The Turlock Express marked their second year in the Professional Arena Soccer League with a second straight trip to the Pacific Division Playoffs this past weekend. After a 9-7 regular season, the Express found themselves pitted against PASL stalwarts the San Diego Sockers— owners of 13 arena titles and the record for longest win streak by any professional American sports team—in the first, two leg round of post-season play.
Turlock and San Diego share a history of high competition and tension in the PASL but the Sockers have managed to emerge victorious after each match. Turlock knew that defeating San Diego would be difficult but they approached the task with determination; driven to defeat a team that is regarded by many as the best in the league, to gain respect as legitimate contenders despite its small market size, and to get one step closer to the coveted Ron Newman Cup.
Day 1: Heartbreak in overtime
The first leg of playoffs was held at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego on Saturday. Turlock rolled onto San Diego’s home turf hoping that its youth and durability would be enough to overcome the experience and speed of the Sockers.
San Diego didn’t care about Turlock’s ambitions, though, and wasted no time showing off in front of its home crowd. Kraig Chiles—San Diego’s leading scorer and PASL record holder—gave his team an early lead with a goal in the 8th minute. The Sockers were back on the board when Aaron Susi found the net in the opening seconds of the second quarter and sent the home crowd of more than 3,000 into hysterics but Turlock quickly answered back, scoring a pair of goals via Bronil Koochoie and Ivan Campos to tie the game, 2-2.
San Diego scored twice more in the first half despite power play opportunities for Turlock and entered the locker room with a 4-2 halftime lead.
“We weren’t too worried about it; they rallied around each other at half time and played for each other so I knew they had it in them to come back,” Turlock’s head coach Art Pulido said.
“We were struggling at first but we knew we could get back in it,” Campos said.
Turlock’s faith remained intact, but the prospect of a second half comeback looked bleak when San Diego opened the third quarter by scoring four goals in four minutes. But rather than deflate, the Express battled back from a six point deficit—Koochoie notched his second goal of the night in the middle of San Diego’s scoring frenzy— and scored a trio of goals by Samuel Saldate, Campos, and Arturo Pulido. The score was 8-5 and Turlock’s comeback hopes were revived.
Socker fans continued with their cheering, vuvuzela blowing, and cow bell banging after Susi and Chiky Luna found the net in the 10th and 13th minutes of the third quarter, respectively, but Turlock’s comeback continued with another Campos goal in the 13th minute of the third quarter and a Jesse Horta goal in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Four minutes later and Luna was back in the scoring role for the Sockers , making it 11-9 with more than nine minutes of regulation.
But with Campos on the field Turlock stood unfazed. The 25-year-old Watsonville native notched back to back goals—bringing his total to five on the night—and set up a tying score in the 12th minute by Pulido.
“He’s so solid up on top right now we just have to feed him that ball, especially when he’s in one on one situations where he can score at almost any given time,” Pulido said of Campos.
“We all work as a team. I did what I could do for us to win, but it’s a team effort,” Campos said.
The match was headed into 15 minutes of overtime much to the chagrin of the Sockers. San Diego’s fans and players were flustered but its coach was not surprised.
“Normally a lot of teams fold; these guys don’t,” Socker head coach Phil Salvagis said. “Every time we’ve played them they’ve done the same thing to us. No matter what we did they seemed to come back.”
“They’ve never given up. They got big hearts and that’s why they’re here, to win,” Pulido said of his team.
Turlock found itself in the perfect position to complete its second half comeback and hand the Sockers their first home loss in four seasons when Campos went streaking towards the goal with only one defender in his path. A boarding foul and subsequent blue card dashed Turlock’s scoring hopes, however, and led to a San Diego power play. Turlock managed to ride the power play out only to be dealt defeat minutes later when Chiles scored the golden goal for the 12-11 victory.
Turlock had lost but its confidence was brimming.
“They’re considered the best team in the league right now and we got them. We have the golden opportunity to take them down,” Pulido said. “They’re beatable. We should be able to beat them; that’s what I take away from this game.”
“We’re trying to prove to the fans from the opposite team, and our fans, that we are capable of playing in this league,” Campos said. “We’re a good enough team to play against anybody in this league. Even though they have 13 championships, we just proved to them and a lot of people that they can be beat.”
Day 2: Turlock folds in Vegas
Sunday’s match at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas was Turlock’s last chance to keep its playoff dreams alive. The Express were expecting a battle similar to the one from the night before and fully anticipated that their youthful vigor would trump San Diego’s efforts.
“We feel like we have a very good chance tonight. They’re an older team and they haven’t played back to back games, we have, so we feel like we have an advantage,” Koochoie said before the match. “Being young, it’s easier for us to recover for back to back games. We just got to keep our foot on the gas. When we’re pressing them hard they’re getting tired, getting bad touches, and making mistakes.”
For the first two minutes of the match it seemed that Turlock’s suspicions were right. San Diego scored in the opening minute with a goal from Chiles but a Martyn Arista in the second minute tied the score for Turlock, 1-1.
The few Express fans in attendance filled the nearly empty arena with cheers but they would soon be silenced as San Diego displayed its championship caliber.
The Sockers broke the tie with seven consecutive second quarter goals—two by Chiles, two by Susi, two by Diego Rovira, and one by Anthony Medina—and entered halftime with a practically insurmountable 8-1 lead.
Turlock’s first half woes were a result of multiple penalties and the loss of two key players, Saldate and Adrian Gutierrez who were sidelined with respective hip pointer and groin injuries. Turlock’s perceived advantage in its youth had given way to San Diego’s experience.
“It felt very different. Every time we started pressing them the momentum was broken by penalty calls,” Pulido said of Sunday’s effort. “We just got deflated with certain calls. We couldn’t overcome it today.”
The second half was a continuation of the first. Chiles scored an unassisted goal in the 7th minute of the third quarter before Jesus Belmonte found the net for Turlock’s second goal of the night. The Sockers responded with four consecutive goals as the fouls continued rain down on the Express, leaving them frustrated and their focus shaken.
Turlock scored twice more before the end of regulation but by that point its players were competing solely for pride. In the end, San Diego’s flopping ability—most fouls were feigned—proved to be the difference as the Sockers went 5-7 on power plays while Turlock went 1-5.
Though this season may have ended in disappointment, the Express are already looking forward to next season with much enthusiasm. As one of the youngest teams in the PASL, Pulido sees vast room for improvement and a chance to build for another post-season appearance.
“We had a better talent pool this year,” Pulido said. “We should only need minimal plug-ins for next season and I think we should have another really good season.”