Kitson hopes to wash away Mania's soapy beginning

New coach wants players to keep focus on field

May 09, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

This is "Soccer Mom's Day," in the words of embattled Maryland Mania founder and president A. J. Ali, switching modes momentarily from crisis management to marketing.

Tailoring Mother's Day to your business is fun, of course. And Ali said mothers attending the Mania's home opener this afternoon will get flowers.

But for those moms and others -- Ali is hoping for about 1,500 -- who buy tickets this afternoon, not to mention Mania players, there can't help but be questions about what will happen on the field. That's particularly so, given last week's messy replacement after one game of the team's second coach, Darryl Gee, and resignation of assistant Bill Stara.

Mainly, can this start-up A-League team, which has had two more head coaches than official games, create some of the athletic drama that keeps pro soccer's investors' hopes alive and draws fans worldwide?

Or is that asking too much of an obviously struggling business with nice-sounding aspirations that, so far, resembles a soap opera more than provider of affordable sports entertainment?

And can new coach Paul Kitson, who coached the Montreal Impact to a 21-7 record last summer, apply some magic to mollify distracted players he only met Thursday evening and refocus everyone -- the public included -- on the game?

Kitson, who as a pro player for two decades has experienced lots of management uncertainty, said he told the team that "no matter what happens in the office, even if people there are your friends, or if teammates are let go, players are still expected to go out and perform. That's the life of a pro."

Kitson's at-a-glance evaluation of his team is that it's "about three weeks behind" in training and "relatively inexperienced."

But Kitson, a Blast scoring star in the mid-1980s who has done well coaching "relatively inexperienced" squads both indoors and outdoors in Montreal, also said: "It's not a scary situation for me to come into. We are pros -- we have to act the part. It's nothing we can't fix."

His inherited roster counts four former Parade All-Americans, nine players with A-League or higher experience, several college All-Americans and one of last fall's top collegiate scorers.

Given some victories, the squad could generate a following. Fourteen players have ties, some through college, to the Baltimore-Washington area, and seven learned the game on Columbia's playing fields. That local flavor was one of the team's original objectives.

Today's Atlantic Division match -- the first of four home games this month -- will be the Mania's second in the league, the team having lost its opener 11 days ago at Raleigh, 2-0, despite outshooting the Capital Express, 12-4, in cold rain.

The 6-year-old Battery will be playing its fourth game, with a 3-0 road win in Atlanta, a 1-0 shootout loss at home to Raleigh, and a 2-1 overtime win Friday night in Hershey.

Kitson's possible forwards include Lloyd Barker, 28, an ex-Jamaican international who was on the now-defunct outdoor Montreal Impact the last three seasons, and Richard Moller, a rookie German forward who was one of NCAA Division I's top scorers at Towson University the last two falls.

In goal, he has ex-Maryland goalkeeper Russell Payne (Glenelg), who has been called up three times this season by Major League Soccer's D.C. United. Ex-United starter and Olympian Clint Peay (Oakland Mills) is a solid defender. The Mania toughened the back last week, too, adding Blast enforcer Ronnie Simmons, 34.

The most familiar name locally at midfield is Todd Haskins, a Parade Player of the Year at Howard High who is considered one of the best pure talents this area has produced. Most recently, he has been playing beach soccer.

The Battery will field one player known locally, ex-Loyola College forward Mike Burke, 23, who scored 16 goals in 27 games with Jacksonville and Charleston and was last season's A-League Rookie of the Year.

Mania today

Opponent: Charleston (S.C.) Battery

When: 4: 05 p.m.

Where: UMBC Stadium

Tickets: $7, $10 and $15 at gate.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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