In twilight of career, Stankovic enjoying place in sun Blast defender, 34, having prime season


Around the Major Soccer League, they talk about Mike Stankovic being in the twilight of his career.

Stankovic, 34, admits his playing years are numbered, but says he would like to grab a little more sunlight before he disappears into the night.

The Baltimore Blast defender is enjoying some of those rays these days with a performance reminiscent of the mid-1980s, when Stankovic was in his prime and helped Baltimore win its only MSL title in 1985.

As the Blast (7-6) prepares to meet the Wichita Wings (6-9) tonight at the Baltimore Arena at 7:35, Stankovic (seven goals, 13 assists) is doing it all.

He is second on the team and 10th in the league in scoring, third in the MSL in blocks (30) and eighth in assists.

Stankovic also is first in the league in intimidation, with a runaway lead of 24 penalty minutes. Kansas City Comets defender Kim Roentved is a distant second with 14 minutes.

In short, Stankovic is making his presence felt at both ends of the floor and will not speculate on when he will retire.

"As a professional athlete, you perform night by night and year by year," said Stankovic. "I'll play as long as I can perform and enjoy playing. I feel very comfortable playing now, and I believe we can win another championship in Baltimore."

Stankovic returned to the Blast Jan. 20 in a trade that sent David Byrne and Keder to the Wichita Wings. He had signed as a free agent with Wichita in the summer of 1987 after playing for six years in Baltimore.

Stankovic said he never fit into Wichita's offensive style in the 2 1/2 seasons he spent there.

"It was unfortunate that I left [Baltimore]," said Stankovic. "I didn't want to go, but they were offering me a three-year contract and Baltimore wanted to give me a two-year contract. I didn't have much time to make up my mind, so I did it."

Stankovic said the Wings "expected a lot of me," and he couldn't produce as much as they wanted under their one-on-one style.

"I'm better off in Baltimore with Kenny Cooper because we both think the same about defensive play," said Stankovic.

Blast coach Cooper said he holds no grudges against Stankovic for leaving.

"It was Mike's one big opportunity to get a good contract," said Cooper. "Every athlete has that one chance, and I told Mike I couldn't blame him for going for it."

Cooper said he uses Stankovic as "an extension of the coaching staff" these days.

"When we were losing, 4-1, at halftime to Tacoma on the road last month, Mike came in the locker room and went off for about 50 seconds," said Cooper. "He yelled at the players for not giving 100 percent and then went off and sat alone in another room. I usually don't let things like that happen. But Mike has been around for a long time, and he's an extension of the coaches."

L The Blast rallied to tie the game before losing in overtime.

Cooper remembered the early days of Stankovic's career in Baltimore when the two of them used to get into heated arguments.

"That was before we both realized that we wanted the same thing more than anything else, and that is to win," said Cooper. "Mike's the good, bad and the ugly. He's a good person who's a great player, a bad person when we don't win, and an ugly player when he feels his teammates aren't doing their best to physically and mentally dominate people."

NOTES: The Blast returned to Baltimore at 10 p.m. Thursday after traveling 20 hours from Manchester, England, where Baltimore defeated Oldham Athletic, 6-1, Tuesday in a Leaf Transatlantic Challenge indoor match. Cooper, who put the team through a light workout yesterday afternoon, said: "The England trip is a memory. We have to refocus on the Wichita Wings. We're going to use both Scotty [Manning] and Hank Henry tomorrow night [tonight] and Sunday, but I'm not sure who will play in which game."

Blast tonight

Opponent: Wichita Wings

Site: Baltimore Arena, 7:35 p.m.

Radio: WCAO (600 AM)

Tickets: 5,000 available

Outlook: After a Nov. 11 loss to the Blast, Wichita coach Terry Nicholl threatened to resign. But the Wings got together after that game and vowed to play harder. Nicholl decided to stay. MF Dale Ervine (20 goals, 13 assists) and MF Chico Borja (9 goals, 12 assists) lead the Wings. MF Tom Soehn (torn ligaments in left knee) is out. Baltimore MF Mark Mettrick (strained groin) is out.

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