For Sockers, the Magic Is Missing : Defending Champions Hope to Be Healed for Playoffs

Times Staff Writer

After Tuesday's practice, Socker defender Fernando Clavijo was talking about San Diego's magic number.

When is the last time the Sockers worried about or even thought about a magic number? The only magic numbers the Sockers usually concern themselves with are the league records they are about to set.

This season is different for the five-time Major Indoor Soccer League champions.

"Our magic number to make the playoffs is six," Clavijo said.

To make the playoffs? You would think the "six" he was referring to was really the number of consecutive indoor championships the Sockers are trying to win.

No, the Sockers of late sound as different as they have looked on the field. They are quieter, appear less confident and are almost resigned to a "wait and see" attitude.

"First place looks very, very dim," said midfielder Branko Segota, one of five injured regulars who have been sidelined recently. "We have to make the playoffs and get the young guys as much playing time as possible. We have to prepare for the next season--the playoffs."

The third-place Sockers have lost two straight and four of five and are closer to fourth place than first. Going into tonight's home match against the Eastern Division-leading Baltimore Blast, San Diego (20-17) is 3 1/2 games behind first-place Tacoma, a game behind Kansas City and a game in front of Wichita.

The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs and the Sockers hold a comfortable eight-game lead over fifth-place St. Louis. But unlike recent years, it appears that San Diego will not have the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Injuries and a lack of scoring, which are interconnected, have been the Sockers' biggest problems. Without three of their top four scorers--Segota (strained right thigh), Hugo Perez and Juli Veee (sprained right knees)--and without offensive spark plug Brian Quinn (sprained right knee)--the team is not scoring.

Segota is questionable for tonight's game, Quinn is expected to be out three to four more weeks, Veee is expected to miss two to three more weeks and Perez is out for the season.

The club that scored an MISL season-record 308 goals last season has scored only 10 goals in its last four games.

"There's a lot of pressure on the young guys and the new guys to score," Clavijo said. "I think a lot of players are playing out of position because of the injuries."

It hasn't been a cohesive unit.

"We need a coach to put the puzzle together," Veee said. "You need leaders to bring the team together. Otherwise, you have so many divided opinions. Now everyone has ideas. Defenders even have ideas. That's a new trend."

Said Clavijo: "I don't think he (Socker Coach Ron Newman) can change much. To score goals is nothing you can teach. You're born with it, and if it's going to come, it will come."

It will come a lot sooner if a healthy Segota returns to the lineup. Segota leads the team in scoring with 29 goals and 35 assists, but he has missed the last three games and four of the last five. He practiced Tuesday but said he hurt his thigh on a shot and will have to wait and see if his thigh "loosens up."

Segota is in the final year of his contract and becomes a free agent after the season. He has said that his primary goal is to play for a top outdoor European club next season. "That's the main thing I'm waiting on," said Segota, who expects to know more about that possibility within the next month.

Last Friday--the final day before MISL rosters were frozen--the Cleveland Force offered the Sockers offensive stars Peter Ward and Carl Valentine for Segota, who has a trade-approval clause in his contract.

"I talked to Branko," said Bob Bell, Socker managing general partner. "He said what I was hoping he'd say. He really wants to stay here. That put me at ease because I didn't want to do anything."

Said Segota: "They have seven cards (players), but they have nothing. They have nothing after this season. But I already told them I'm not going anywhere until the season is over. I told Bob to forget about trying to trade me. I'll refuse.

"What bothers me the most is that from the beginning, they knew I was going into the option year. I'm only 25. If I'm going to be the franchise, you don't go sign five guys before you sign me."

The Sockers recently signed former New York Express forward Njego Pesa to a contract through the remainder of the season, Paul Dougherty to a contract through next season, Victor Quni and former Socker Vidal Fernandez to 10-day contracts (about $700 for a 10-day contract) and Carlos Basso and Fahmi El-Shami to amateur contracts in which the players do not receive any compensation.

The latter two had been on the reserve team, which only scrimmages with the teams. They were moved up to the Sockers just before the MISL deadline to freeze rosters. Neither has played so far for the Sockers.

"It's appealing that we're trying to bring these players up to MISL standards," Newman said. "We were better in Dallas Sunday (a 4-2 loss) than we were in Kansas City (a 5-2 loss Friday night). Our biggest fear was that we'd get blown out. Maybe I'm looking through rose-colored glasses, but I thought we did quite well."

Newman is in the final year of his contract and is taking a "build for the future" attitude as he negotiates a long-term deal. He hopes to sign a contract by the beginning of the playoffs in early May.

The Sockers plan to have Segota healthy and hope to have Quinn and Veee back when the playoffs begin.

"It's not just good enough to come back to play," Newman said. "They have to be in match form. . . . If the young guys can prove something, I'm not going to leave them out."

The Sockers do not appear overly concerned about the rest of the league. Yet Kansas City, Baltimore and even Los Angeles have all defeated the Sockers three times this season.

"I've seen all the teams," Quinn said. "We can beat Kansas City, Tacoma and Wichita in our division. But we can't have any lapses anymore."

Said Veee: "If everybody on our team peaks at the same time . . ."

Then the Sockers might win their sixth straight championship. But for now, they are concerned about their position entering the playoffs.

Their magic number is six.

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