Savva Biller made his Major Soccer League debut a memorable one Saturday night. In 60 minutes, he was transformed from unknown quantity into a legitimate backup for ironman Sockers goalie Victor Nogueira.
Biller, a former professional goalkeeper in the Greece and in the English Third Division, was signed as a developmental player six weeks ago. He frustrated the Baltimore Blast with 18 saves as the Sockers ended the Blast’s five-game home winning streak with a 7-5 victory in front of 9,417.
The Sockers (17-12) moved percentage points ahead of the St. Louis Storm (18-13) in the MSL Western Division. The Storm lost Saturday to Tacoma.
Branko Segota broke a 5-5 tie with his 10th goal of the season 12 minutes 46 seconds into the fourth quarter, and Waad Hirmez added an empty-net goal later.
It was Segota’s 400th MSL goal.
Hirmez and Paul Wright had two goals each, and Michael Collins added a pair of assists for the Sockers, who have beaten the Blast four consecutive times in the Baltimore Arena. The Blast’s last home victory over the Sockers was a 7-6 double-overtime triumph Feb. 14, 1990.
“I went through a lot of goalkeepers in preseason and didn’t see anybody who caught my fancy” as a backup to Nogueira, Sockers Coach Ron Newman said.
So Newman kept his revolving door open until Biller caught his eye. “Some people said I set my sights too high, which is probably true, because I’ve had so many great goalkeepers,” Newman said.
But with Nogueira starting an MSL-record 28 consecutive games since the start of the season, Newman knew he had to give his backstop a rest.
Newman promised Nogueira a break the next time the Sockers had back-to-back games against an Eastern Division opponent. Biller’s start came after the Sockers lost, 2-1, Friday night in St. Louis.
Biller looked nervous early in the game, allowing the Blast (16-15) to take a 3-1 lead in the first quarter. But he said Newman and his teammates better get used to seeing him a bit on edge, no matter what the score.
“I’m that kind of keeper, always hyper,” he said. “They know that. I just need a good goal to settle me down.”
Paul Wright gave Biller the first-period goal he needed to settle down. Three seconds into the game, off the opening kickoff, Wright set a new MSL record for the quickest goal at the start of the game and gave the Sockers a 1-0 lead.
After surrendering three Blast goals later in the opening period, Biller again settled into a groove. He stymied the Blast in the second period--making seven saves on 12 shots, including several nice stops in multi-shot flurries--while the Socker offense came to life.
But twice Biller failed to hold onto the ball after saves, and Baltimore converted both into goals.
“I can play my best if I keep myself focused and if I don’t think too much,” Biller said. “I’m very analytical. My greatest asset is my reflexes, and if I try to second-guess myself . . . my reflexes don’t show.”
Blast Coach Kenny Cooper, himself a former goalkeeper, said Baltimore failed to capitalize on its chances when it had Biller on the ropes early in the game.
"(Biller) had a shaky start,” Cooper said. “But he got away with it. Give him credit, though. There’s teams that want to win and teams that do everything to win, and our guys have to learn that.”
Newman said Biller’s debut gives him confidence in the native of New York City.
“Now we feel that in back-to-back games, we’ll be able to rest Victor and not lose a thing,” Newman said. “Bringing him (Biller) in tonight was just the first blooding. Besides, we had to play him sooner or later.”
After six weeks of watching from the bench, Biller was wondering when that chance would come.
“I knew it was just a matter of time,” he said, “but I didn’t think it would come this soon. I was nervous the whole game. . . . I had all the pressure on me.”
After Wright’s first goal gave the Sockers a 1-0 lead, Baltimore rallied for three unanswered goals.
Mark Mettrick back-heeled a rear boards pass from Billy Ronson past Biller at 6:35, Wittman bombed one in from 30 feet out off Biller’s left hand and the right post at 11:03, and Dale Mitchell put his own rebound past at 13:43.
Hirmez and Kevin Crow answered for the Sockers.
Defender Alex Golovnia’s chip shot from the left side gave the Sockers a 4-3 lead 1:19 into the third period, but Domenic Mobilio tied the game with his 32nd goal of the year at 4:27.
Three minutes into the fourth period, Wright’s second goal gave the Sockers a 5-4 lead. Wright beat Mike Stankovic down the right side and then cut a shot low on the turn which beat Manning to the far post.
With 3:16 left in the game, Ronson entered as an extra attacker. The move paid immediate dividends as Mettrick scored his second goal 16 seconds later for a 5-5 tie.