Monthlong fast can't slow goalie Soccer: While taking the religious requirements of Ramadan in stride, Khalil Azmi has adjusted well to the indoor game with the Spirit.

January 30, 1998|By FROM STAFF REPORTS

Khalil Azmi's transition from outdoor soccer -- he was a World Cup goalie for Morocco -- to the indoor game appears to be complete. During the past month, he has hit his stride with the Spirit, his goals-against average dropping from 14 to 11.

He has also spent most of January adhering to the dictates of the Muslim religion's Ramadan that require a total fast (no food or water) from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan ended last night.

How is a body able to carry on practicing hard and playing games on a daily basis with the barest minimum of sustenance?

The 33-year-old native of Casablanca pointed to his head for a quick answer: "Focus and concentration." Then, he continued, "I've been observing Ramadan for about 20 years. It's no problem for me, fasting and playing. When I'm hungry, thirsty or my energy runs down, I put it out of my mind.

"It actually helps coming to practice every day. It takes your mind off things. I usually lose between four and six pounds during Ramadan but am able to feel good and remain strong because of focus."

During the past month, Azmi had a light snack when the sun went down, drank fluids to hydrate throughout the evening and was done eating his only full meal of the day by 10: 30 p.m. "I get up about 7: 30 in the morning and have nothing, but I never get dehydrated," he said. "I know how much water the body takes."

It was after last season and with the retirement of goalies Cris Vaccaro and Joe Mallia that the Spirit began hunting for help in goal. Forgotten is the name of the player the team journeyed to Hershey to see perform last summer in the A League playoffs, but it wasn't a goalie.

"Charleston [S.C.] was playing Hershey in the opening round," said Spirit general manager Drew Forrester. "I happened to be talking to an agent the day before the game and, when he heard where I was headed, he said, 'Take a look at my goalie.'

"I couldn't help but look at the guy. The game ended in a 1-1 tie and they played an overtime. No one scored. Now they went to a shootout. Azmi stopped all five shots in the shootout and his team won, 2-1.

"Charleston had lost the first game a couple of days before, so they played a mini-game [30 minutes] to decide the series. It ended scoreless and it was time for a shootout again. This time, Hershey was only able to get one of five attempts past him. It was amazing. On a brutally hot afternoon, Khalil played for 2 1/2 hours and two shootouts and allowed just two goals. We had seen enough."

"He had everything for the indoor game, you could see that immediately," said Spirit coach Mike Stankovic, picking up the story. "He was absolutely unbeatable from 15 to 20 yards, his reactions were so quick. And he's fearless."

Initially, Azmi had the usual problems resulting from balls coming in from a million different angles and whacking off walls in a confined space.

But a turning point came on Dec. 26 when East Division-leading Philadelphia made its first appearance here. The Kixx had averaged 18 points against the Spirit in three games in Philly. It got 10 this time.

Lately, Azmi has been making saves at a 72 percent clip -- 70 percent is good.

"He's learning fast," said Stankovic. "His teammates love him. They can learn a lot from his preparation and dedication."

Before coming to the United States in 1995, Azmi played for 14 years in the top division in Morocco. He led his teams to so many victories in international play that he was gifted with a house by the king of the country and another by the mayor of Casablanca.

The Spirit, which can't offer the same kind of inducements, is working to re-sign Azmi, who has a one-year contract. The team hopes to keep him in the area year-round by having him play in Hershey during the summer.

"I like the area," said Azmi, who lives here with his wife, Kerri, and their 2-month-old daughter. "I like team management and I like Mike [Stankovic] as coach. I think it would be good for me to play both indoors and outdoors around here and not move around."

Sounds like a done deal. "Hopefully," says Forrester. "I don't think there's any doubt he's been the story of our season."

NOTE: The Spirit announced that defender Lance Johnson will be its lone representative in the NPSL All-Star Game in Cincinnati on Feb. 17. It will be the second appearance for the 27-year-old native of Camden, N.J. He leads the team in three-point goals with seven and will become the all-time team leader in blocked shots with five more.

(NPSL standings, 7D)

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Crunch

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7: 35 Radio: WCBM (680 AM)

Outlook: Despite a mediocre season so far by the Crunch, (12-12), Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic are 1-2 in the league scoring race -- ahead of the rest of the pack by more than 20 points. The Spirit (6-19) has split its 12 games at home and is 3-4 overall in the new year. Forward Mirko Castillo, who had three goals and seven points in six games, has been released by the Spirit.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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