Sockers Have Been Here Before, and That May Be a Key Tonight
Zoltan Toth has been through it all before, and the chances are he’s about to go through it again. But no matter how many times the Sockers’ veteran goalkeeper prepares for an important Major Indoor Soccer League playoff game, he still gets as wide-eyed and nervous as a teen-ager on prom night.
Friday afternoon after practice, more than 24 hours before tonight’s Game 7 of the Western Division final between the Sockers and the Kansas City Comets (7:35), Toth talked of past glory days, big games, and victories.
He is more than partly responsible for getting the Sockers here, as he limited Kansas City to two goals in the past two games and helped the Sockers rally from a 3-1 series deficit. But Game 7 was not a subject he was yet ready to deal with.
“If I start thinking about (tonight’s) game now, I would go nuts by game time,” Toth said. “I’ll try not to worry a lot about it, but it’s hard not to feel the excitement.”
Excitement caused by memories of previous playoff games, and not just recent ones. He was thinking back to 1981, when as a rookie goalkeeper, he came of age in a crucial playoff game and helped lead the New York Arrows to an indoor championship.
He also has played on a championship team in New York in 1982 and with two championship Socker teams in 1985 and 1986. He’s playing well right now and figures to start tonight.
Socker Coach Ron Nemwan, as before Game 6, said he won’t announce whether the starter will be Toth or Jim Gorsek until a few hours before the game. But when asked if he could take out Toth now that he’s playing so well, Newman smiled and said, “It would be a surprise.”
Toth has a career playoff record of 23-16, and many of the victories have been crucial ones.
“All of the big games I’ve played in and come through in wouldn’t have been possible without that first one,” Toth said. “Everybody needs to get through that one big challenge successfully. “Once you do that, you know you can do it.”
In a sense, Toth’s comment describes the difference between the two teams playing tonight for the right to meet the Eastern Division champion Cleveland Force in the MISL finals, which begin next week.
One team has the experience, and the other is hoping to get it.
The Sockers, five-time indoor champions, have faced elimination 10 times before in the playoffs--including twice in this series--and have won nine of those games. The only loss in such a situation was to Tacoma, 8-5, in Game 7 of last year’s Western Division final.
The Comets have won three games in this series but have never won a championship and have won only twice in the six times they have faced playoff elimination. Those two victories were in a 1984 first-round series against St. Louis, which the Comets eventually lost in five games.
“There’s no doubt that one advantage they (the Sockers) have is that all of their players have been in this situation before,” defender Gino Schiraldi said. He knows all about Kansas City’s playoff history, because he’s the only team member who has been around since its inception in 1981. “We know what we have to do, but we also know that we’ve never actually done it before.”
The Comets, it seems, have been trying to put away the Sockers for more than just the last week. Not only have they squandered a 3-1 lead in this year’s series. They led the Sockers, 2-1, in the first round last year before losing two in a row and the series.
“Last year, though, we were still in awe of them,” Schiraldi said. “We were ahead in the series and we kind of couldn’t believe it. This time, we know we can beat them because we’ve beat them before.”
But they’ve never beaten the Sockers in this situation.
“I think the simple reason we’re tough when our backs are against the wall is that we have a good team and good players,” Newman said. “When it comes down to a critical stage like this, our players know they have to channel all of their discipline, energy and concentration into the game. We know we can’t allow anything to disrupt us.”
In Games 5 and 6, all that was disrupted was Kansas City’s offense. The Comets, who scored more goals than any team in the league during the regular season, have been limited to a pair of goals by Dale Mitchell in the past two games. In Game 6 Wednesday, Kansas City managed only 12 shots on goal, an all-time MISL playoff low.
“We’re going to have to come out (in Game 7) and change some things,” Mitchell said. “They’ve stopped our big guns, and we have to find a way to put some more pressure on them. You can say anything you want, but the fact that we’ve only scored two goals in two games is the reason they have the momentum now. We have to score early and get the momentum back.”
One guy who can keep the momentum on the Sockers’ side is Toth, who set a league record for goals-against average (2.94) during the regular season and now may be playing even a bit better than that.