The scene was the Spirit's locker room, and Cris Vaccaro was in tears. The date was last April 9, the night the Spirit's season dissolved with yet another loss to the Harrisburg Heat.
"This was the most disappointing season of my career," Vaccaro said. "Out of my 14 years, I thought this was the team that would do it. To have it end this way. . . ."
With that, Vaccaro said he was retiring. Not because, at 35, his goaltending skills had eroded, but because of the way the season ended.
Time heals, and Vaccaro is back. This time, as the Spirit prepares for its National Professional Soccer League opener Oct. 21 against the Chicago Power at Baltimore Arena, Vaccaro not only is the No. 1 goalie, but new coach Dave MacWilliams' assistant as well.
"The end of last season was a very emotional time for me," Vaccaro said. "I went home and contemplated the big picture. I eventually decided to come back. When Dave made me his assistant, that made it all the more appealing, because I want to get into coaching. There's no better way to do that than to play and be part of management, too."
Vaccaro had the best record, 23-7, among the NPSL's goalies LTC last season. Based on goals-against average, he was rated third, at 12.23, behind the Milwaukee Wave's Victor Nogueira (11.17) and the Buffalo Blizzard's Jamie Swanner (11.90).
"One thing that interested me about coming here was playing behind Cris and learning from him," said Joe Mallia, the Spirit's No. 2 goalie. "I've watched him for years. I think he's the best in the league."
Vaccaro, who turned 36 last week, is called "Pops" by the young Spirit players. He is the fifth oldest player in the league and the second oldest goalie behind the Canton Invaders' P.J. Johns.
"His reactions are lightning-quick," Mallia said. "He holds onto a lot of balls you don't see keepers hold onto. And he brings those 14 years of experience and dedication to practice every day."
Born in New Jersey and still a resident there, Vaccaro played two years at Mercer Community College and two at the University of Baltimore, making third-team All-South in 1979, and began his pro career with the Blast in 1980. He played the past two seasons with the Spirit.
"Cris had two great years for us," former coach Kenny Cooper said. "A goalie is like a quarterback or a pitcher. When you make a mistake, everybody sees it. It's a very responsible position, but also lonely, and a goalie has to be his own best friend. Goalies have a feel for coaching because of the position they play."
"Reading a game is a big part of it for any goalie," MacWilliams said. "Angles, boards. Are we marking opponents tight enough? Are people loose in the box? From his perspective, making those adjustments are part of a goalie's job, even if he's not an assistant coach."
As he begins his 15th pro season, Vaccaro will not lack for motivation. He has never won a championship ring.
"That will keep Cris going," Spirit teammate Tim Wittman said. "His goal is to win a championship."
There is more to it than that, however. Vaccaro says the joy of playing soccer is the chief motivation; it's not a job, but still fun. He also will find gratification in helping young players.
"The second motivating factor is helping to win a championship," Vaccaro said.
"That's my ultimate goal. It has avoided me for 14 years."