Time Is Now for Sockers : MSL finals: Defending champions poised to sweep Dallas, but, as Coach Ron Newman laments, his dynasty is as anonymous as ever.


It was almost surreal. The man whose team will try to clinch a 10th indoor soccer championship tonight was talking about bad timing.

Bad timing?

Bad timing doesn't lead to nine championships, seven in the Major Soccer League and two in the old North American Soccer League, in a span of 10 seasons.

But bad timing, Sockers Coach Ron Newman says, is why few people outside San Diego and Dallas will notice that the Sockers will run out of fingers on which to count their titles if they beat the Dallas Sidekicks in Game 4 of the best-of-seven MSL championship series at 5:35 p.m. (PDT) tonight.

The Sockers have won the first three games.

Bad timing, Newman says, is why the North American Soccer League shriveled and blew away and why the Major Soccer League operates in utter obscurity.

"It's sort of like a soap opera," Newman explained. "You turn one on and think, 'Well, what is this? Why would anyone want to watch it?' But then you see it a couple times and learn about the characters and you want to see how the plot twists around these people's lives. But if the characters keep changing, you would lose interest. That's our problem. The players keep changing, the teams keep changing, even the leagues keep changing."

The troubled past has not only chipped away at a once-strong fan base (the Sockers averaged crowds of 11,415 in 1983-84), but it also has taken away the Sockers' right to recall the good old days. Instead they reminisce about the future.

"Basketball wasn't a major sport when the Celtics had their dynasty, but now those teams are looked back on and thought of in awe because of where the game is now," Newman said. "Some day people will look back and remember the Sockers . . . they'll say what a wonderful team it was . . . what a wonderful series of teams it was."

Throughout the Socker dynasty, there has been only one constant: Newman, who was at the helm when the team first took shelter in 1980-81.

"My hat is off to Ron," said Thompson Usiyan, an eight-year MSL veteran and a first-year Socker. "It's so hard to keep winning. People don't realize the pressure these players are under. Everybody wants to beat them. Maybe people don't realize it now, but maybe they'll look back some day and see how good these teams were in the '80s and '90s."

Not only do the Sockers continue to win championships, they have done so in a humiliating way. In the past three postseasons, the Sockers have not had to play a game in which a loss would eliminate them from the playoffs.

The pressure always has been on the other team.

This year has been no different. In the just-concluded best-of-seven semifinals, the Sockers pushed aside the Baltimore Blast in five games. Now they're up 3-0 in the championship round and have won six consecutive playoff games. Tuesday's overtime victory was their fifth consecutive road playoff triumph, a club record.

The dynasty appears on the precipice of even greater stature, but no one seems to care. This isn't the National Basketball Assn., this isn't Major League Baseball, this isn't the National Football League.

This is the MSL.

"Hey, sports is sports," said midfielder Jacques Ladouceur. "It's extremely difficult to win even back-to-back championships. When was the last time someone did that in the NBA or the NFL? How many other teams win back-to-back championships? Doing those things are hard. Too bad a lot of people don't notice this."

Despite evidence to the contrary provided by the Sockers, repeating might be even more difficult in the MSL than in other professional leagues. Newman has complained that the annually declining salary caps have acted as an equalizing factor among the franchises.

"Every year we win a championship, and they lower the salary cap," Newman said. "It's tough to tell a player, 'You had a great year winning that championship, now will you take a pay cut?' "

The salary cap was blamed as the Sockers lost six regulars from last year's team. And that 1990-91 team was missing nine players who helped win the title the season before. It goes on. The 1989-90 crown was won by a team that lost five players from the previous championship club.

Currently, only Paul Dougherty, Kevin Crow and Ladouceur remain from the 1987-88 club that began the current streak of four consecutive titles. What's more, both Dougherty and Ladouceur left the Sockers for a season because of the salary cap.

"We survived all that," Newman mused, shaking his head. "That's incredible."

Although the Sockers have survived annual roster upheavals, they remain stranded in a league with no identity and fewer and fewer fans. In their four home playoff games this year, the Sockers averaged only 6,103.

"You sort of grow numb to that," Newman said. "It no longer surprises me (when arenas remain half-empty during championship runs). I know the reasons why. There are people out there not willing to give it a chance, mainly TV people. . . . If only they had taken on soccer instead of basketball. . . ."

It's time to ponder the future again, and Newman is uneasy. It doesn't seem possible that his team can continue winning, and Newman would love to jump off the bandwagon before it runs out of gas.

But this is the MSL and, well, the wages don't make it possible to retire early, either.

"I just don't think I can ever win another one," Newman said. "But every year we win another one and I think I can't do it again--it's just not feasible in professional sports. . . . I think it would be nice to retire on top rather than waiting around for a couple of bad years and have everyone call me bad names. But I just don't make enough money (to consider retiring)."

Newman, who has a year left on his contract, would like to assume another role within the sport when he decides to end his coaching days. He wants to take his league to the top just like he did his team.

"I would like to promote the league in some capacity," he said. "I would like to see it expand, and I feel I can really help with that. But we have to have a bigger league before someone can get hired to do something like that."

It's bad timing all over again.

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