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Struggling Sockers Have Precedent for Comeback

Times Staff Writer

After losing two consecutive playoff games to the Comets in Kansas City and falling behind, 3-1, in the best-of-seven MISL Western Division finals, the Sockers spent the past five days:

Regrouping, arguing, running, nursing injuries, receiving post-practice massages, moaning and groaning some more, traveling back and forth between Kansas City and San Diego and reminiscing about their comeback against Minnesota in the 1986 championship series.

The Comets, meanwhile, nursed injuries, enjoyed some time at home, hoped for a big crowd tonight and listened to a couple of forwards who played for the Strikers in 1986 who warned against overconfidence and stressed the importance of a victory in Game 5, which begins at 6:05 p.m. PDT.

“I feel it is our best chance to win,” said one of them, high-scoring Comet Jan Goossens. “We need to win. I think most of us will be very disappointed if we don’t win here Saturday. We’ll still have a chance, but . . .”

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The Comets still would lead, 3-2, but Games 6 and 7 would be in San Diego. Kansas City won Game 1 in the Sports Arena and narrowly lost Game 2 there. But Goossens believes that the Comets have to finish the Sockers when they have the home-field advantage and an edge in momentum.

“I’m still nervous and scared,” Goossens said. “I’ll believe it when it’s over. To be quite honest, I still think they’re the best team.”

Goossens is not alone.

“Saturday’s game is potentially the most important game of the year for us,” said forward Tasso Koutsoukos, who, with Goossens, played for the Strikers in 1986. “We can’t give them a second chance.”

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The Sockers--who are coming off a 7-6 overtime loss in which they blew a 6-2 fourth-quarter lead and a 7-3 loss in which they allowed four unanswered goals in the fourth quarter--are desperate for a reprieve.

“If we win tonight, the biggest thing is you’ll put some doubt in them,” said Kevin Crow, the Socker defender. “I think they’re kind of surprised and playing over their heads.”

Said midfielder Brian Quinn: “If we win in Kansas City, I firmly believe we’ll come back and win the series.”

As is usually the case when the Sockers are losing--and as was definitely the case in the 1986 championship series after San Diego lost its third in a row to the Strikers by blowing a big lead in Game 4--the players have resorted to blaming Coach Ron Newman, pointing fingers at one another and arguing to regain their intensity and blow off steam.

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“That seems to be a normal pattern with them,” said Comet Coach Dave Clements. “It’s almost like their war cry or battle dance. All it means to me is, watch out, Clemo.”

The Comet players agree.

“Bitching, fighting, blaming the coach, it’s typical of San Diego,” Koutsoukos said. “That’s because they have so many guys who are so competitive. And they hate to lose. They’re dangerous when they do that. They seem to play better when they’re riled up. I don’t buy their bitching. They won 42 games this year.”

But in the playoffs, they have been a different team. In the Western Division semifinals, the Sockers blew one game in the fourth quarter against the Stars before winning twice in Tacoma to take the series, 3-1. Against the Comets, the Sockers easily could have won the first four games if they had played at all well in the fourth quarters.

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“It seems almost like they’re afraid of us, and I don’t know why,” Koutsoukos said. “They’re not playing with the same intensity that their teams did in the past.”

As they did in those final three games against Minnesota in 1986.

The Sockers had lost one at home and two in Minnesota as they headed back to San Diego for Game 5.

“If we were going to be knocked out, I didn’t want it to happen in front of our own fans,” Newman said. “That drove us on a little. We can’t do that this time.”

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The Sockers were confident that they would take Game 5; at the time, they were 26-1 in home playoff games. They viewed Game 6 at the Met Center as pivotal. The Strikers were 12-0 in playoff games there, and Socker goalkeeper Zoltan Toth, who was scheduled to be in the net, had a 1-7 career mark against them.

The Strikers, on the other hand, could hardly believe that they were leading the series, and Goossens said they did not approach Game 5 as seriously they should have.

“We were kind of in a dream state,” he said. “We really didn’t expect it. Maybe we were a little too casual. We were going, ‘We don’t have to win in San Diego.’ It would be nice to win at home. We were confident that if we lost in San Diego, we’d come back to win at home. That was a mistake.”

The Sockers won Game 5, 7-4.

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In Game 6, the Sockers scored five second-half goals to pull out a 6-3 victory in front of a wild, standing-room-only crowd of 15,994 at the Met Center.

Newman credited the victory to his K-Mart lineup of Cha Cha Namdar, Jacques Ladouceur (two goals), George Katakalidis and Waad Hirmez--substitutes who filled in for the injured Socker regulars. Hugo Perez missed the game with a sprained left knee, and Jean Willrich suffered a pulled left groin early and was used only on power-play opportunities during the last three quarters. Juli Veee hurt his left knee in the third quarter and played sparingly after that.

A memorable moment: The Sockers led, 4-3, with less than two minutes to play when a shot by Striker forward Chris Dangerfield was about to go in the net. Suddenly, Crow kicked it out and cleared the ball. Quinn passed to Segota, whose left-footer helped ice the game.

“The net was shaking,” Toth said. “It was a big surprise when the ball hit Kevin’s shin.”

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Afterward, the Sockers were confident that they would win Game 7 at home; the Strikers were shattered.

“When we lost the game, we had a feeling we lost the series,” Goossens said.

Two days later, the Sockers won their fifth consecutive indoor title with a 5-3 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 12,881 at the Sports Arena.

“After we lost that fourth game in Minnesota, we looked at ourselves and realized there wasn’t enough intensity,” said Quinn, who was named the playoff most valuable player that year.

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Said Crow: “That year, our frame of mind was we knew we could do it. Everyone’s mind was focused in the right direction. I think that’s something you’ll see Saturday.”

Socker Notes

Tonight’s game will be simulcast on Prime Ticket and XTRA (AM 690). . . . Zoran Karic and Keder were not among the players Coach Ron Newman took to Kansas City. Karic played in the first three games of this series but was sent home from Kansas City on Sunday before Game 4. Keder, sidelined with torn knee ligaments from March 17 through Sunday, was flown to Kansas City Sunday and played in Game 4. He did not score and was called for a key penalty on an illegal substitution. Paul Dougherty, who flew home with Karic on Sunday morning, made this trip. Defender Brian Schmetzer remains sidelined after he dislocated his left shoulder in Game 2. . . . Zoltan Toth and Alan Mayer are scheduled to be in goal tonight.


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