never before has the league’s top-seeded team lost their first series, and only twice have lower-seeded teams ever lost their first game at home before going on the road and winning both game two and the Knockout Game.

I’ve been critical of the Wave this season, specifically regarding their bad habit of conceding first-half goals forcing themselves to come back later in games. I was impressed with their ability to get punched in the mouth and keep fighting, but I said they needed to find a way to start blocking the shots, both metaphorically and literally. That never-say-die attitude proved crucial against Monterrey and is one reason nobody should rule out the Wave.

I also want to give goalkeeper William Banahene his flowers because without him in goal, there is no way the Wave could have pulled this off. Willie B as he’s known, faced made 40 saves across the series for a cumulative save percentage of 76.9%. His reactions were cat-like and his willingness to throw himself into the board for a save shows his fight. On his day, there is not another goalkeeper who can save shots like Banahene.

Milwaukee’s next opponents and old rivals will be Kansas City, who kept a Utica side that boasted the league’s second-best offense to just nine goals in two games. Their incredible defensive performances are becoming a bit of a hallmark for Stefan Stokic and his team, and this series was proof that they can keep it going into the playoffs.

Goalkeeper Nicolau Neto had a special series with 25 saves across the two games and a 0.81 save percentage in leg one. His incredible reflexes kept the Comets in the game at times, allowing his side to force overtime where Ignacio “Nacho” Flores stamped his mark on the match with his game-winning goal.

Nacho was especially incredible in the series, bagging five goals and two blocks across the two games. His reliability and eagerness to step up and be the difference maker is a key reason he was named captain midway through this season. Though it’s easy to say now that his impact is massive, there were points this season when his consistency flew under the radar but the Chile native is peaking at the right time and showing why his name should be on everyone’s lips, alongside his side’s top scorer, Zach Reget.

Speaking of Reget, the MVP candidate continued his form into the postseason with two special performances. Reget, who turned down a call-up to the U.S. Futsal national team to stay with the Comets during the playoffs, accumulated two goals and three assists in the series. He’s a clear leader for his side, absorbing pressure and attention to help his teammates generate and exploit space across the turf, and he’s not too bad at finding the net himself.

This list of praise could go on forever, but that’s exactly what sets the Comets apart. The entire team is bought into a system that is winning them games, and the players are putting that system into action to perfection. They find peace amid the pandemonium and play their game, regardless of their opponent. They have so few weaknesses that it feels moot to attempt to target them.

There isn’t much to be taken from when the Wave and Comets met back in November, but we can learn a few things from their games against common opponents: Monterrey, Utica, and San Diego.

Kansas City’s defense gave up just 17 shots in game two and curtailed what looked like a poised and electric Utica offense after the first quarter. The hosts took nine of their 17 shots in the opening fifteen minutes and failed to register a single effort in the fourth quarter. Defending that stout will win both games and championships.

For the Comets to earn a spot in the Ron Newman Cup Finals, that defending must be at its very best. Neto, Robert Palmer, and Chad Vandegriffe have to operate with a single brain, all thoughts in unison to keep Milwaukee at bay. The Wave struggled to find their footing against San Diego’s defense, so forcing Huffman, Carvalho, and Hayne into tougher shots will give the Comets an edge.

Milwaukee knows the goal will be keeping the game fast while taking advantage of set pieces. There are few teams better prepared for dead-ball situations, thanks to Oliviero and his staff, so keep an eye on free-kicks and restarts because that’s a key phase of the game for Milwaukee. Despite missing a load of talent, they can still convert their chances when presented with them.

They’ve also morphed into a team that can run with teams like Monterrey and Chihuahua, creating and capitalizing on chaos. To advance, it’s not going to be the normal guys who make the difference, it will have to be the second and third lines who put in the work on every single shift and refuse to quit, just as they did so well in Mexico.

This classic indoor soccer rivalry is ripe with animosity and the victors’ reward will be a spot that few expected to be available. Destiny and despair await as the series kicks off in Milwaukee on Friday, Apr. 22 at 7:35 p.m. EDT, before the two teams travel to Kansas City for the second leg on Monday, Apr. 25 at 7:35 p.m. EDT with the Knockout Game immediately following game two if necessary.