Uphill road for Drillers even steeper with rookie

Larkin has work cut out in goal in NPSL matchup against favored Wave

April 13, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

They are, by Blast coach Kevin Healey's estimation, the best four teams in the National Professional Soccer League and deserving of their positions in their respective conference finals.

But there is one team with a question mark at goalkeeper, of all spots, making the long-shot Edmonton Drillers' odds of winning it all even longer.

Edmonton will start rookie keeper Jim Larkin when the Drillers open their series against Milwaukee tonight. Beating the Wave, which had the league's best record during the regular season and was the preseason favorite to win the league championship, is tough enough in any circumstances, but with a rookie backstop who played only nine games during the regular season?

"All the goalkeepers left in the playoffs are good," Wave coach Keith Tozer said. "But Larkin still needs to prove himself."

Larkin has replaed Paul Shepherd, who started 27 games this year. Larkin played well late during the regular season, compiling a 10.61 points-against average in his nine games. But he had a shaky opening game in the playoffs against the Kansas City Attack, allowing 25 points, though his team escaped with a one-point win in the waning seconds.

He rebounded in the second game, allowing a more respectable 14 points in the Drillers' sweep of the Attack.

Tozer's goalkeeper, Victor Nogueira, is widely regarded as the best in the league and, at an advanced point in his career, has very little to prove.

Nogueira enters the series with a points-against average in the playoffs of 6.50, about 13 points less than Larkin's. Nogueira has played in 27 playoff games, winning 15, which ranks him fourth on the all-time NPSL list. More recently, he led the Wave to an NPSL title during the 1997-98 season.

"In my opinion, Victor has been amazing this year," Healey said. "Everybody knew what a great career he's had. But he's up there in age right now. It starts to become amazing. It's kind of like Nolan Ryan when he got old. He was already a great pitcher, but he became amazing what he could do at an older age. That's what's happened with Victor, for a guy who is 40 years old."

Nogueira will be facing one of the best goal scorers in the league in Nikola Vignjevic, who has 11 playoff points and finished seventh in the league with 166 during the regular season.

No one else on the Drillers' roster cracked 70 points for the regular season. Contrast that with the eight Wave players who had 70 or more points and Milwaukee seems to have the offensive edge, also.

The Blast is the only team that compares to the Wave, with six players at 70 points or above.

Still, Tozer knows two losses and his team is out. And the Drillers beat Milwaukee three times during the regular season.

The NPSL format for the first two rounds, which allows the lower-seeded team to start the series at home before going on the road for the final two, gives the Drillers a shot at pulling the upset.

"I wouldn't be the right coach if I didn't think we were going to win," Tozer said. "But this will be an extremely tough series. A lot will come down to Game 1.

"We would like to have hosted Game 1. But this is how the league wants it and we have to live with that. But it takes away the home-field advantage. Look what happened to Kansas City."

Which is what the Blast hope happens to Cleveland when it opens its series in Baltimore tomorrow night.

The Crunch more resembles the Drillers, with two dominant goal scorers in Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, the most dangerous combination in the playoffs. The Blast looks more like the Wave, with goals coming from all over the place.

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