Dan O'Keefe provided the first indication in Friday night's overtime win over the Harrisburg Heat. Last night, rookie Rob Ukrop provided the second one.
It was O'Keefe's scoring flurry since returning from a knee injury and Ukrop's return from a broken jaw that prompted coach Kenny Cooper to say before last night's game: "Now that Dan and Rob are back, we can only get better."
O'Keefe had his second straight hat trick and fourth of the season and Ukrop had a career-high five points to lead the Spirit to a 24-20 victory over the Canton Invaders last night before 5,559 at the Baltimore Arena.
Ukrop missed 11 games, returned Friday and contributed little. He came out of last night's game with a skinned knee, which pleased him.
"It means I was doing something," he said after his two goals and one assist. "I felt like a distraction Friday night. I wanted to prove myself and wasn't letting things come naturally. This time they came more easily."
O'Keefe, the NPSL's all-time leading goal scorer with 330, missed six games with a sprained knee. He felt the back-to-back hat tricks defined his return.
"It takes one good game like Friday night's to get it back, including the confidence," O'Keefe said. "Before, I was trying to force things."
The win raised the Spirit's record to 15-3, best in the National Professional Soccer League, and its home record to 11-1. It also increased its lifetime grip on Canton to 7-0.
The Spirit overcame a 12-8 halftime deficit to take a 20-14 lead with a 12-2 third-quarter run, including 10 unanswered points.
"At halftime, I challenged the players as men, individuals and as a team," Cooper said. "We didn't have the focus required and got our backsides kicked. Mike [assistant coach Stankovic] suggested we switch Doug Neely to midfield and Rusty Troy to the back. It worked, giving us a different look."
Spirit season-long scoring leader Paul Wright, who had two goals and an assist, strained his left hamstring and is questionable for Friday's game against the Wichita Wings. He has not fully recovered from a right hamstring problem suffered last summer in outdoor soccer.
For only the second time all season, the Spirit trailed at halftime, the other time was against Buffalo early this month.
Canton's 12 points matched a season high for a half against Baltimore. The Invaders did it Nov. 6, and the Heat had 12 two weeks later.
O'Keefe and Tarik Walker, both major contributors in Friday night's overtime win over Harrisburg, gave the Spirit its first two goals. But Canton scored three times for a 6-4 first-quarter lead.
The Invaders outscored the Spirit in the second quarter 6-4, as Carlos Ledesma had two goals and Kia got his second of the game. The Spirit got goals from O'Keefe, giving him nine in five games and five in two nights, and Troy.
NOTES: The Spirit thought it would warm up fans on one of the coldest nights of the winter to hand out 3,000 leis and play Hawaiian music. . . . The Spirit, WMAR-TV and 100 WGRX-FM are joining in a benefit project in Friday night's game against the Wichita Wings. Each ticket ordered by phoning 625-2265 will result in a $3 donation to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.