The Major Soccer League playoffs begin in San Diego a week from today. The date is set with only one detail yet to be settled. Who will play the Sockers in the opening round?
Will it be the Blast, third-place Cleveland Crunch, fourth-place Wichita Wings or Tacoma Stars? All have a chance to finish in the fourth, and final, playoff spot.
The race has boosted league attendance in the past nine games to an average of 9,800, but it has been hard on coaches.
"You're like an elastic band in a season like this," said Blast coach Kenny Cooper. "You're stretched to your limits."
In Tacoma, Stars coach Keith Weller is feeling the same tension.
"I don't like it at all, because we didn't have to be in this position," said Weller, whose team needs to win in Cleveland on Friday and also needs the Dallas Sidekicks to win in Wichita to keep its hopes alive.
"We're 15-5 at home, 2-16 on the road. That tells the whole story. If we'd won even three more road games, we'd be challenging Dallas for second. Now, we've got to do it on the road in Cleveland -- and Baltimore and then let the chips fly where they may."
Sound familiar? If the Blast had won one or two more of those overtime games it dropped -- it was 1-5 this season -- it wouldn't be worrying about Friday night, either. The Blast also needs Dallas to beat Wichita, and Tacoma to beat Cleveland to keep its hopes alive.
Dallas coach Gordon Jago, whose team has secured second in the standings, doesn't like the situation much, either. He knows Tacoma and Baltimore are both looking at his team to deliver. At the same time, he has to do what's best for his team's playoff chances.
"I'll put out the best team I have available," said Jago. "But I won't take risks on those who are injured. It's hard to demand the utmost from those who are limping, because I want my team healthy for the postseason. But we will do our best to win every game we play."
That's the best the Blast and Stars can hope for, since they've failed to help themselves most of the season.
* LIFE AFTER APRIL: Tacoma announced yesterday that it will be back for the 1992-93 season. The word came from Stars executive vice president Stan Naccarato.
"We are dedicated to making soccer work in Tacoma -- and it can work," said Naccarato. "We won't be last in attendance [next year]. I guarantee that."
* EXPANSION HOPES: Expansion is a yearly question, to the point where on this April Fools' Day, it could be considered a yearly joke. But this year it seems more serious than usual.
In Dallas, Mavericks and Sidekicks chief operating officer Norm Sonju continues to work NBA owners as possible expansion newcomers in the MSL. In the MSL office, commissioner Earl Foreman continues to work viable Buffalo, N.Y., prospects, as the league makes plans to entertain Buffalo representatives during the playoffs. Here, in Baltimore, Cooper continues to work the England angle.
* EXPANSION PLANS: If expansion remains unclear for next season, there are definite plans for 1993-94. Though league representatives are mum, those close to the MSL say the league has firm agreements with ownership groups in San Jose, Calif., and Anaheim, Calif., for 1993-94.
Evidently, the only reason those teams aren't in for the coming season is that new arenas are being built in both cities and will not be ready until 1993.
* INDESTRUCTIBLE: Blast midfielder Billy Ronson had stitches removed from his knee Monday and is expected to be released to play in 10 days to two weeks . . . if the Blast is still playing.