It's a formula for success that the Spirit has proved effective since Mike Stankovic took over the team in late January -- work hard on defense and the offensive opportunities will come.
That formula will be put to an even more stringent test when Baltimore visits the Cleveland Crunch tonight for Game 1 of their best-of-five National Professional Soccer League playoff series.
"Defense wins championships. Mike [Stankovic] has been preaching it all year long and we all believe in it," said Spirit forward Kevin Sloan.
"In the past, we've always given up easy goals and had to work hard for ours, but since Mike took over, and we've concentrated on defense, we've been getting the easy transition goals. I guess those are the rewards from playing tough defense."
The Spirit (27-15), which was eliminated by the Harrisburg Heat in the first round of the playoffs in its first three seasons in the league, is 14-4 since Stankovic was named player/coach, and Baltimore's defense has yielded less than 10 points a game.
In its two-game playoff sweep of Harrisburg, the Spirit was held scoreless in the second half of Game 2 and still escaped with a 7-6 victory.
The big question for the American Division finals is, can Baltimore's offense, which will continue to play without suspended leading scorer Franklin McIntosh, keep up with Cleveland's prolific scoring duo of Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic?
Sloan, who had 17 points in this year's four meetings with Cleveland, says he knows the answer.
"I think Cleveland is an average team with two great players," he said of Marinaro and Karic. "Right now, we're peaking, and it looks like Cleveland is going the other way. Our team is on a roll, and we feel pretty invincible right now. Hopefully, those words won't come back to haunt me."
If the reg- ular season was any indication of how the Spirit will fare in the division finals, Baltimore fans may want to start making plans for the NPSL's best-of-seven championship series. The Spirit defeated the Crunch (33-10) three times in four games this season, including twice in March.
"We've done well against Cleveland this year and we've held them to fewer points than any team in the league, but this is a new season now and we have to prove ourselves all over again," said Spirit defender Lance Johnson. "We're prepared and we know what we have to do, but we still have to finish our scoring opportunities and contain Hector."
Marinaro, the two-time league Most Valuable Player and NPSL scoring champ with 247 points, was virtually unstoppable in Cleveland's playoff series with Buffalo, scoring 33 points in three games.
Stankovic doesn't expect his team to be nearly as generous.
"Cleveland has a great offensive team, but we're not going to let them score points like they do against other teams," said Stankovic, whose team is responsible for nearly one-third of Cleveland's losses this season.
"We believe as long as we give our best and play the best we can, there is nothing we can't do."
(Best of five)
American Div.: Spirit vs. Cleveland
Today--At Cleveland, 7: 30 p.m.
Sunday--At Cleveland, 6 p.m.
Tuesday--At Spirit, 7: 30 p.m.
April 13--At Spirit, 7: 30 p.m.*
April 14--At Cleveland, 6 p.m.*
National Div.: K.C. vs. St. Louis
Today--At Kansas City, 8: 30 p.m.
Tomorrow--At Kansas City, 8: 30 p.m.
Wednesday--At St. Louis, 8: 30 p.m.
April 14--At St. Louis, 7: 30 p.m.*
April 15--At Kansas City, 8: 30 p.m.* *
-- if necessary
Opponent: Cleveland Crunch
Site: CSU Convocation Center, Cleveland
Time: 7: 30
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: The Spirit is 3-1 against the Crunch this season and 12-5 overall. Baltimore is coming off a two-game sweep of Harrisburg; Cleveland was pushed to the full three games in its semifinal series with Buffalo. This will be the first time Baltimore and Cleveland have met in the NPSL postseason, but the teams -- both of which joined the league four years ago -- used to battle it out in the now-defunct MISL. This will be Cleveland's fourth straight appearance in the American Division finals. The Spirit's only loss to the Crunch this season was a 17-9 decision on Nov. 25 at the Baltimore Arena. Jason Maricle, Jason Dieter and Kevin Sloan each have five points in the playoffs, and G Cris Vaccaro is 2-0 in the postseason and 16-6 for the season. Cleveland's Hector Marinaro had 33 points in the three-game series with Buffalo.
Pub Date: 4/05/96