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The Goal Is the Same; the Goalies Different : Sockers: They both get the job done but Zoltan Toth and Victor Nogueira travel different roads en route to work.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The end result is quite the same, the preparation very different.

It is best to leave Zoltan Toth alone with his thoughts in the hour before a Sockers game, but Victor Nogueira doesn’t mind chatting and sharing a joke with his teammates.

Two years ago, Toth was the MISL’s goalie of the year. Last year, when Toth missed more than half the season following foot surgery, Nogueira stepped in, won the award and was selected MVP of the championship series.

This season, Toth returned in style to finish with a 3.48 goals-against average, second in the MISL behind Dallas’ Joe Papaleo (3.34 GAA). Nogueira was fifth at 3.61.

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The similarities between Toth, 34, and Nogueira, 30, pretty much end with statistics. During a game, Toth looks to be having about as much fun as a guy getting a cavity filled. For Nogueira, it all appears to be a picnic in the park.

“A game is a game,” says Nogueira, a seven-year veteran from Maputo, Mozambique. “I’m not going to get hypertension because of a game. You’re not nervous when you play, or else you’re in trouble. So what’s the point of getting nervous before? It’s just not logical.”

But logic can sometimes take a back seat to habit if habit has a history of working. And it’s hard to argue with results.

Toth, originally from Budapest, Hungary, has played 10 indoor seasons and won six championships, four with the Sockers and two with the New York Arrows. In this best-of-five semifinal series with St. Louis, which the Sockers lead, 2-1, he has approached perfection, winning both of his starts and allowing a total of three goals. The series resumes at 5:05 PDT Saturday night at the St. Louis Arena, but Socker Coach Ron Newman has yet to announce who will start in goal.

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Concentration is Toth’s trademark.

So what if he has a funny look on his face during a game?

“I look at the pictures,” Toth says. “I have a face like a fish, or something. It shows on me. Victor doesn’t show it.”

Toth shows it from the moment he arrives at the arena. He shuffles off to a room by himself and reflects on what he has to do.

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All the while, his teammates might have a snicker or two at his expense, but they know better than to give him any guff on a day he is to start.

“I don’t laugh in front of him,” midfielder Waad Hirmez says, “but inside I’m thinking, ‘How many games do you have to play in this league to relax before a game?’ ”

Toth, in turn, sometimes thinks his teammates should concentrate more. How many games do the Sockers have to lose before they become a little more serious?

“They say I have nerves,” Toth says. “I say we’re missing fire sometimes. When you play any sport, if you don’t get that fire, then you’re not on top. To get that is very hard. You have to think about it.”

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So when there is a practical joke to be played, the Sockers make sure it isn’t directed at Toth on the day of a start.

A few years back, Hirmez and former Socker Cha Cha Namdar got their hands on a key to the room shared by Toth and Jim Gorsek, a goalie for the Sockers from 1981-88. Hirmez and Namdar smeared Vaseline on everything from door knobs to pillows. Toth and Gorsek returned to a mess.

“We did it because we knew Zollie wasn’t playing the next night,” Hirmez said. “We knew Jimmy could take it a little bit more than Zollie.”

On non-game days, Toth can dish it out, too. He enjoys the pranks as much as the next guy. Just ask Hirmez, who awoke on a plane one time to find a slice of pizza stuffed in each of his shoes.

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“He’s like a little kid,” Hirmez says.

And someone who gets as wound up as Toth has to let off steam once in a while.

“I think it’s a way of releasing the other side of him,” Newman says. “He’s so intense in a game, you don’t touch him. When that’s over, there is a release.”

There is an unwritten code among the defenders with regard to dealing with the goalies. They’ve learned what to say to Nogueira and what not to say to Toth. If Nogueira kicks the ball over the glass, defender Kevin Crow might needle him. Nogueira will smirk.

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In the same situation with Toth, Crow keeps his mouth shut. Make a snide remark to him and he might shoot back with: “Well, why didn’t you keep him from shooting?”

Toth is coming off an off-season of uncertainty, wondering if maybe his career might be over. The muscles in his left leg had shrunk drastically. He had to learn his limits gradually. With a wrong step too soon, he could lose another season and, possibly, his career.

“Of course I was worried,” Toth says. “I had to learn everything again.”

But by the time the season rolled around, it began to come back. He hadn’t lost his anticipation, his quick reflexes or his ability to smother the ball at the goal mouth. And best of all, when he planted and turned on his left foot, there was no pain.

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“I’m so happy now,” he says. “I feel great. My foot feels great.”

The toughest part for Toth is not looking back on the pain, the doubts or the hours of rehabilitation. It is realizing that because he has made such a grand return, he has taken a slice of playing time from Nogueira, who has started just two of the past eight games.

“I like the challenge,” Toth says, “but it’s partly sad for me to see, because then Victor doesn’t play. He loses the time and the experience.”

By all rights, Nogueira is having a fine season, but he is playing in his own shadow. Last season, he set an MISL record with a 2.86 GAA. At one point, he started 23 of 24 games.

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This season, he started off slowly and wound up changing his blocking style midway through, imitating Papaleo. His play has since been good, but good can be disappointing when people expect excellence.

Maybe everybody else thinks about last season’s awards a lot more than Nogueira. His wife, Pamela, will sometimes tell him that he should take more pride in his individual accomplishments, but he doesn’t really got too excited about plaques and trophies with his name on it.

“Who cares?,” says Nogueira, cracking a smile. “In soccer, who does care?”

What he cares about is winning another championship. For that reason, he doesn’t mind waiting longer between starts while Toth does his thing.

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“I just want to win as much as possible,” he says. “At some point, they’re going to need me, and they’ll depend on me. So that’s fine. My approach is the team approach.”

Anyway, things can change in a snap. Toth would be the first to admit that there is a lot of luck involved in this game. You are lucky if you don’t get injured. You are sometimes lucky to make a save.

In Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over St. Louis in Game 3, the ball bounced nicely for Toth. He played well, but he recalls one close-range Storm shot where he didn’t even see the ball and it bounced off his knee. That counts the same as the spectacular diving saves.

“But don’t even tell me I made that save,” he says. “It hit me. The luck factor was there.”

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With all the uncertainties of this season, in which the Sockers are still a game below .500 (27-28), a little luck is welcomed whith open arms.


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