Spirit knocks off Crunch, 16-13, for second time in three days Defense, Sloan's goals spark eighth straight win

March 04, 1996|By Jeff Schudel | Jeff Schudel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLEVELAND -- The Spirit players are ready for the National Professional Soccer League playoffs, but like eager horses in the starting gate, they have to wait.

The Spirit won its eighth straight game yesterday by beating the rival Cleveland Crunch, 16-13, behind superb goalkeeping by Cris Vaccaro and three two-point goals by Kevin Sloan. It wasn't easy, though. The Spirit led 10-2 at halftime, saw the lead shrink to 12-10, then opened the spread to six points on two-point goals by Sloan and John Garvey at 8:21 and 9:14 of the fourth period.

Already assured of a fourth straight playoff berth, the Spirit raised its record to 22-12 and opened a 2 1/2 -game lead over Buffalo, a loser in Milwaukee yesterday, in the battle for second place in the American Division. Baltimore cannot catch Cleveland (29-6), but if the two teams meet for the division championship next month the Spirit will do so with confidence because it is responsible for three of the Crunch's losses. The Spirit beat Cleveland, 19-10, Friday in Baltimore and, 19-11, in Cleveland on Nov. 17.

"Since the coaching change [Mike Stankovic replaced Dave MacWilliams 10 games ago] we have a different attitude," said Vaccaro, who made 21 saves. "We stress defense in practice. We feel that will create offensive chances and win games for us.

"The players have been rejuvenated. We frustrated Cleveland the last two games. They're still the team to beat and we still have a long way to go, but hopefully we're gaining enough momentum to head into the playoffs and do well."

Midfielder Franklin McIntosh had the key goal and a key assist. He blasted a free kick from 50 feet with 30 seconds left in the first half. The ball was heading to the left side of the net and Cleveland goalkeeper Otto Orf was in position to make the stop, but the ball hooked and deflected off a Crunch defender into the back of the net to make the score 10-2.

Sloan's third goal made it 14-10 with 6:39 to play. Less than a minute later, McIntosh gained control, weaved through three Cleveland defenders in the box, and tapped the ball to Garvey. Garvey, four feet in front of the net, poked it home.

Baltimore kept two defenders back every time it made a push at the Cleveland goal, not allowing the Crunch any odd-man rushes. The defense also took away Cleveland's most potent weapon -- the free kick. The Crunch, playing without Zoran Karic, had 35 restart opportunities and converted only one, about five below its average.

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