WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
As if the other 13 teams need a reminder of how good the San Diego Sockers are, the two-time defending Major Arena Soccer League champions, will wear a unique jersey this year with 16 stars on it.
Those 16 stars will signify the number of championships the team has secured through more than four decades of indoor soccer.
The Sockers, who return many the players from last year's side, are aiming for a three-peat as the MASL's 2022-23 season begins.
The Western Division includes the San Diego Sockers, Monterrey Flash, Chihuahua Savage, Tacoma Stars, Dallas Sidekicks, Empire Strykers and Mesquite Outlaws.
The Florida Tropics, Milwaukee Wave, Baltimore Blast, Kansas City Comets, St. Louis Ambush, Utica City FC and Harrisburg Heat comprise the Eastern Division.
Last season, the MASL had three four-team divisions. With the addition/return of two clubs, the league decided to switch to a pair of divisions.
The 2022-23 regular season will run through Sunday, April 2, with the playoffs following.
The top three teams in each division will qualify for the postseason. The fourth- and fifth-place clubs in the divisions will meet in a play-in match to decide the final playoff berth. In the quarterfinals, the top-seeded team in each division will meet the No. 4 seed, while the second- and third-place teams will face off. The winners will meet in the division finals with the victors moving on to the championship series.
Here is a look at the Western Division:
San Diego Sockers
The big question is not whether the Sockers will contend for their third consecutive league championship, its whether they will lose at all this season.
During the 2021-22 campaign, they finished with a 23-0-1 record, with an overtime win.
San Diego is stocked to the hilt with loads of talent, stars and superior role players.
Coached by Phil Phil Salvagio, a familiar cast of talent will return, whether they be stars or superior role players.
Forwards Tavoy Morgan (39 goals, 10 assists) was named to the MASL Elite Six and Leonardo de Oliveira (13 g, 33 a), the league's Pass Master award winner, and the ever-reliable Boris Pardo (4.20 goals-against average), the MASL Goalkeeper of the Year.
The Sockers are far from a three-man show as they have depth at every position.
There’s midfielders Brandon Escoto (23 g, 21 a), Charlie Gonzalez (23 g, 16 a), who led the league with five game-winning goals, and Christian Gutierrez (19 g, 3 a) and the irrepressible Kraig Chiles (22 g, 19 a) at forward.
Juan Rojo (12 g, 12 a), Cesar Cerda and Mitchell Cardenas will anchor a solid backline again.
The Savage (15-7-2), which finished second behind the Sockers, might be the best team to unseat the champions in the West. Chihuahua battled San Diego into an extra time game in the playoff semifinals, recording a 7-6 home victory before the Sockers rallied at their own venue.
Coached by Jaime Borrego Chihuahua is bringing back another potent attack, led by attacking midfielder Jorge Rios (33 g, 11 a), forward Hugo Puentes (19 g, 15 a), defensive midfielders Enrique Canez (19 g, 12 a) and Carlos Hernandez (14 g, 10 a), and midfielder Bryan Macias (15 g, 9 a).
When he is in the line-up Edgar Gonzalez (10 g, 3 a in 10 games) is as dangerous as any forward in the game.
Roberto Escalante, who led the team with 33 blocked shots, Adrian Miller, Uriel Zuart and Luis Medrano form an impressive defensive quartet.
Berna Valdovinos and Ivan Muñoz, who shared the goalkeeping responsibilities in 2021-22, return to guard the net.
If Blas Perez is anywhere near effective indoors as he is outdoors, he will be a huge find for the Sidekicks. The former Panamanian international scorched the nets for his national team 42 times in 122 appearances. Perez, 41, represented Panama at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He is familiar with the Dallas area, having scored 37 goals in 103 matches for FC Dallas (Major League Soccer) from 2012-15.
Indoor and outdoor soccer can be as different as night and day, but a player with Perez's scoring instincts is vital and can be translated from one sport to another.
Ricardinho Cavalcante, the MASL 2021-22 Coach of the Year after turning a losing side into a playoff team after getting the job last December, has been forced to rebuild the attack after losing two of his three top scorers to other teams.
Midfielder Jamie Lovegrove (18 g, 19 a), who topped the Sidekicks, returns, as does forward Bradlee Baladez (14 g, 2 a).
Defense could wind up being the strength of the squad, behind two selections on the All-MLS second team, goalkeeper Juan Gamboa (5.62 GAA) and defender Mike Jones.
