There is no doubt in the mind of Spirit goalie Joe Mallia about who is the best player in the National Professional Soccer League. It's Zoran Karic of the Cleveland Crunch.
"He's the best we face," Mallia said. "He's dangerous, has a heavy shot and can beat you one-on-one."
Karic, acclaimed last season's MVP after scoring a league-record 267 points, is the NPSL Player of the Week for the second straight week and the fourth time this season after collecting 17 points in Cleveland victories over the Dayton Dynamo and Milwaukee Wave. He is No. 4 in the NPSL's points race despite missing nine of the Crunch's 27 games with an injury.
"I think he's the top player in the league, although some people might argue it's between him and Hector Marinaro," Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams said, referring to Karic's Cleveland teammate. "He's so skillful that he can hurt you in different ways. He's dangerous on re-starts and has such great vision that when he's double-teamed, he can get someone the ball. That's tough to do, being composed enough to find the open man."
Since MacWilliams excoriated his players for lack of effort in a couple of blowouts and then conducted two workouts a day for a week, the team has played more to his liking. The Spirit has won six of its past eight and restricted three of its past four opponents to nine points or fewer.
"The guys are getting the picture that you can be in any game if you work hard," MacWilliams said. "We weren't working hard in games when we were getting blown out. With chemistry and a high work rate, a team can go a long way."
The Spirit is more consistent than it was last season, when it stormed to a 17-3 first-half record and straggled in with a 9-11 mark. The Spirit is 6-3 in the second half after a 13-7 start.
"With 11 games left, this is an important time," MacWilliams said. "We're starting to play with confidence."
Crunch Creation, anyone?
Pierre's French Ice Cream Company of Cleveland has offered a salute to the defending NPSL champion Crunch with the introduction of a Crunch Creation flavor. It combines caramel sauce with almonds, cashews and pecans in chocolate ice cream. Crunch Creation joins Slam Dunk Chunk (NBA's Cavaliers), Triple Play (Indians) and Brownie Nut Sundae (NFL's Browns) on Pierre's menu.
Attendance picking up
Last weekend's NPSL crowds averaged 6,971, or 41 percent above the season average. The Spirit, No. 7 in attendance in the 12-team league, had a modest gain to 5,519 after a turnout of 6,810 for the Buffalo Blizzard.
After Friday's game here against the Canton Invaders, MacWilliams, Tim Wittman and Kevin Sloan will leave for the NPSL All-Star Game on Sunday in Buffalo, N.Y. The game will be telecast by ESPN on a tape-delayed basis at midnight. . . . With 72 points in 16 games, Franklin McIntosh has the Spirit's highest per-game average (4.5). . . . Barry Stitz is one away from his career-high 63 points as a 1992-93 rookie. . . . Wittman has 80 points, high in his three years in the NPSL. . . . Jason Dieter's short-handed goal in Friday's win over Buffalo was the first of his NPSL career. . . . Ricky Bush has two regular-season goals in two years, both this season against Meola.