Minutes before 5 p.m. Sunday, the overhead lights inside Pechanga Arena will go dark, a spotlight will shine on an inflatable Sockers logo, players will run out of the bubble and indoor soccer will be back.
When the home side kicks off against Chihuahua in its 2021-22 home opener, it will mark the Sockers’ first home game in nearly two years, 652 days to be exact.
“That’s going to be something very special,” said 37-year-old goalie Boris Pardo. “It’s going to crack a smile on all our faces.”
Added veteran midfielder Kraig Chiles, “We’re excited to be back in front of our home fans, trying to create the atmosphere, the buzz we had before COVID.”
Amid COVID mandates and health concerns, the Major Arena Soccer League pulled off a truncated 2021 season. Seven out of 12 teams chose to play. Players who were contractually committed to teams not participating in the season were free to be loaned to teams that were playing.
The regular season was slashed from 24 games to 10. Because of state mandates, the Sockers played every game on the road.
“We were like the road dogs,” said Pardo.
All seven teams advanced to the playoffs with the Sockers (4-6) finishing as the fifth seed. Like an NFL wild card that gets hot come the playoffs and advances to the Super Bowl, the Sockers got on a roll.
In the first round, San Diego swept Tacoma 2-0, winning both games 6-5 in overtime. In the semis, the Sockers faced the Florida Tropics. As the No. 1 seed, the Tropics could pick who they wanted to face and chose the Sockers.
“That was the turning point,” said Pardo. “The guys who needed to step up did just that.”
The Sockers drenched the Tropics 2-0, again winning both games by one goal.
“We kind of relished the opportunity in the underdog role,” said Chiles, a Poway High and San Diego State product. “We had to dig deep and defend hard.”
In the Ron Newman Cup finals, the Sockers faced second-seeded Ontario in the Fury’s Toyota Arena. The Sockers split the first two games, then won the 15-minute mini game 2-1 to earn their first MASL title in eight seasons.
It was the Sockers’ first championship since 2013 when the team played in the Professional Arena Soccer League.
Dating back to the original indoor Sockers, which began in 1980 in the North American Soccer League, it was the franchise’s 15th indoor championship in 32 seasons, spanning four leagues.
“Playing all our games on the road,” said Chiles, “it was a historical season.”
“We just have a group of resilient guys,” said Pardo. “We were used to being outside our comfort zone (on the road). Because of our reputation, everyone wants to beat the Sockers.”
Before Sunday’s kickoff, players will be given their championship rings and a banner will be unfurled from the rafters.
The MASL returns to 12 teams spread across the country this season, including Sunday’s opponent from Chihuahua, Mexico. The Sockers opened the season last Saturday with a 10-7 win at Tacoma.
Last season’s two top scorers are back, midfielders Leonardo de Oliveira and Brandon Escoto. After being loaned to the Sockers last season from Harrisburg, forward Tavoy Morgan was acquired via trade.
The most anticipated newcomer, Juan Carlos (Charlie) Gonzalez, was signed as a free agent after playing for rival Ontario. Gonzalez and Escoto scored four points in the season-opening win at Tacoma.
Before last Saturday’s game, the Sockers returned to Pechanga Arena for a practice. While the stands were empty, kicking about balls on their home floor after being gone so long was special.
“We were all laughing and smiling,” said Pardo.
The atmosphere will be different for the team’s first home game in 652 days.
Said Pardo, “We’re super excited to get out there and give the fans a show.”
Norcross is a freelance writer.