No, the Strykers are not an expansion team. In an offseason rebranding move, the Ontario Fury decided to rename the club.
Empire (9-13-2), which missed out on the playoffs, has a core of super-talented players returning. If they can get their act together, they not only will reach the postseason, but they could also be a team to be reckoned with under the tutelage of Jimmy Nordberg.
Franck Tayou (32 g, 14 a) is one of the league's most feared strikers, year in and year out.
Defender Robert Palmer has been as steady as they come, earning MASL Elite Six honors last year.
Chris Toth has proven himself to be one of the league's top goalkeepers (5.24 GAA).
And Uzi Tayou, Franck's brother, also can play some defense.
Captain and defender Israel Sesay is back for more, having signed a three-year contract extension. Midfielder Justin Stinson added 19 goals and five assists.
During the offseason, Empire added some important depth in forward Mohamed Ndiaye (19 g, 24 a), coming off an excellent season with the Baltimore Blast.
Midfielder Armando Tello, who has played with five MASL clubs, and forward Adam James, who most recently performed with the Kansas City Comets, also signed and could become important role players.
After taking a two year's hiatus, the Outlaws have returned to the league and already are making waves with several well-known players.
With Mesquite only 24 miles apart from Dallas, this is lying the groundwork for an intensified rivalry. The teams' first two encounters is set for late next, Dec. 29 at Dallas and Dec. 31 at Mesquite.
The Outlaws' only MASL season came during the 2019-20 campaign that was interrupted by the pandemic. They finished at 7-14.
Slowly, but surely, head coach Tatu, one of the greatest indoor players to play the game, is rebuilding the roster.
Indoor veteran Pablo Da Silva, the U.S. men's futsal national team assistant coach and a former member of the Brazilian futsal team who was fired by Sidekicks as coach last season, signed with the team.
Forward Luiz Morales (22 g, 8), the 2021-22 MASL newcomer of the year with Dallas, is considered one of the top rising young players in the league.
Also joining the team were midfielders Sebastian Mendez (12 g, 3 a), David Ortiz (6 g, 6 a), a member of the U.S. National Futsal Team, Erick Macias and Brenden Lee and defenders Stephen Gonzales and Darren Mitchell and forward Axel Chakounte.
Goalkeeper Eduardo "Pollo" Cortes (4.74 GAA), who played with Mesquite in its inaugural season, has returned after a stint with the St. Louis Ambush.
After going on hiatus for two seasons, the Monterrey Flash returns at it will try to recapture some of its past glory.
The Flash always has been one of the MASL's leading teams as it was league champions in its first campaign in 2014-15. Monterrey also reached the final in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. It looked like the team was ready for another deep playoff run with a stellar 20-2 record during the 2019-20 campaign, scoring league-best 196 goals but the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the playoffs.
With the club in hiatus, several players joined the Chihuahua Savage. So, head coach Mariano Bollella has been rebuilding and restocking the roster.
Returnees from the Flash's most recent season include goalkeeper Diego Reynoso, defenders Carlos Pichardo and Hector Vallejo and midfielders Edgar Flores, Erick Rosas and Erick Tovar.
Newcomers include midfielder Daniel Villela (7 g, 26 a, with Harrisburg in 2019-20).
Monterrey suffered a blow in the preseason when defender Anselmo Vendrechovsky Júnior (also known as Juninho) suffered a right foot injury that is expected to keep him sidelined until January. Juninho, a former captain of Tigres, is who is of Polish descent and is a naturalized Mexican citizen.
Needing to put a disappointing 6-16-2 season behind them in which they surrendered a league-high 192 goals, the Stars will have several fresh faces on the squad this year.
Head coach Adam Becker's squad needs to shore up the team defense and backline to avoid duplicating last season.
Team leading scorer Nick Perera (21 g, 27 a), who has tallied 102 goals in 71 appearances with Tacoma since 2017 and a member of the MASL second all-star team signed this week. Perera is a member of the U.S. Beach Soccer National Team.
Becker is still building the team, but he has been reassured with the return of several veterans, including goalkeeper Danny Waldman and defenders Alex Caceres (5 g, 14 a), Alex Megson and Corey Keitz and midfielders Jamael Cox and Philip Lund and forward Micheal Ramos.
Ray Mouloungui, the No. 2 pick in the MASL draft, has made an impact with goals in two wins with the Stars reserve team (2-0).
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.