Most professional sporting seasons have their own rhythm, carved out after years of repetition. There is a training camp, some preseason activity, a regular season and then a playoff. The pressure games come at the end, when chasing a championship.
For the San Diego Sockers, the pressure will begin from the opening kickoff on Saturday night at the Valley View Casino Center, when the Sockers not only welcome in a new era at their old stomping grounds but place a 37-game winning streak on the line as they take on the Sacramento Surge. A 24-0 season in 2011-12 has positioned the Sockers just three wins away from matching the longest winning streak in United States professional team sports history.
Chasing History: Top Winning Streaks in U.S. Pro Sports
||Sioux Falls Storm (Arena Football, UIF)
||San Diego Sockers (indoor soccer, PASL)
||Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)
||Washington Kastles (World Team Tennis)
||Salt Lake City Trappers (MILB)
||New York Giants (MLB)
For a veteran team seeking to carve out their own indelible place in the Sockers’ rich history, does the streak matter? Depends on who you ask. Sockers’ captain Aaron Susi has a bigger goal in mind.
"We care more about championships than a 37-game win streak," said Susi, "I don’t care if we go into the playoffs with two or three losses. The goal here is to get to the championship game, and get a ’W’".
Other players are more willing to discuss the importance of putting the Sockers’ franchise in the record books. For 43-year-old midfielder Paul Wright, the Methuselah of indoor soccer who bridges the team’s last three appearances at the Sports Arena, the streak is a topic of discussion in the locker room.
"Yeah, we’ve talked about it, and what it means," said Wright, "Just to put us on the map. It’s a special feat to win that many games in a row. Those guys put in a lot of work (to build the streak), and we’ve put in a lot of work this offseason to continue that streak. It’s a lot of pressure but we’re looking forward to getting there."
To be sure, the Sockers are a team built to win right now. No other team in the PASL will come close to San Diego’s average age of 31.3 years. In addition to Wright and the 38-year-old Susi, Antonio Sutton (39), Riley Swift (35), Ze Roberto (34), Anthony Medina (33) and Chiky Luna (32) were all born in the ’70s. But in the shortened schedule of the PASL, with only sixteen games in the regular season and few opportunities to play back-to-back games, the Sockers can use their experience to their advantage while maintaining their legs.
Meanwhile, no team on paper can compare to San Diego’s collection of experience and talent. The Sockers boast the league’s all-time points leader (Brian Farber) and goals leader (Kraig Chiles), three of the league’s four MVPs (Farber ’08-’09, Chiles ’10-’11, ’11-’12), and past or present all-league performers at goalkeeper (Swift, Chris Toth), defender (Roberto, Diego Rovira, Dan Antoniuk, Sutton), midfield (Farber, Eduardo Velez, Wright) and forward (Chiles, Susi).
The question, as is always the case with an older team, remains health and durability. Already San Diego enters the season severely crippled by injury. Majell Aterado, a starting midfielder last season for the Sockers, is out for the year with a torn ACL in his knee, and energetic mid/forward Eric Wunderle will miss at least two months with a tendon injury in his foot. Rovira was recently cleared to resume training after suffering a groin strain but is still hampered and likely to miss the opening game. Antoniuk, who scored the crucial goal in the NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Soccer Bowl championship last week, will arrive in San Diego soon but could miss a couple of games rehabbing injuries accrued during his summer pro campaign.
The Sockers will also be integrating a pair of rookies into their starting lineup, and with early injuries the two signees, both out of the SDSU men’s soccer program, could see significant playing time. Forward Raymundo Reza (23) and defender Matt Couch (28) both showed signs of promise and also inexperience during the scrimmage with Mexico. Reza hit the post with a blistering shot and showed excellent recovery speed and the ability to win the ball in traffic, but will need time to adjust to the quicker pace of the indoor game. Couch has the size, strength and physicality you want from an indoor defender, but will need to learn to make faster decisions and when to take his shot. Ideally the two would be worked into the mix slowly but the Sockers may not have that luxury at the beginning of the season.
