Mallia getting comfortable as occupant of Spirit goal Playoff performances keeping him as starter

April 13, 1997|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF

The question about Spirit goalie Joe Mallia no longer begs to be answered.

The answer is obvious. As long as Mallia is playing as well as he has, as long as the Spirit keeps winning, yes, of course he will start.

For the fourth straight game in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs, it'll be Mallia in goal when the Spirit meets the Cleveland Crunch in Game 2 of the American Conference semifinals tonight at Baltimore Arena.

A victory would eliminate defending champion Cleveland and send the Spirit into the conference final against the Cincinnati Silverbacks-Harrisburg Heat winner. A loss would send the teams back to Cleveland for the deciding game tomorrow night.

Goalie-assistant coach Cris Vaccaro, who isn't sharp because he hasn't practiced much since recovering from a hamstring injury, might be playing, anyway, if Mallia weren't so hot.

Mallia held the Philadelphia Kixx to 16 points in two first-round games and the Crunch in reasonable check in the Spirit's 19-14 opening win in the second round Friday in Cleveland.

"Joe's an unbelievable competitor," player-coach Mike Stankovic said. "He's fearless. You might beat him once in a while, but he continues to scratch and fight. He has tremendous determination."

Stankovic said he has "to play myself right now," and thus likes to idea of Vaccaro in coat and tie devoting his full attention to coaching from the bench.

Mallia merely anchors a smothering, busy defense that has many contributors.

"One word: teamwork," Stankovic said. Make it two: "Unselfish."

During one 25-minute stretch Friday, the Spirit held the Crunch without a goal. This against a team that scored 135 more points during the regular season than the league's second-most prolific team, the St. Louis Ambush.

"I'm happy the way I'm playing, but it's not just me," Mallia said after his 17-save effort Friday. "It's total team play."

Mallia, 27, is prospering in the playoffs as never before. His previous experiences were in 1991-92 and 1992-93 with the Heat, when he had two strong wins against the Spirit.

He was 3-4 in those playoffs. In this one, he is 3-0.

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Crunch

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7: 05

Radio: WITH (1230 AM)

What: Game 2 of best-of-three NPSL American Conference semifinals. Spirit leads, 1-0. Game 3, if necessary, is tomorrow at 7: 35 in Cleveland.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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