When the Sockers pushed aside the Kansas City Comets, 4-1, Sunday night in front of 5,584 at the Sports Arena, they earned their sixth consecutive victory at home and 10th of 13 overall.
Not bad, considering they began the season with a 1-5 record.
The Sockers (13-10) have climbed into a tie for first place in the Major Soccer League’s Western Division with Tacoma and St. Louis.
“It doesn’t feel bad to be in first place,” said Coach Ron Newman.
If Newman was trying to recall just how good it felt, he was reaching back to the end of the 1987-88 season. That’s the last time the Sockers led their division.
While the Sockers are reminiscing about the good ol’ days when this team used to monopolize first place, they appear to have let it slip their minds that their past two victories have come without their “franchise player,” the globe-trotting Branko Segota, who returned Thursday from an unauthorized trip to his native Yugoslavia with tonsillitis and has been unable to play.
Segota, a 12-year veteran who is only 29, has led the Sockers in points and assists the past five years. But his truancy has yet to create a void.
Coaches Newman and Erich Geyer said Segota will rejoin practice this week. Whether he rejoins the team when it next steps on the Sports Arena carpet, however, appears doubtful.
Seems as if the Sockers have some believers in the sports adage that one doesn’t mess with a winning streak.
“Why change a winning lineup?” asked midfielder Waad Hirmez, who scored his 24th goal of the year in the fourth quarter to give the Sockers a 3-1 lead. “There’s no reason to change the lineup. It doesn’t make a difference who you are. When the team’s winning, you can’t mess with the lineup. It wouldn’t be fair to the other players who are doing the job.”
When asked if Segota would play in the Sockers’ next game, Thursday at home against the Tacoma Stars, Newman said, “That will be up to Erich Geyer.”
Newman’s statement was a reference to the fitness drills Geyer puts the players through at practices. Newman raised his voice a bit when he made the comment and also raised his eyebrows in a gesture that smacked of skepticism.
But if Newman is skeptical about Segota’s fitness, he’s not the only one.
Said Brian Quinn, “We don’t have a player like (Segota) on this team. When he gets in shape again, it’s going to be a major headache for Coach Newman. Where is Newman going to find a place for him?”
Certainly that decision is made difficult by the fact that the Sockers have learned a new concept this year--team soccer.
That wasn’t the case last year, when they stumbled through the regular season and finished with their worst record (25-27) since the franchise’s initial indoor campaign.
“I think last year we had more individual players,” Hirmez said. “This year we have to play more as a team. Look what happened tonight. We had a team effort. Everyone gave 100%, and we collected a win.”
Team effort, indeed. The Sockers’ four goals came from four players: Hirmez, Paul Wright, David Banks and Paul Dougherty.
Quinn assisted on the first two goals, which came on similar plays.
In the first quarter, Quinn took a pass from Kevin Crow along the boards in the midfield. He then darted to the middle of the field and drew two defenders. That left Wright open just past the red line. Quinn threaded a pass Wright’s way, and Wright got his left instep on it to redirect it past goalie Mike Dowler.
That made it 1-1 as Kansas City’s Paul Peschisolido opened the scoring 40 seconds into the game.
Quinn was at it again in the second quarter chasing down a loose ball in the midfield as a two-minute penalty to David Banks expired. Like he did on Wright’s goal, Quinn again dribbled to the middle of the carpet and toward the goal.
He then pushed a pass between two defenders, and Banks, unmarked, swiped at it with his right foot and hit it by Dowler.
“When he came out of the box and made his run, he made it like a wide receiver,” Quinn said of Banks. I knew he was going to cut across. When I passed it, it was kind of instinct. If I had played it on the other side, it goes to the boards.”
But it didn’t go to the boards. Quinn knew where to pass it, and Banks seemed to know where the pass would be.
Such plays were absent in the early part of the season when the Sockers opened 1-5.
“I think we just know each other now,” Newman said. “And that’s a little different than the beginning of the year when every game was like a practice game. We were kind of wandering around then, and now we’re playing as we should.”
The scoring continued in the fourth quarter when Hirmez connected on a free kick from the right boards.
“A lucky goal,” Quinn yelled at Hirmez afterward. “That was a lucky goal.”
Lucky because before it went in, it deflected off Kevin Hundelt and into the net.
Six minutes later, Ben Collins hit Paul Dougherty with a pass just to the right of the penalty area, and Dougherty slammed it into the top-right corner of the goal to finish the scoring.
Sockers goalie Victor Nogueira made 18 saves on the night, including one on a shootout.
“He is in incredible form,” Newman said.
By allowing only one goal, Nogueira lowered his goals-against average to 4.82, second in the league to Tacoma’s Cris Vaccaro (4.39).