"It’s just cohesiveness and understanding the game," said Wright of the challenges faced by the rookies.
Amidst all of this change, the Sockers will take the field on Saturday not only with the pressure of maintaining their winning streak but also their perfect PASL record at home. The reincarnated Sockers never lost at the Del Mar Arena, posting a 35-0 all-time mark (including playoffs and friendlies) and a 24-0 regular season home mark in the PASL. Returning to the Valley View Casino Center means warmer viewing conditions, great viewing angles and a chance for many more fans to enjoy the product, but it also means a new home field advantage to be rebuilt and maintained.
For Paul Wright, though, it’s simply a homecoming.
"The memories of being here, the championships we won here, it’s really special to be back and part of it again. All the memories come flooding back to me, the fans banging on the glass...it’s the same field I grew up on. I’m looking forward to helping put on a show once again for the fans."
Another change in 2012-13 will be not only in the Sockers’ home venue, but in the field itself. The larger overall surface at the Valley View Casino Center as compared to the Del Mar Arena will mean more space for playmaking, blazing runs out of the backfield and breakaways. It’s an adjustment which was evident during the Sockers’ scrimmage with Mexico. While Chiles had more space outside to get his shot away, and Farber to zig-zag through the defense, a pair of errant passes in the second half led to breakaway chances and goals for the Toros.
"It’s definitely an adjustment, the field’s much bigger than it was in Del Mar," said Susi, "We’re getting used to the runs, playing team defense...it’s definitely a lot more running but I think it works to our advantage."
Wright concurs that once the Sockers are locked in and at full strength, the larger field will play to their favor.
"It shouldn’t take us more than a couple of games to get the hang of things and get used to our surroundings. We’ll definitely have a home field advantage by midseason."
There is an air of mystery to a PASL thinned by expansion. Nineteen teams will take the field in the league this year, including the expansion Sacramento Surge, San Diego’s opening night opponent. While the Dallas Sidekicks and Las Vegas Legends appear to be building strong sides in their opening campaigns, many of the rosters of teams around the league remain a mystery.
"We just have to worry about ourselves, that’s all we can do," said Susi of the league’s expansion, "I don’t know a lot of players on some of these new teams, but the way we’ve been playing the last few years, we’re the team to beat. They’ve got to come in and crack us and we’re just going to keep doing what’s been working well for us so far."
Susi’s singular focus helps explain why he’s the only player to be a part of all four PASL championship teams so far. The Sockers will be favorites once again to post the league’s best record and to host the Ron Newman Cup championships at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego. In a newly reconfigured West, the Sockers will compete in a Pacific Division with Sacramento as well as continuing rivals Anaheim, Tacoma and Turlock. The Turlock Express seem best positioned to challenge for second in the Pacific with a mostly intact roster returning from last year’s 10-6 team. Anaheim lost most of its veteran leadership to the Las Vegas roster but returns all-PASL defender Adriano de Lima and will suit up head coach Bernie Lilavois as a forward this season, which could lead to some fireworks both on the bench and the field. Tacoma will hope for improvement from young forwards like Eli Gordley and Mark Lee to step into the playoff discussion.
An additional change to the PASL playoff structure will add a home-and-home preliminary playoff leg before the Ron Newman Cup semi-finals and finals. Each of the four divisions will pit their first and second-place teams against one another in the preliminary round. The semi-finals and finals will be hosted by the team with the best regular season record this season.
Last year’s playoffs saw both Kansas and Detroit push the Sockers before eventually succumbing. Given that San Diego will play only two teams from the East (Dallas, Harrisburg) in the regular season, chances are high that the Sockers will be meeting a top PASL team from the East for the first time when they line up for an elimination playoff game. While the Pacific Division path looks safe and familiar, the Sockers know there are teams lurking in the distance that are hungry to knock them off their three-time champion perch.
"There’s a bulls-eye on our back, but we’ve been saying that for the past three years," said Susi, "Obviously we’ve won it the last three, and going into the fourth year we’re just trying to protect that home field advantage we have and keep the championship here."