Spirit eager to make its case Young team is rated low, but Forrester optimistic before tomorrow's opener

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

For a team picked by the coaches to be an also-ran in the National Professional Soccer League this season, the Spirit has had problems all week keeping its calm awaiting tomorrow night's season opener against the Kixx in Philadelphia.

"Everyone around here is really excited to get going, because we think we've upgraded our whole roster," said general manager Drew Forrester. "Not only will everyone play, everyone will contribute. It's [coach] Mike Stankovic's type of team."

In a preseason poll, the Spirit was tabbed by just one of the NPSL's 13 coaches as the likely East Division leader. Meanwhile, the defending division-champion Harrisburg Heat received eight

votes and Philadelphia four. But don't expect any concession speeches just yet.

"We looked at the poll and just laughed," said Forrester. "Probably what it proves is that the coaches don't know what they're talking about. Seriously, all coaches do, all they can do really, is look at the rosters and, off what they know, start making assumptions. And we all know what happens when you make assumptions in sports."

On paper, this looks like a major rebuilding year for the Spirit. At least seven new names adorn the 17-man roster of a team that finished 20-20 last season.

"But that's deceiving," said the GM. "The normal turnover is four or five guys, so you are always rebuilding to a certain extent. I know one thing: this team is much quicker than we've been in the past and, although young, we've got talent that's about to emerge.

"For instance, I think [midfielder] Sasa Zoric is about to open some eyes. I think he's a bona fide 100-point scorer in this league. Then there's [midfielders] Mike Henning and Shane Dougherty. They've got a year's experience now and their improvement gives us another dimension."

The biggest loss appears to have come in goal with the retirement of longtime standout Cris Vaccaro and main backup Joe Mallia.

But third-year tender Jim McCombs stepped up smartly last season, played as well as the others and will take over as the lead guy. He'll be backed by Khalil Azmi, a World Cup keeper from Morocco currently in the process of learning the indoor game.

Besides Zoric, veterans Bo Vuckovic and Branko Segota figure to be the team's top goal scorers, with Henning, Dougherty, Barry Stitz, Guillermo Castaneda, Matt Tirschman and Chris Scotti, picked up from Tampa Bay in a dispersal draft, getting their share.

Veteran defensemen Lance Johnson, Ronnie Simmons and Todd Hicks are being counted upon to show the ropes to rookies Carlton Williams, Mike Mekelburg and Nathan Fairchild.

Currently working out with the team and expected to be signed is Dejan Bedic, a forward from Yugoslavia with extensive experience playing outdoors, but a relative newcomer to the indoor game.

The Kixx opened its season last weekend, losing to the Milwaukee Wave in overtime, 10-8, before 10,062 at the Spectrum. Philadelphia features free-agent pickups Kevin Sloan and Bobby Joe Esposito, who between them have 1,000 career points, many of them scored while playing in Baltimore.

Spirit schedule

Oct.: 25 -- at Philadelphia, 7: 35.

Nov.: 1 -- St. Louis, 7: 35; 8 -- at Philadelphia, 7: 35; 12 -- at Cincinnati, 7: 05; 15 -- Cincinnati, 7: 35; 18 -- Milwaukee, 10: 35 a.m.; 21 -- at Buffalo, 7: 35; 22 -- Buffalo, 7: 35; 28 -- at Wichita, 8: 35; 29 -- at Harrisburg, 7: 35.

Dec.: 5 -- Detroit, 7: 35; 6 -- Milwaukee, 7: 35; 13 -- Cincinnati, 7: 35; 20 -- at Philadelphia, 7: 35; 26 -- Philadelphia, 7: 35; 27 -- at Harrisburg, 7: 35; 28 -- at Cleveland, 3: 05; 31 -- at Cincinnati, 7: 05.

Jan.: 9 -- Edmonton, 7: 35; 10 -- Cleveland, 7: 35; 16 -- Harrisburg, 7: 35; 17 -- at Kansas City, 2: 05; 18 -- at St. Louis, 6: 35; 23 -- at Harrisburg, 7: 35; 24 -- Philadelphia, 7: 35; 30 -- Cleveland, 7: 35.

Feb.: 1 -- at Edmonton, 8: 05; 8 -- at Detroit, 3: 05; 13 -- Harrisburg, 7: 35; 15 -- Cleveland, 5: 05; 20 -- Wichita, 7: 35; 21 -- Harrisburg, 7: 35; 27 -- Montreal, 7: 35; 28 -- at Milwaukee, 8: 35.

March: 7 -- at Cleveland, 7: 05; 8 -- at Milwaukee, 2: 05; 15 -- at Montreal, 4: 05; 22 -- at Cleveland, 3: 05; 27 -- Philadelphia, 7: 35; 28 -- Kansas City, 7: 35.

'

'97-98 Spirit roster

No. Name, Age, Pos.

1 Khalil Azmi, 33, GK

4 Michael Henning, 23, M

6 Shane Dougherty, 22, M

7 Sasa Zoric, 23, M

8 Lance Johnson, 27, D

12 Carlton Williams, 22, D

13 Bojan Vuckovic, 27, M

14 Nathan Fairchild, 22, D

15 Mike Mekelburg, 22, D

16 Jim McCombs, 25, GK

17 Todd Hicks, 23, D

18 Matt Tirschman, 23, F

20 Branko Segota, 36, F

21 Barry Stitz, 27, M

22 Ronnie Simmons, 33, D

24 Guillermo Castaneda, 22, F

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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