CLEVELAND -- The Cleveeland Crunch played a game of pickpocket last night, swiping the Spirit clean of the victory it had seemingly well in hand until the final four minutes of the game.
Without warning, the Crunch crept up on its visitors, scoring two goals in 32 seconds off of restarts to pull off a 12-11 win in front of 8,893 at the Cleveland State Convocation Center.
The Spirit (21-11) still needs one more victory to clinch a playoff berth and slipped 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Crunch (23-8) in the American Division standings.
"We had the momentum going up until the last four minutes," said the Spirit's Jon Parry. "We just had a few key mistakes down at the end. You hate to lose a game like that."
The Spirit awoke refreshed from the halftime break, playing fierce defense and rallying to a 9-6 lead by the end of the third quarter.
Baltimore's Kevin Sloan then scored his third goal of the night to give the Spirit an 11-6 advantage with 7:01 left in the fourth quarter.
"They pressured us really well," said Cleveland's Andy Schmetzer. "We were almost hanging our heads at that point until things started going our way."
Less than a minute after Baltimore went up by five points, the Crunch's Doug Miller broke Cleveland's drought and gave his team an emotional boost, scoring a two-point goal.
Five minutes later, Zoran Karic scored a two-point goal off a rebound from the wall, to pull the Crunch within 11-10.
Karic then assisted on the game-winning goal, passing to Andy Schmetzer on the fast break. The Crunch held off a furious Spirit rally with a sixth player in the final three minutes to win the game.
"People like Zoran [Karic] who can hurt you, we shouldn't have given him any opportunities," Parry said.
"We had them 11-6, but made two mistakes on the restart," said Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams. "We gave them two chances on our mental mistakes."
Baltimore played its best soccer in the second and third quarters. Trailing 6-2 just five minutes into the second quarter, the Spirit took advantage of the Crunch's fatigue.
Midfielder Parry got the ball on a breakaway and pulled Cleveland goalie Otto Orf off line and drilled the ball into the back of the net.
Six minutes later, the Spirit's aggressive play in Cleveland's circle paid off. Jason Dieter launched a hard shot right to Orf and Sloan one-timed the rebound for a two-pointer.
That erased the lead and --ed the momentum the Crunch had built in the first quarter.
After more than 10 scoreless minutes, Cleveland scored first whenScott Schweitzer collected a pass from Karic, stutter-stepped to fake out Spirit goalie Cris Vaccaro and hit the right corner.
Less than a minute later, the Spirit's Brad Smith was called for dangerous play and the Crunch converted the power play. Karic, restarting left of the goal, darted a pass to Henry Gutierrez, who deflected it into the net for a 3-0 lead.
Baltimore made it a one-point game to end the first quarter when Smith stole the ball from Glenn Carbonara and scored on a shot just below the crossbar.
Baltimore ..2 ..4 ..3 ..2 ..-- ..11
Cleveland ..3 ..3 ..0 ..6 ..-- ..12
Opponent: Cleveland Crunch
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)
Tickets: Many available
Outlook: A crowd of 6,000 is expected for the matchup of the top two teams in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division. For the Spirit, it's the third game in as many nights. The defending NPSL champion Crunch is led by Hector Marinaro, the NPSL points leader, and Zoran Karic, who is in the top five despite missing nine games with injuries. Marinaro was the league MVP two years ago and Karic won the award last season.