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An Offensive Star Is Born--Socker Gary Collier

If Gary Collier was an actor, he’d be a guy who never gets a speaking part. He’d never kiss the leading lady because he’d never be on the set at the same time.

He’d never see his name on a marquee, only on a scrolled list of credits. And assistant grips would probably get bigger and bolder lettering.

Sure, Collier could make it to the Academy Awards, but only if he was moonlighting as a limousine driver.

Gary Collier is not an actor, but he plays an equally unacclaimed role with the Sockers.

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He is a defender.

Defenders are not encouraged to touch the ball unless someone has shot it at them. When the Sockers are on the attack, with luminaries such as Branko Segota and Juli Veee peppering shots at some beleaguered goalkeeper, defenders had best stay out of the way.

“My role,” Collier was saying the other night, “is to be a disciplined defender . . . and not come forward too often.”

Collier took all of 16 shots during the regular season, which figures to one every three games. Only three regulars, two of them goalkeepers, took fewer shots. Some people get to Europe more often than Collier gets to the offensive end of the field.

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Yet there he was Thursday night, cruising near the top of the penalty area while Segota was break-dancing with St. Louis Steamer goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski. The ball, seemingly caught in a tangle of arms and legs, popped free in Collier’s direction.

This was opportune because Collier was probably close to being arrested for either trespassing or loitering. As long as he had something to keep him occupied, no one could complain.

As it was, Collier promptly swatted the ball with his left foot and it sailed past Ilijevski into the net.

End of game. It had taken all of 60 regulation minutes and 11:31 of an overtime period, but the Sockers had subdued those St. Louis Dreamers, 7-6, in the opening game of the 1985-86 Major Indoor Soccer League playoffs.

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There was Gary Collier, of all people, being mobbed by his teammates. He had stepped out of his supporting role and into the spotlight. After four years of caddying for the Segotas, Zunguls and Veees, Collier grabbed the stick and made the putt.

“This man is my hero,” said Brian Schmetzer, another one of those anonymous Socker defenders. “That’s on the record.”

Fine, Brian. You’re on.

“Good ol’ Gary Collier,” beamed Coach Ron Newman, tugging at a bow tie that became unexpectedly snug on this evening. “Gary has a knack for scoring important goals.”

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Come again?

How many important goals does anyone score for the Sockers? This team does not have what might be called a flair for the dramatic. It cinches playoff berths by Christmas, regular-season championships by Valentine’s Day, home-field advantages by the Ides of March and then goes out and wins playoff games by 14-2, 7-0 and 12-3 scores. Identify the important goal in an 8-1 win.

Collier did score a milestone goal in the Sockers’ final regular-season game. It was the team’s 303rd goal of the year, and it set an MISL record.

This goal was Collier’s fourth of what, for him, has been a very offensive year. After all, he had scored exactly four goals in his three previous years with the Sockers.

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However, this milestone goal was scored during an 8-3 win, and thus was statistically significant but strategically insignificant.

Now Thursday night’s goal was important with a capital I. It was dramatic with a capital D.

It was appropriate that such an unlikely hero should emerge because it was a most unlikely game.

These Dreamers from St. Louis did not stand a chance, not against the dynastic Sockers. Everyone thought the Sockers could almost sleepwalk through this quarterfinal series. Since San Diegans are not the type to gawk at traffic accidents, all but 7,506 stayed home.

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Having acclimated themselves to their press clippings, the Sockers went right out and fell asleep in the middle of the Sports Arena. They led, 2-0, through a yawner of a first half, sending their fans scrambling to concession stands in search of caffeine.

Little did anyone suspect that this match would become what might be the most exciting home match the Sockers have ever played.

St. Louis, playing at what Ilijevski later described as 150% of its capabilities, would score four goals in the third period and lead, 5-4, in the fourth period. In the final minutes of regulation, with the score tied at 6-6, the theme from “Deliverance” was echoing on the public address system. Deliverance was what the Sockers needed at about that time.

This game had taken on the structure of a Neil Diamond concert, starting slowly and building in both intensity and crescendo.

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And it would have that encore of an overtime.

Obviously, the Sockers had been awakened by these Dreamers. They came out for the overtime period and hammered shot after shot at Ilijevski, who must have been playing at 200% of his capabilities. All the marquee names launched their best shots, and Ilijevski--doing an Olympian gymnastics imitation--turned them away.

St. Louis managed to mount a few forays against Socker goalkeeper Jim Gorsek, but Ilijevski was faced by a succession of sieges.

It was during one of those attacks that Collier found the ball bounding in his direction and took advantage of the opportunity. It was like the leading lady had landed in his lap, so why not kiss her?

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