Socks Hold On For 15th Straight Win & West Title
Christian Gutierrez and Tavoy Morgan scored two goals apiece, and Juan Manuel Rojo’s speed led to a pair of counter-attack assists including the eventual game-winner, as the San Diego Sockers held off Utica City FC 6-5 on Sunday afternoon at the Adirondack Bank Center. The Sockers (18-0-1, 51 points) won their fifteenth straight Major Arena Soccer League match, clinching the West Division with five matches remaining.
“We’re excited to clinch a very competitive Western division, but the work for us isn’t done,” said team captain Kraig Chiles, who extended his points streak to seventeen games with a first-quarter set-piece goal, before sitting out the rest of the match with a hamstring tweak.
Tavoy Morgan netted his team-leading 28th and 29th goals of the season, including his eighth power-play goal, tied for the MASL lead. Leonardo de Oliveira extended his career-high with his 27th assist of the season, and Cesar Cerda scored his fourth goal of the year. Boris Pardo split the net with Xavier Snaer-Williams, with the veteran Pardo playing the first quarter and the final 6:12 of the fourth, as Utica (6-13, 17 points) mounted a furious comeback.
The Sockers improved to 10-0 on the road, and on Sunday battled both Utica, logistics, and time itself. After wrapping up a 9-6 win in Baltimore on Saturday night at approximately 8:30 East Coast time, the club boarded vans and made the six+ hour drive to upstate New York, stopping only for quick food. The Sockers didn't reach their hotel until after 3am, by which point Daylight Savings Time had kicked in, taking an extra hour’s rest off the board.
Getting ready for a 2pm kickoff that felt more like 10am to the players led to a determined but weary performance in which set-pieces and counter-attacks would prove crucial. San Diego opened the scoring at 3:51 when Juan Gonzalez spotted a streaking Gutierrez on the counter to the back post, threading a perfect diagonal cross pass that was slammed in for a 1-0 lead.
Joey Tavernese answered on a top-arc set piece for UCFC, finishing a left-wing feed from Jake Schindler at 5:53 for a 1-1 tie. Just over a minute later, it was San Diego’s turn on a free kick from within the Utica penalty crease. Chiles mashed the shot over a four-man wall and into the upper-left corner for his 22nd goal of the year at 6:56, tweaking his plant leg in doing so.
When another set-piece opportunity arose in the 11th minute, it was Leonardo de Oliveira on the ball instead of Chiles. Leo made the opportunity count from the low left-wing, whipping a shot off UCFC keeper Andrew Coughlin and directly to the foot of Cerda, who toe-poked home his fourth goal of the year at 10:54 for a 3-1 advantage.
Morgan dominated the second quarter, responding to a Nate Bordeau goal for UCFC with a pair of his own. Tavoy finished off a lovely two-man play with Juan Manuel Rojo, who sent the ball into the attacking zone to Morgan on a counter, received it back, and then set up Tavoy for a short-post goal and a 4-2 lead at 7:40. After a blue card was shown to Utica’s Ronaldinho Diaz for tripping, San Diego cashed in the power play on a set piece within, as Charlie Gonzalez slid a pass from the top of the arc to the low-left corner for an easy Morgan finish at 9:48. The Sockers led 5-2 at halftime.
Utica captain Bo Jelovac clawed back a goal at 7:06, but the Sockers would post the eventual match-winner on a familiar attack fans have seen all season, the “TJ counter”. Fellow Tijuanense Juan Manuel Rojo and Christian Gutierrez got out on the run after a blocked shot, with Rojo slotting a pass to Gutierrez on the back post for a finish that crawled through Coughlin and into the net. Gutierrez’s 17th goal of the season and third of the weekend made it 6-3 at 14:15, and the Sockers held the advantage into the third quarter break.
San Diego’s hope was to leach time off the clock with possession in the fourth quarter and rest tired legs, but a scrambling UCFC side forced the issue with pressure defense. Snaer-Williams attempted to send a distribution out of his zone halfway through the frame, but Utica’s Rafa Godoy stepped in front of it, deflecting the ball toward goal. Both Snaer-Williams and defender Guerrero Pino crashed toward the net at full speed to try and rake the ball away, but the two collided and only helped secure the goal for Utica, narrowing the score to 6-4 at 8:49.
Pardo was summoned off the bench to close out the match like a baseball closer, and helped guide the San Diego defense through some nervy moments in the final six minutes. Utica managed a scrambling goal from Tim Goldman at 12:29, but Pardo kept a loose ball away from Tavernese with 20 seconds left, the last chance for a UCFC equalizer.
The Sockers will return to the East Coast in two weeks for another back-to-back, taking on Baltimore and Harrisburg. Prior to that trip, San Diego has a single home match on Sunday, March 20 against the Tacoma Stars, a 5:05pm kickoff from Pechanga Arena. Tickets are available for “Military Night”, in which the Sockers will wear digital-camouflage kits and fans will receive a giveaway bucket hat presented by Frontwave Credit Union, by calling (866) 799-GOAL or visiting sdsockers.com/tickets.