The San Diego Sockers played like champions last night. With Paul Wright breaking free for two goals and goalkeeper Victor Nogueira playing like Superman, the Sockers beat the Blast, 6-3, before 4,458 at the Arena to come within a game of advancing to their fifth straight Major Soccer League championship series.
"They're really in trouble now," Wright said after San Diego had taken a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series that resumes here tomorrow night. "They lost their cool tonight. I think they opened things up, because they had to. And that would have been all right, because they can play with us. But they made stupid fouls and that's what killed them."
"We're trying to put the squeeze on them," said San Diego coach Ron Newman. "They need three in a row now. That's a big uphill battle."
"We're no further down now than we were at the end of the season when we had to win three straight," said Blast coach Kenny Cooper. "We had to win all three then and we have to win all three now. What we have to do is find a way to beat Nogueira."
Nogueira made 23 saves on 40 shots last night. He thought he and his counterpart Cris Vaccaro performed equally well at the start, but said Vaccaro was put at a disadvantage when penalties started to pile up.
"The Blast should just concentrate on playing soccer," he said.
Newman and his Sockers seemed to believe the Blast wrote its own losing ticket last night by going away from the reserved defensive game plan that had kept it in the first three games.
"I'm certainly confused," said San Diego midfielder Tim Wittman. "They didn't play like that in the other three games. What they did, trying to make it physical, worked to our advantage and it looked sloppy. It's not the game of soccer, when you play it like that."
"I'm sure some of it is frustration, but they weren't very professional," said Sockers defender David Banks. "They've got some veteran players who should be pulling them together, not making big fouls. That's the difference between us and them."
Cooper took exception to San Diego's pointing to the Blast as instigators of the rough stuff.
"They were the ones winning every tackle in the first half," he said. "They came out at us. They were fired up and a step quicker. We had no alternative. It wasn't the game plan to give up stupid penalties. But we're playing at home, we were down 2-1 in games and we decided we had to come out a little bit. We just didn't play well."
The Blast committed 22 fouls last night, and San Diego made 18. But Baltimore gave San Diego four power plays on seven penalties and paid the price when the Sockers scored on three of them.
The Blast showed its frustration early.
When Thompson Usiyan scored on a power play to make it 2-1 with five minutes left in the second quarter, the Blast sagged.
Blast defender Iain Fraser stood in front of the Blast goal, his hands on his hips looking at teammate Kevin Sloan, who heaved a huge sigh.
"To lose a goal on a power play, when you know it shouldn't have been a penalty, it takes the energy out of you," said Fraser. "It's like, 'My God, give us a break.' But tonight, we were just flat for some reason. The way they played, if it hadn't been for Cris Vaccaro [13 saves], we would have been down by four or five goals in the first quarter."
San Diego struck early, with Wright scoring from 60 feet on the Sockers' first power play. That goal stood until the second quarter when Fraser evened the score.
But that would be the last Blast goal until the fourth quarter, when Rusty Troy scored twice.
"Victor Nogueira was unbelievable," said Cooper. "People might look at that score and think we got hammered. But we didn't. We kept fighting until the end. We had great chances and should have had six more goals, but because of Victor we didn't. When Victor plays like that, he's like a human backboard."