Kraig Chiles: Seizing The Championship Moment
As the voice of wisdom and experience on the San Diego Sockers, Kraig Chiles has been there and done that. He also understands that you have to savor the moment.
He has tasted victory by winning five national indoor championships.
He also has tasted bitter defeat and disappointment after winning division titles but falling short in the playoffs.
So, when the 37-year-old forward and team captain talks, his teammates will listen and realize competing for a league title doesn't necessarily come by very often.
Chiles started his indoor career on a roll, with four consecutive Professional Arena Soccer League championships. An eight-year drought ensued that held true until the Sockers captured the MASL crown in a truncated 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This season, the Sockers rolled to an astounding 23-0-1 regular-season record before dispatching the Milwaukee Wave and Chihuahua Savage in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
They will visit the Florida Tropics, which kicks off the MASL Ron Newman Cup Finals at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, Fla. on Monday, May 2 at 7 p.m. ET.
As we have learned, great regular seasons don't necessarily mean playoff success. The Sockers finished 19-3 and 23-1 in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, respectively, only to fall in the conference final.
If there is one thing the 5-11, 185-lb. Chiles has learned, it has been not to take anything for granted.
"Right now, I'm really trying to explain to a lot of the players the position that we're in and understanding that it's not easy," he said earlier this week. "It's not guaranteed. We've got to do our best to capitalize on this moment because it's not easy to get to a championship game. It's harder to win them. When you find yourself this far in the playoffs, you've just got to go into full tunnel vision and do your best to capitalize on the task in front of you.
"It can be mentally fatiguing at the end of the year. Physically, it's very fatiguing. Everybody's got their bangs and their bruises. But it's really about staying mentally engaged and in tuned until that last quarter of that second game."
There is little doubt the Sockers were the best team during the regular season, registering an impressive 23-0-1 mark. Moreover, San Diego hasn't lost at home since a 7-6 defeat to the Turlock Express on Nov. 24, 2019. Since then, the team is 20-0-1 at Pechanga Arena San Diego.
Chiles called what the team has accomplished "unique."
"It's a special group and we have this closeness that is unmatched," he said. "It's one thing to be good friends and it's another thing to be good friends and good players. It's a whole other thing to have a bunch of players that are at the right point in their career on the same team. We've got rookie players that are looking to make an impact and we've got established veterans that are doing their best to pass on their knowledge. We've got players in their prime that are performing, as good if not better than the rest of the players in the league. So, we have this balance of firepower offensively, defensively, speed, and intelligence. It seems to all be clicking for us."
The Sockers needed that, especially against the Savage, which captured Game One in an epic encounter in the semifinal series, 7-6, on April 18.
"We have a confidence about our group, and we have a camaraderie amongst the locker room that is border of confidence and arrogance," Chiles said. "I think we've got the equation right. We felt good about our chances at home. We know we have a good home-field advantage with our atmosphere and the size of our arena. We just didn't let the pressure get to us."
In Game Two in San Diego, the hosts recorded a 6-2 win, forcing a 15-minute Extra Time game in which the Sockers prevailed, 4-1.
"We wanted to take it quarter by quarter and shift by shift and make sure that we took care of business in Game One before we put a lot of emphasis and focus on Game Two," Chiles said of the San Diego matches. "It was a great battle with Chihuahua, a fantastic franchise. We just got the little details right in those two games to get us through."
One of the keys to the Sockers success this season?
Depth, seemingly endless depth.
If the first line won't get you, then the second line will, or perhaps the third line.
"We've got players within this team that maybe were penciled into the third line early in the year and they're performing like first-line players," Chiles said. "Players are playing to the best of their ability better than expected in year one and year two. It's a credit to the coaching staff and the organization and the professionalism from the San Diego Sockers to get the best out of each and every player. Our top players are performing at a very high level and the bottom of our roster is impacting the game and doing things in a positive manner. When the 15th and 16th players are impacting the game, it's very difficult to shut the team down."
The 2021 season was a strange one. Forced to play all their games on the road because of local COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the Sockers struggled to a 4-6 mark and a sixth-place regular-season finish.
Given a second chance in the playoffs - in which every team participated - San Diego went on a historic run, besting the Tacoma Stars and Tropics and southern California rival Ontario Fury in the finals.
"It was bizarre, but I think as a player in the position that I'm in and the age I'm at it in my career, I just felt fortunate and blessed that we were able to continue to play and that we had a season," Chiles said.
"I gave a lot of credit to the Sockers organization for participating last year knowing it was not going to be a financially profitable year by any stretch of the imagination. So, it's a credit for wanting to keep the Sockers' tradition and history alive. Logistically, obviously, the year was hard. It was a very short preseason that led to a really difficult regular season for our team. But we managed to put it all together late in the year when it counted. It was an epic way to round out a very funky year for the organization."
