Around The League With Joseph Reina // West Finals

**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.**



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.


Chihuahua takes down the @SanDiegoSockers 1-0 in the Knockout Game to claim the Western Conference title for the first time in franchise history!

— MASL (@MASLarena) April 22, 2023

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.


They defend home turf, taking down the @TacomaStarsSC 5-0 in the Knockout Game, and the defending champions now wait for the winner of Texas and San Diego

— MASL (@MASLarena) April 8, 2024

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.


📺: (EN)
📺: (ES)

— MASL (@MASLarena) April 9, 2024

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.


— MASL (@MASLarena) January 15, 2024

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.

It's a Game 1 upset in Texas 😲😲

Pollo Cortes makes 29 saves, David Ortiz leads the way with two goals, and the #4 @TexasOutlawsFC take down the #1 @SanDiegoSockers 6-4 in Game 1

The series shifts to the Grand Old Arena on Monday night

— MASL (@MASLarena) April 7, 2024

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.