It's show time for NPSL's final 4

Toronto visits Milwaukee

Blast is host to KiXX


April 20, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

What's left in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs, which are down to the conference finals, is a little bit of everything.

Defending champion Milwaukee deserves mention first among teams in the two best-of-three series. The Wave will take on Toronto, an expansion team with many veterans who played for defunct Montreal, in the National Conference finals starting tonight in Milwaukee.

The American Conference finals start tomorrow night at Baltimore Arena, with the Blast - the regular season's highest scoring team - getting a visit from the Philadelphia KiXX, which has the league's stingiest defense.

"I don't think there are a lot of surprises with the four teams that are left," said Blast coach Kevin Healey. "These are the four teams that at the All-Star break [midway through the season] were right up there.

"Milwaukee was a tremendous team in the second half of the season. They are the champions. They've won two of the last three years, and they have a big confidence factor in what they're doing. They've got to be viewed as the favorite right now."

In some ways, the playoffs' first round was upside down - particularly in the American Conference.

The fourth-seeded KiXX swept top-seeded Harrisburg in two games, and the Blast, seeded third, did the same to second-seeded Buffalo.

In the National Conference's opening round, top-seeded Milwaukee and second-seeded Toronto - the only two teams in the conference with winning marks - were both pushed to the three-game limit by Kansas City and Wichita, respectively.

"I think the playoff experience helps us, but our confidence has been from how well we played in the second half of the season," said Milwaukee coach Keith Tozer. "Toronto has a very good, technical team. The first game is going to be crucial for us - we have to defend well and take care of our own floor."

The same could be said for the Blast, which raced to a 10-2 halftime lead before disposing of Buffalo, 13-8, in the series clincher last weekend and would like to establish itself early against the KiXX as well.

Stopping veterans Don D'Ambra, Goran Hunjak, Shawn Boney, and Kevin Sloan are Blast priorities, as is breaking through a defense led by co-Goalkeeper of the Year Peter Pappas and player-coach Omid Namazi, who was Defender of the Year.

"Offensively, I think they have their system down now," said Blast keeper Scott Hileman. "Their target - Shawn Boney - is a big guy [6-feet-7] they try to post up at the top of the box, and they have a lot of guys run off him. D'Ambra also is tough. He always finds a way to score points against us."

The Blast can counter with Hileman and captain Lance Johnson leading the defense. Up front, Tarik Walker, Lee Tschantret, Mark Thomas, and rookie Giuliano Celenza provide a balanced attack to go with leading scorer Denison Cabral.

The possible mismatch in the series? Midfield, where Paul Wright (seven points in last Saturday against Buffalo) has simply been dominant and veteran Danny Kelly is back from injury.

"Danny Kelly playing healthy is a main ingredient - "you can see we're a different team when [Kelly) is on the floor," Healey said. "I've got to believe we have the advantage there."

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