Whenever the Sockers have had reason to celebrate, something has been missing from their locker room.
There was no champagne when they won the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Western Division, the home-field playoff advantage or the quarterfinal series against Kansas City.
So before Friday night’s game, a team sponsor sent two dozen bottles of champagne to the Sockers in anticipation of a three-game semifinal sweep. But the corks remained unpopped because Minnesota popped the Sockers’ undefeated playoff bubble, 8-5, before 8,270 fans at the Met Center.
Minnesota Coach Alan Merrick was told beforehand about the champagne. Naturally, he said, he used it as motivation for his team.
Perhaps somebody could have motivated the Sockers by telling them that a win would have given them a week off. Instead, they must now play Game 4 Sunday night at the Met Center, where Minnesota has won 10 straight.
Friday’s game developed a familiar pattern when the Sockers fell behind early. But unlike Wednesday, when the Sockers came from behind four times and won, 6-5 in overtime, there was no coming back this time.
“We didn’t bring our heads again,” defender Kevin Crow said. “We’ve had to come from behind too many times the last two games. We have to realize that if we get behind early, this team will drop back on defense against us. It’s like going against a brick wall.”
But the Sockers must have thought they were up against two steamrollers--Minnesota’s Drago Dumbovic and Thompson Usiyan. Dragovic had four goals and one assist, and Usiyan had four assists.
Dumbovic, who was acquired from Wichita in a midseason trade, said he was extremely happy to be in Minnesota because Wichita’s team rules were too strict. Usiyan said he’s happy in Minnesota because he still believes the Strikers can win the series.
“San Diego has good players, but they don’t like to run,” Usiyan said. “They’re not disciplined enough to stay with you. The way to beat them is to outrun them, which we did tonight.”
Minnesota is known as a running team. When the Strikers upset Las Vegas in the MISL quarterfinals, Las Vegas Coach Don Popovic said Minnesota’s running had beaten his team’s superior talent.
Friday, Minnesota had Socker goalkeeper Zoltan Toth wishing he was running for cover from the outset. The Strikers took a two-goal lead within the first 2:46 of the game on shots by Dumbovic and Ray Hudson.
San Diego tied the game by the first quarter’s end on goals by Branko Segota and Jacques Ladouceur. But that was the last time the Sockers were not behind.
Dumbovic scored twice off Usiyan assists in the first 3:23 of the second quarter, giving Minnesota a 4-2 lead. Steve Zungul cut the margin to 4-3 with a goal at 6:21.
However, Minnesota took a 6-3 halftime lead on goals by Jan Goossens and Hudson.
Goalkeeper Tino Lettieri--and the goalpost--helped keep Minnesota in command. Lettieri made three saves on shots from point-blank range in the first half and two other Socker shots hit the post.
“The problem was that we were hitting all corners of the post and Lettieri,” assistant coach Johan Aarnio said. “Nothing was going in. We hit everything but Lettieri’s parrot in back of the goal.”
Coach Ron Newman remained in San Diego with his wife, Olive, who is recovering from breast cancer surgery. Aarnio said he thinks Newman will fly to Minnesota for Sunday’s game.
No matter who coaches Sunday, Aarnio said the Sockers must be reminded to have five men back on defense at all times. Minnesota was receiving numerous 4-on-3, 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 breakaways Friday because of the Sockers’ failure to get back defensively.
“They were outrunning us, especially in the first half,” Toth said. “I blocked the ball in the middle three times and it went to a guy who scored. It was unbelievable. I actually felt better than in my last game against Minnesota, and look what happened.”
Toth had been in goal when San Diego won Game 1 of the semifinals, 8-1. But that game was in San Diego, where the crowd was behind the Sockers. A very noisy Minnesota crowd admittedly had an effect on the Sockers.
“The crowd gave them a lift,” Aarnio said. “Now they know that they can do it to us here. That’s what we didn’t want to have happen.”