In the playoffs, the Sockers finally embraced and executed a system that head coach Phil Salvagio and his staff implemented.
"We had experimented in multiple games with high pressure or staying defensively compact and looking to counterattack,” Chile said. “By the playoffs. every single person in that locker room looked at each other and felt like if we sit in our own half and we counterattack on these teams, we're going have a really good shot of winning every single time we step on the field. We didn't really buy into it throughout the year. But when we got into playoffs, we all bought in ... and we just caught fire."
The Sockers may be confident, but they know they can't afford to throw their soccer shoes on the field and expect to win. Especially against a talented side such as the Tropics, who owned the second-best regular-season mark at 18-3-2 as the Eastern Division champs. The Tropics were 46-9-2 over the last three seasons.
"The Florida Tropics have been one of the best teams over the last couple of years," Chiles said. "They've got some of the best defensive players on the East Coast. They've got a Brazilian midfield of elite-level quality. They've got a few of the targets like Zach Reget that are absolutely dominating and impacting every game he plays.
"There are a lot of focal points to try to slow down with the Tropics. They're a well-rounded team with great defensive players and established veterans across the lines. We're going to analyze some game film and see where we can identify a couple of weaknesses. Otherwise, we're really going to focus on the San Diego Sockers, bringing our game and doing what we do best. If we all play to our full potential, we're going to put ourselves in a good situation in this series."
During the regular season, the finalists met once as the Sockers registered an 11-4 home win on March 31. Chiles discounted that result for several reasons.
"We're all human. We look at that result, and I think the average player it gives you a little bit of a positive feeling about how this game can go," he said. "But the experienced players know that that game doesn't have any implications on this playoff series. It could be significantly different. They played the night before in Ontario, which we know is challenging to play back-to-back. They didn't have a full roster. We're not getting super caught up in the result. But when we played Florida a month or two ago, however, it does give us that extra five percent of confidence going into this series."
If San Diego does win the title, it will have accomplished it against the 2018-19 champions (Milwaukee) and the second-and third-seeded teams in the league, Florida, and Chihuahua.
"It'll make it feel that much sweeter," Chiles said. "If we're lucky enough to hoist that trophy, knowing that we had to go through Milwaukee Wave, which is a historical franchise, and then into the fire down in Mexico, which has always been very difficult for us, and cap it off by beating the best team on the East Coast would be a fantastic feeling. It'll make us appreciate that championship that much more."
Chiles, who turns 38 on May 14, realized there is more sand at the bottom of his indoor soccer hourglass than in the top part. He has forged a legendary career, tallying 434 goals and 605 points to go with those five championships. He also has 33 goals and 17 assists in 32 postseason appearances.
"I've taken a different role this year where I've been a little bit of a supporting player in terms of regular shifts in the game," he said. "I've participated more on free kicks and power play and sixth-attacker. So, that's given me the ability to take a little bit less wear and tear on my body. Right now, I really feel good. I feel like I'm adding something to the team. I feel like I'm still a valued asset within the group."
In so many ways. During the regular season, Chiles scored 22 goals and assisted on 19.
In the playoffs, he leads everyone with seven goals and is second to Reget (13 points) with 10 points.
"I'm going to keep going year by year," he said. "A big part of my motivation to continue to play is my children, who are now seven and eight and with every game, get more and more invested in the team and in the results in the scoreline and soccer in general. I want nothing more than have my kids continue to be in the locker room, come on the field and come out of the bubble, and feel good about who their dad is, the captain of the team. That's my fire right now, to keep me going."
Before the Sockers departed for Florida, they did some bonding time at K1 Speed, a go-kart racing establishment. Chiles took second to Juan Gonzalez in the competition.
"We had a good couple hours of racing in the golf carts and being competitive, getting off our legs," he said. "It was a great fun time. We got the competitive juices flowing and got to jaw at each other a little bit and still have a good time."
The Sockers have held several bonding events during the season, including two recent team barbeques.
"I really feel like those helped bring us together on and off the field," Chiles said. "We do paintball annually, which is fun and a little bit nerve-racking for some of the boys that have never done it."
On Monday, Chiles will have his competitive juices flowing in another arena as the Sockers will strive to win the Ron Newman Cup, in Game One. The trophy is named after the legendary Ron Newman, who directed the Sockers to 10 indoor titles over 11 seasons back in the day.
Taking home the trophy again would be a big deal for the Torrance, Calif. native.
"Winning it again would be one of the golden championships of my entire career," he said. "The first four were in the PASL and the second one was during a funky COVID year. Now we have a legitimate opportunity to add a championship with a full schedule. We've got a great opportunity in front of us and we're just looking to seize the moment."
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.