Stankovic at midfield: It's a new game

December 11, 1991|By Bill Free

There are no magic potions, fountains of youth or short cuts for veteran Baltimore Blast midfielder Mike Stankovic.

Stankovic has used year-round conditioning to extend his Major Soccer League career at a high level into the 1990s.

It's been eight years since Stankovic, 35, and Stan Stamenkovic were helping the Blast win its only league championship.

Stamenkovic, only nine months older than Stankovic, long since has retired to his home of Titova, Yugoslavia. Stamenkovic made a one-year comeback with the Blast in 1987-88, but didn't perform up to his normal standards and retired for good at the end of the year.

But Stankovic, a native of Yugoslavia who became a U.S. citizen in 1989, keeps rolling on and could pass his close friend Stamenkovic this season as the all-time leading Blast scorer.

Stankovic has six goals and four assists this season to run his nine-year Baltimore totals to 299 points (160 goals, 139 assists). He needs six points to move past the departed Tim Wittman (304 points) for second place and 31 to supplant Stamenkovic (329 points).

The all-time Blast scoring lead has come into focus for Stankovic this season because he is playing as a midfielder instead of his normal defender position.

"I'm more of a free guy now," said Stankovic. "It's easier for me to play this year than last. We have a better all-around defensive team, and I have less responsibility to worry about defense."

As a defender, Stankovic often was asked by coach Kenny Cooper to make statements to the other team with an intimidating physical style of play. The result was a lot of two-minute penalties for Stankovic, and the referees made him a marked man.

Stankovic led the team handily in penalty minutes (57) last season, and some of those penalties led to power-play goals for the opposition.

"Kenny would ask me to kick this guy or that guy," said Stankovic. "But, this year, I don't have to do that. We have Iain Fraser, David Eise and Doug Neely to do that."

Now, he's romping around the midfield like a youngster and getting off 50-foot, line-drive shots that are a threat to anybody who gets in the way.

And he has only four penalty minutes in 11 games for the Blast, which will meet the Cleveland Crunch on Friday at Richfield Coliseum at 8:05 p.m.

All of which makes his new job this season as assistant coach a lot easier.

Stankovic said it would be a lot of harder for him to instruct the players not to commit costly penalties if he still were compiling them as he did last season.

"Even though they know I'm going to make mistakes like they do, it isn't always easy to tell them not to do something that I've just done," said Stankovic. "But I always try to point out their mistakes in a positive way instead of a negative way. As long as I do that, I'll have the players' respect."

Cooper said Stankovic was a natural choice to be his assistant this season, because "he's my confidant and friend and has a great passion for the game. We both realize where the other one is coming from. We don't have to speak a lot. We both want to win more than anything else."

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