NPSL, pushing for balance, has early signs in its favor Crunch loss, Montreal bid point toward greater parity

October 24, 1997|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

The National Professional Soccer League, a week into its 14th season (and they said it would never last), is bent on featuring parity this year.

Not total equality, understand -- 13 teams finishing with 20-20 records, a la Pete Rozelle's dream for the NFL -- but a far more competitive situation from top to bottom than has existed in the recent past.

Last season, for instance, the haves were in Cleveland (29-11), St. Louis (27-13), Kansas City and Milwaukee (both 26-14), while the have-nots hung out in Columbus (5-35) and Toronto (6-34). The year before, Kansas City was 32-8 and Cleveland 31-9, while Canton (5-35) and Chicago (6-34) combined for a winning percentage of .138.

Clearly, it doesn't do anyone any good if franchises win just a handful of games and fade into the woodwork as Canton and Chicago did after the 1995-96 campaign and Columbus, Toronto and Tampa Bay did last spring. And the league is convinced such a wide disparity no longer exists.

The parity drive got off to a good start last weekend when the always potent Cleveland Crunch was manhandled in Cincinnati, 27-17, and Montreal (formerly Canton, thence Columbus) gave the Blizzard all it could handle in Buffalo before succumbing, 11-7.

Cleveland, which opened in Cincinnati with five starters out for various reasons, and Kansas City, which doesn't play its first game until Nov. 1, are once again expected to be the class of the American and National conferences, respectively. But player movement has been such that even these juggernauts were out shopping in the off-season.

The Crunch was forced to replace perennial 100-point scorer Henry Gutierrez and all-star defenseman Matt Knowles, which might open things up for Milwaukee and Cincinnati in the Central Division.

The Midwest has never wanted for in-house competition as the defending league-champion Kansas City Attack lost the division title to St. Louis last season and finished with the same record as Wichita (26-14).

Similar to the East Division, where the Spirit and Harrisburg have been within a whisper of each other for years and the Philadelphia Kixx is already solid in only its second year of existence, the North Division always is a dogfight. Last year, Buffalo won out with a 21-19 record, same as Edmonton in second place, with Detroit a game back at 20-20. Montreal will be looking to get a piece of the action here.

A poll of the 13 coaches had them naming Harrisburg, Edmonton, Cleveland and Kansas City as division champs, with the latter pair emerging as conference titlists and the Crunch taking the championship from the Attack. The Spirit is predicted to finish third (last) in its division.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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