This will be a night to remember for Spirit reserve goalie Joe Mallia.
Mallia will celebrate his 25th birthday by making his first Spirit start before a Baltimore Arena crowd including his parents, Doris and Vincent, who are driving from Syosset, N.Y., for the occasion.
And what are the Mallias giving their son? "A punch in the nose," Vincent said, laughing, adding that in truth they're giving him money for clothes and dinner in Little Italy after the Spirit's game with the Canton Invaders.
The Mallias attend most of Joe's games, and always have dating back to his high school days and through his career at Old Dominion, where he posted a school-record 21 career shutouts. Vincent owns a sheet metal shop and can turn it over to his other three sons when he wants to travel.
When the Spirit acquired Mallia and Kevin Sloan from the Dayton Dynamo for Rob Ukrop and Clark Brisson in September, one of the intentions was to have a capable and experienced backup for Cris Vaccaro.
Coach Dave MacWilliams wants Mallia tuned in case Vaccaro gets hurt or has to spend time in the penalty box. MacWilliams will pick spots for Mallia, such as tonight in the first of back-to-back games.
"When we looked at the schedule, we thought this would be a good one for Joe," MacWilliams said. "I don't want to go 10 games without playing him. That's one reason we got him, because he's capable of starting. I'm not sure how many games Cris will play, but it won't be all 40."
Vaccaro, at 36, says he is "fit for all 40," but appreciates the wisdom of taking a night off so that Mallia can stay sharp.
Mallia was the Harrisburg Heat's regular keeper during the 1991-92 season, earning a spot on the National Professional Soccer League All-Rookie team, and shared time with Brett Phillips the following season.
He gave a brilliant performance in the opening round of the 1993 NPSL playoffs, limiting the Spirit to 12 goals in two games as Harrisburg swept into the American Division final. He spent two months of last season with Dayton, admiring Vaccaro from afar, as he had the previous two years.
"Cris has unbelievable reflexes, catching a lot of balls that most keepers don't even get their hands on," Mallia said. "Indoors, because of the closeness and pace of a game, it's hard to catch a ball.
"I regard him as probably the top goalie in the league. I always enjoyed watching him. Now that I'm working with him, I see him come prepared for an honest effort every day. I try to do the same."
* More than 50 players attended Wednesday night's tryouts for the Spirit Reserves. Vaccaro, who will coach the Reserves, will add five or six of the candidates to his team that will compete in the Thursday Night Men's Unlimited League starting early next month at Du Burns Arena.
Opponent: Canton Invaders
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)
Tickets: Many available
Outlook: This is the first of back-to-back home games for the Spirit (2-1), with the Cleveland Crunch to follow tomorrow night. Canton is last in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division with an 0-2 record. Marcelo Carrera leads the Invaders with 13 points. For the Spirit, Tarik Walker (ankle, knee) and Steve Boardman (thigh) are questionable, Tim Wittman (thigh) and Jamie Christie (hamstring) are probable, and Jason Dieter (fractured wrist) will play. Brad Smith, acquired this week from the Dayton Dynamo, will make his Spirit debut.