Getting past high-flying Crunch easier said than done for Spirit

April 11, 1997|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF

The last time the Spirit was in Cleveland, Mike Stankovic created a scene of controversy.

Tonight, the player-coach and his troops hope to create an entirely different scene, one of victory.

On Jan. 5, Stankovic pulled his team off the field in protest of an incorrect call by the officials in a game the Spirit eventually lost. As a result, Stankovic was fined $3,000 and suspended for three games.

Now, the Spirit is back in Cleveland to meet the Crunch in the opener of a best-of-three second-round series in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.

It is a towering assignment. The Crunch, top seed in the American Conference and the defending NPSL champion, had the best regular-season record (29-11) in the league, including an 18-2 home mark, and beat the Spirit in their only two encounters.

On top of that sobering knowledge comes this remark by Crunch general manager Al Miller: "This is one of the best teams Cleveland has had going into the playoffs in terms of talent. When we hit top form, teams have trouble living with us. I think we have a great chance to win it all this year, and a great chance of going down in history as a team of the '90s."

This is not hyperbole on Miller's part. Harrisburg Heat coach Jim Pollihan shudders at the memory of the 21-13 loss to Cleveland on March 28, when the Crunch scored the game's final nine points.

"When they start scoring, if you don't stop them immediately, they'll score in bunches," Pollihan said.

Most of the bunches are provided by Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, who, as is their custom, finished one-two in the league in scoring. There really is no sure way to stop them.

"You simply try to limit their chances by forcing them into positions where they don't want to be," said Spirit defender Doug Neely.

The Crunch, which eliminated the Spirit in the second round of last season's playoffs en route to the championship, led the NPSL with 772 points this season, 135 more than the second-place St. Louis Ambush.

Even playing as well as it did in sweeping two games from the Philadelphia Kixx in the first round last weekend may not be good enough for the Spirit to get past Cleveland.

"We have to step it up still another level," Neely said. "If we can build from the Philadelphia experience, this can be a good series. The rounds get tougher and tougher."

Joe Mallia, who was brilliant in goal in the Philadelphia series, restricting the Kixx to 16 points in two games, will start tonight, even though Cris Vaccaro has recovered from a hamstring injury.

Mallia is the "hot" goalie.

"Joe is comfortable there," Stankovic said. "There's no need to change. We'll go with what brought us here."

The only Spirit player declared out for the series is Jason Dieter, who has a moderate tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. No surgery is planned; he could be back next week if the team advances.

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Crunch

Site: Cleveland State Convocation Center

Time: 7: 35

Radio: WITH (1230 AM)

What: Opener of best-of-three NPSL American Conference semifinals. Game 2 will be Sunday at 7: 05 at Baltimore Arena. Game 3 (if necessary) will be Monday at 7: 35 in Cleveland.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.