Barry Stitz's game-tying goal midway through the third quarter typified the Baltimore Spirit's game against the Canton Invaders yesterday.
Neither his goal nor the game was pretty, but the end result was positive, as the Spirit overcame a sluggish first half to defeat the Invaders, 9-6, before 5,195 at the Baltimore Arena.
With the victory, the Spirit (21-7) increased its lead to three games over the second-place Buffalo Blizzard in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division, and reduced its magic number to four to clinch a playoff berth.
Canton (9-20), which ended a 13-game losing streak Monday, dropped into a last-place tie in the division with the Detroit Rockers.
Steve Boardman scored five points on two goals to lead the Spirit. His three-pointer at the 12:11 mark of the third quarter broke a 6-6 tie and proved to be the game-winner.
His goal came less than 1:30 after Stitz's strange-looking goal, which had pulled the Spirit even.
Stitz's goal was set up after a flurry in front of Canton's goal that began with Rusty Troy hitting a hard shot that was blocked. The rebound went to Steve Nichols, who passed the ball to Stitz on the right side.
Canton goalie Jorge Valenzuela had been drawn out of the crease by Troy's shot, leaving an open net for Stitz, who hit an off-balance shot that trickled into the net.
"The ball was a little ahead of me and all I could really do was lunge out. It was almost a toe-poke," Stitz said. "I was actually hoping to play it to somebody going far post, but it happened to trickle in. Sometimes we need breaks like that."
The Spirit certainly needed it.
After taking a 4-0 lead on goals by Kevin Smith and Boardman, the Spirit went scoreless during the next 33:35.
Canton took advantage of the drought and scored three unanswered goals to take a 6-4 lead.
It was an unlikely scenario for Baltimore to be trailing the Invaders. Not only had the Spirit beaten them in two previous meetings, but yesterday's game also matched the team with the best home record (13-2) against one of the league's worst road teams (2-12).
Spirit coach Kenny Cooper attributed the slow start to fatigue. Baltimore was coming off a tough 10-8 road loss to the Dayton Dynamo on Friday night.
"We were in a real dogfight [on Friday]," Cooper said. "Our wake-up call this morning was 4:45, and then we got back around 10:30. Obviously, we were tired. It was just a matter of everybody challenging themselves. That's what I said at halftime."
And it worked.
The Spirit outshot the Invaders 11-7 in the third period, and came close to scoring several times before Stitz finally broke through.
Said Cooper: "When you're playing against a team like that, thatwas defending well, the idea was to just keep shooting, shooting, shooting to break them down.
"We showed a lot of desire and willpower because in the first half we really weren't that much in the game. We went full-court press [in the second half] and tried to overpower them. And we did that."
* Defender Doug Neely sat out yesterday's game with a sprained