East County sons stand out at Sockers’ alumni game and ceremony

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Photo by Phillip Brents. Sockers legend Juli Veee officially welcomes Paul Wright into the team’s elite cadre of players with a kiss after Wright had his No. 3 jersey retired by the club during a pregame ceremony on Sunday.

The San Diego Sockers hosted their annual alumni game during halftime of Sunday’s Major Arena Soccer League match against the Rio Grande Valley Barracudas at Pechanga Arena San Diego.

Forty-four alumni from throughout the franchise’s long history dating to 1978 attended, with 39 participating in the on-field festivities.

The game featured a treasure trove of Sockers legendary players from across the spectrum of the franchise’s existence, many of whom have contributed to the Sockers’ 14 indoor soccer league championships spanning 1982 to 2013 in the North American Soccer League (1982, 1984), Major Indoor Soccer League (1983, 1985-86, 1988-1992), PASL-Pro (2009-11) and PASL (2012-13).

A crowd of 5,664, one of the club’s largest this season, stamped its approval on the popular event.

Valhalla High School alumnus Anthony Medina, who played nine seasons for the Sockers before retiring at the end of the 2018 season, participated in his first alumni game.

“It’s a different feeling,” he said. “It’s exciting to see all the guys.”

For the record, Medina scored a goal in Team 2000s’s 4-2 win over Team 1980s/1990s.

The alumni game unveiled a new format this year with teams divided into approximate timelines.

Vidal Fernandez and Juli Veee, both members of the original Sockers team that played outdoor and indoor soccer in the NASL and indoor soccer in the MISL, coached Team 1980s/1990s.

Guy Newman and Zoltan Toth coached Team 2000s, which included current Sockers head coach Phil Salvagio as the team’s goalkeeper.

Medina won four PASL championships with the Sockers from 2009-13. He finished his Sockers career with 99 goals and 56 assists in 145 games.

He was a member of the Sockers team that established a U.S. professional sports record 48-game winning streak from 2010-13. A banner proudly commemorating that feat hangs the rafters of the team’s home arena.

Sunday’s event began with a pregame ceremony retiring the No. 3 jersey of Paul Wright, a Grossmont High School alumnus who gained fame during four separate stints with the Sockers from 1990-2013.

Wright, known for his blazing speed, scored 435 goals and 412 assists in 603 games during his lengthy indoor soccer career, including 164 goals with the Sockers.

Wright, 49, was visibly moved by the ceremony, telling fans he was proud of what he accomplished on the field through their longtime support.

“Wow, it’s crazy,” he said as the spotlight framed him at the center of the playing surface. “It’s been an unbelievable experience. I want to thank the Sockers organization from top to bottom. I want to thank the fans for cheering. I learned from the best players and the best coaches. From the moment I stepped on the floor, it felt like home. I had three goals: one was to get 30 goals. I did that. The second was to get five (championship) rings. I did that. The third was to have my jersey hang up there with the other legends.”

During a post-ceremony group photo opportunity, Veee – perhaps the most legendary of all Sockers – kissed the top of Wright’s bald head in acknowledgment that Wright had indeed joined elite company.

Medina, who had a chance to play alongside Wright during the current Sockers’ early years in the PASL-Pro/PASL (now MASL), called the retiring of Wright’s jersey appropriate.

“It’s great honoring Paul,” Medina said. “I was just learning to play indoor soccer when I came on the team. He had maybe lost half a step by then, but that didn’t matter too much for him when compared to other people, he was still fast. He brought speed and energy to the game and what it meant to be a professional. I admired and respected him for that.”

Medina joined fellow Valhalla alumnus Toby Taitano in Sunday’s alumni game, though Taitano played on Team 1980s/1990s.

It was a special moment for all the players involved.

“For me, it felt like it was in my blood, growing up and playing for my hometown team,” Medina said. “It’s like it’s in your DNA.”

The Sockers reached back for some old magic to win the main event, 6-5, in overtime after trailing 3-0 at the end of three quarters.

Brandon Escoto scored the game-winner 48 seconds into the sudden-victory period after the hosts, missing five key contributors due to injury, had rallied with five goals in the fourth quarter.

The Sockers rallied from deficits of 3-0, 4-3 and 5-4 before sending the game into the golden goal period. Kraig Chiles, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, recorded a hat trick while Christian Gutierrez and Brian Farber scored fourth-quarter goals.

Chiles scored on a penalty kick to make the score 4-4. Chiles scored the 5-all equalizing goal with 2:55 left in regulation as the Sockers pulled out a wild finish.

After deftly tucking the ball inside the near post off a centering pass from teammate Leonardo De Oliveira, Escoto raced down field while removing his jersey top. The goal was his 29th of the season.

With the win, the team’s 20th consecutive, the Sockers improved their season record to 22-1. They are 5-0 in overtime this season.

The Sockers will host Fan Appreciation Night on April 13 at the arena and play their first home playoff game on April 20.

The Sockers have the best record in the league and have already set a mark for excellence during their PASL/MASL timeline.

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