Last time, there was the spray of champagne, the laughter of champions and the confidence of men who are part of a dynasty.
This time, there was only spit and speculation.
The Baltimore Blast (11-6) defeated the Sockers, 6-4, at the Baltimore Arena Saturday night in their first meeting in this city since the Sockers won their seventh championship here June 10. They achieved that in dramatic fashion, hanging on for a 6-5 victory in Game 7 of the Major Indoor Soccer League championship series.
In front of 9,067 Saturday, there was also a little drama. But it was not the kind that sends a team into a new decade feeling as if it can dominate a league and a sport the way the Sockers did so convincingly in the ‘80s.
Everything was clipping along until the final seconds of the second quarter. Good physical competition, a 1-1 tie and a few words of anger between Socker midfielder Brian Quinn and Blast forward David Byrne.
But then Blast midfielder Billy Ronson went flying into Branko Segota and in turn sent him flying into the boards. Ronson was whistled for a two-minute penalty, but Socker forward Zoran Karic decided to tell Ronson, or rather show him, just what he thought of the play. Then the referees ejected Karic for spitting in Ronson’s face.
The defendant told Socker Coach Ron Newman that he wasn’t guilty.
“Zoran is emphatic that he never did it,” Newman said. “I deplore spitting. If he tells me he didn’t, I have to stick up for my player.”
The plaintiff--Ronson--had another version.
“He spit,” Ronson said. “He does it all the time. I know when people spit at me. It was ridiculous, and it might have cost them the game.”
Karic spent the rest of it in the locker room, and the Sockers were assessed a five-minute penalty for violent conduct. Ronson was given two minutes for boarding. The result was that both teams played a man short for the first two minutes of the the third quarter. The Blast then went on a power play, which the Sockers managed to hold off until 4:24 into the quarter, when forward Domenic Mobilio followed Byrne’s shot off the boards and scored to give Baltimore a 2-1 lead. During the next 1:20, Byrne and former Socker Paul Dougherty each scored to make it 4-1. The collapse was on.
Newman wasn’t altogether dismayed.
“When we play that hard, it’s not so bad,” he said. “We have to keep our cool so we can benefit from their lack of control.”
In the first minute of the fourth quarter, Segota sent a one-hop scorcher past Blast goalie Scoop Stanisic to make it 4-2. But two minutes later, Dougherty scored his third goal. Mobilio added another soon after, and the Sockers’ late charge with Ralph Black serving as the sixth attacker fell two goals short. Waad Hirmez scored. Jacques Ladouceur scored. The Sockers lost.
Where does this leave the team of the ‘80s? Well it leaves Segota, one of the MISL’s few stars, feeling as if he hasn’t been treated with kid gloves in the same manner as the league’s other VIPs. Tatu and Preki, Segota said, see fouls called in their favor frequently. He’d like to hear more whistles and feel fewer elbows.
“I think I deserve to get a little protection,” said Segota, who moved ahead of Juli Veee (467) on the Sockers’ all-time scoring list Saturday with 469 points. “It’s taking years off my career.”
As for the rest of the Sockers, they are starting from scratch, sporting the same record (8-9) they had at this time last season.
Of course, they went on to win five in a row and were steady the rest of the way. Nobody is at all sure that will happen again. Certainly, Saturday’s game didn’t clear up any of the fog surrounding their inconsistency.
“Should teach us a lesson,” defender Kevin Crow said. “We probably played one the best 30 minutes we’ve played all season and then a very average second half.
“They played consistently.”
That is all part of Blast Coach Kenny Cooper’s plan. He is still searching for a way to unseat the Sockers. The Blast had a meeting earlier this season in which Dougherty, acquired from the Sockers in last summer’s free-agent draft, spoke his mind. He told his new teammates he’d like the Blast become the same team in the ‘90s that the Sockers have been in the ‘80s.
And you could see a little extra emotion after each of his three goals Saturday. Fists in the air. A happy but gritty smile on his face.
“I think the adrenaline was going,” Dougherty said. “It’s nice to see the lads, and it’s nice to do well against them. They’re a difficult team to play against.”
Sometimes. Not always.
“We’ve got to prove to ourselves we can play 60 minutes at the same intensity level,” Crow said. “My concern is that the times are changing. It’s so competitive now. We haven’t changed our work ethic or our mental approach to the game. One of these days we’re going to be thankful just to make the playoffs.”
Perhaps the biggest thing missing is the hot streak. The Sockers haven’t yet given indication they are capable of stringing together bunches of victories. They’ve only won three in a row once this season. The past 10 games look like this: loss, loss, victory, victory, loss, loss, victory, loss, victory, loss. No pattern.
Could it be that last season was too much of a good thing?
“I think we just have to get our minds focused on getting another championship and forget about last year,” Quinn said. “That’s behind us.
“This was a good test.”
The Sockers flunked.