Sockers Hope Pesa Is the Finishing Touch : Team Counts on Former Express Player to Give Boost to Injury-Riddled Offense

Times Staff Writer

Njego Pesa was acquired by the Sockers as an insurance policy. Suddenly, 12 days after his acquisition, the injury-riddled Sockers need to cash in.

The Sockers need scoring rather than depth.

Leading scorer Branko Segota is day-to-day with a strained right quadricep, and three other Sockers--Hugo Perez, Brian Quinn and Juli Veee--are sidelined with knee injuries.

"We have to face reality," said defender Kevin Crow. "We're not as strong as we were even a month ago. We won't be scoring six goals a game."

Enter Pesa, 28, who became a free agent when the New York Express folded Feb. 17. The Sockers signed Pesa March 6 for the remainder of the season.

"He's important for us because he can finish (score)," said Socker Coach Ron Newman. "He has good technique and he's experienced. As an opposing coach, you worry about him because he's dangerous. He's not extremely fast and does not have a thundering shot like Branko (Segota), but overall, he's an accomplished player."

In five Major Indoor Soccer League seasons, Pesa has 132 points in 143 regular-season games. His best indoor season was 1983-84, with 33 goals and 13 assists in 44 games with the New York Arrows and St. Louis Steamers.

This season, Pesa had 16 goals and 11 assists in 22 games for the Express.

"In New York," Pesa said, "I didn't play that bad, but I didn't play that good."

In two games with the Sockers, Pesa--playing with a cold--has no points.

"I'm not happy with the way I played the last two games," Pesa said. "I should be creating the chance to be at the right place at the right time. But if things don't work out the first five games, there are more games down the line. I don't put my head down. I don't look at it as if there is any pressure . . .

"I'll have a chance to show what I can do. I know I have the skill and the shot. There's no reason I can't play with this team. In my career, I've never played with a more skillful team."

Pesa called the Sockers after the Express folded. Shortly thereafter, the Sockers offered him a contract. Pesa decided to sign with San Diego rather than Kansas City or Wichita, which also offered him contracts.

"It's like night and day," Pesa said of the switch from New York to San Diego. "Here, you have a first-class organization and first-class players on the field. In New York, it was badly managed. For a while, we didn't get paid. They were behind in payments for a month. Then they paid us from the letter of credit that the league had. . . . On the field, we had such a bad team that we couldn't compete in this league."

Pesa became a free agent after last season with St. Louis and signed with the Express because he wanted to return home. Pesa and his wife, Linda, and son, Brandan, live in Queens during the off-season. And his wife's family lives in Upstate New York.

"I thought the New York team wouldn't fold again," said Pesa, who went from the Arrows to St. Louis before the Arrows folded after the 1983-84 season. "I thought they'd go out and bring in new players. But the players couldn't play. It (signing with the Express) was a bad mistake. I saw that as soon as the season started. I should have looked out for my best interest and gone to Kansas City."

The Comets offered Pesa a contract after last season, which had been disappointing. Surgery on his wrist limited his playing time when he returned and he scored only 10 goals and 5 assists in 29 games.

"I thought I deserved to play on that team," Pesa said, "but I'm not the type of player who will blast anyone in the papers."

So Pesa left St. Louis. Midway through this season, the Express folded and he was out of work.

Since signing with the Sockers, Pesa has had adjustments to make. "In New York, we played harder in practice than on the field," Pesa said. "Here, they have fun training. It's a different atmosphere. Here, they know they have a good team. I say, they. It's we."

Adjusting and moving is nothing new to Pesa. Like many soccer players in the United States, Pesa's resume resembles a road map.

Pesa came to the United States with his family from Yugoslavia when he was 11. He was a two-time All-American at Ulster (N.Y.) Community College in New York, playing for National Junior College championship teams in 1977 and 1978.

He scored 15 goals and had 9 assists in 13 playoff games when the Steamers lost to the Baltimore Blast in the 1983-84 MISL championship series. Pesa was the most valuable player of the 1983 Soccer Bowl, leading the Tulsa Roughnecks to the title. He was a member of the U.S. national team in 1979, '80 and '82, and of the Olympic traveling team from 1977-80.

And now, in the fickle world of professional athletics, Pesa has half a season to once again prove himself.

"It's up to the new players to beat other guys out for a position," Newman said. "It's up to him (Pesa) to convince me."

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