INDEPENDENCE, MOThrough a season of adversity, a team worthy of competing for a Ron Newman Cup championship has been forged. On Saturday, that team took its biggest step forward in eight seasons. 

Christian Gutierrez broke a 3-3 tie with a goal at 13:16 of the fourth quarter, as the San Diego Sockers held off the Florida Tropics 4-3, upsetting the top team in the Major Arena Soccer League and staking claim to a berth in the Ron Newman Cup Finals. San Diego will meet the Ontario Fury, who defeated the Kansas City Comets 2-1 in the other semi-final matchup, in a best-of-three series on April 16 and 18 at Toyota Arena in Ontario, CA.

The Sockers are 4-0 in the playoffs, with all four games decided by a single goal, three in overtime. This time, it only took sixty minutes to secure the win; sixty minutes fraught with tension. San Diego was out-shot by Florida 40-16, including 40-10 in the final three quarters. The Sockers blocked a season-high 19 shots, and William Vanzela stopped 18 of 21 in net to secure the win. 

Just another day in the office for me,” said a smiling Vanzela of the heavy workload, Weve learned who we are as a team. It took us a long time to figure it out, but toward the end of the season we figured out we are the best defensive team in the league.

Brandon Escoto, Kraig Chiles, and Leonardo de Oliveira also scored goals for the Sockers, who led 2-0 at halftime and 2-1 after three quarters. Leos power-play goal gave San Diego a 3-1 lead in the early fourth quarter, only to see the Tropics rally back. Ian Bennetts goal with six attackers on the field, his second of the match, tied the score at 3-3 with 2:15 left in regulation. 

We maintained our focus,” said Chiles of the late adversity, Its four quarters. We dug deep, and weve been in this scenario before. Were coming together as a team. There was no quit, no complaining. We were confident.

Confidence comes from the repetition of success, and at this point, seeing Christian Gutierrez on the field late is a confidence builder for the Sockers.

You know, when its all said and done, get the ball to Gladiador’ late in the game and say a prayer,” said Chiles, and hes gonna pipe it in there!

The confidence is soaring inside Gutierrez as well, as he sees years of hard work translate into postseason success.

I didnt have too much confidence in the (regular) season, because I didnt have many goals,” said Gutierrez after the match, In the playoffs, the team believes in me, and late in the game they say lets go’”

The Sockers came to the field knowing they would need to match the intensity of the #1 seeded Tropics, who lost 5-4 in overtime on Friday, their first competitive match in three weeks. San Diego answered the bell and then some in the opening quarter on Saturday, holding Florida without a shot in the opening fifteen minutes. Late in the quarter, the Sockers found the lead. Tracking a wall pass from Tavoy Morgan, Escoto followed his own shot and put in the rebound with only 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter for the game’s first goal.

The Tropics started to find the net in the second quarter with shots, but had a hard time finding a clear look at goal. While Vanzela made six saves in the quarter, a late penalty on Floridas VcMor Eligwe for a trip gave San Diego a power-play opportunity. In the closing seconds of the man advantage, Escoto lifted a shot/pass to the left post from the right-wing. Chiles was there, and the ball deflected in off his chest for a 2-0 lead at 13:36. 

At least, it was supposed to go off his chest. Or, it mostly went off his chest, but maybe a bit of arm as well. The Tropics did not challenge the call on the field, but TV replays indicated that Chiles’ arm may have drifted a little further from his torso than he realized at the time. 

It hit my chest or my shoulder, and we were lucky enough to get it in,” said Chiles of the goal, referred to as the Armband of God’ on the MASL broadcast by color analyst Erik Burgrud, Honestly, I dont think it was a handball, but it could go either way on any given night. I was lucky enough to have it squeak in.

A Bennett power play header goal at 4:21 of the third quarter made the score 2-1, but the pressure was mounting on the San Diego defense, as the Tropics out-shot the Sockers 30-6 in the final thirty minutes. Time after time, shots and centering feeds were knocked out of the middle by a team committed to defending their goal. 

If I have a teammate thats diving in front of me, Ill dive in front of him as well,” said Vanzela, Thats the spirit of this locker room. Were gonna take one for the team. So many guys were blocking shots, I couldnt even tell who it was. Good defense wins championships!

Both head coaches used a successful replay challenge to alter the flow of the game in the fourth quarter. San Diegos Phil Salvagio successfully challenged a foul in the crease, gaining a blue card power play for his team. Leonardo de Oliveira converted the opportunity into a goal with a brilliant back-heel score at 5:59 of the fourth quarter. 

Floridas Clay Roberts threw his flag with just under six minutes left in the game, and was also successful in challenging a common foul into a blue card. While the Tropics didnt score on the ensuing power play, they were able to knot the score moments later on Bennetts sixth attacker goal.