Spirit looks for a lift from Stankovic Assistant coach activated for Heat


The subject was Mike Stankovic, and Spirit coach Kenny Cooper was speaking glowingly of the soccer relic as a winner, a man with desire, pride and a passion for soccer.

Age? Hah, age is a state of mind.

"Mike's better on one leg than some are on two," Cooper said.

Having said that, however, Cooper said he felt obliged to acknowledge that Stankovic, at 37, is not going to turn the NPSL's American Division race into a runaway for the Spirit.

"We're not looking for him to be the difference," Cooper said.

What he said he is looking for from assistant coach/player Stankovic, when the Spirit visits the Harrisburg Heat tomorrow night, is a steadying influence born of long experience. Stankovic, activated this week, can provide a lift until Doug Neely's sprained ankle heals.

Stankovic, who hasn't been in a game since severely injuring a knee Dec. 21, 1991, probably will play only the next four games, or until Neely returns from the disabled list.

In his prime, Stankovic was a force. He played for the Blast for nine years and was a seven-time member of the Major Soccer League all-star team. He was selected to the MSL's all-decade team of the 1980s.

"He was one of the hardest players to play against," said the Spirit's Kevin Smith, who faced Stankovic and the Blast as a member of the Dallas Sidekicks. "I got his elbows in my face for eight years. Such a competitor."

Stankovic was having what Cooper called a "terrific season" as a Blast midfielder when he was hurt almost 15 months ago.

He underwent major surgery, replete with staples and screws, but was on the floor with the Spirit when it began practice last fall. An assistant coach, he also worked out with the team.

"He can still do it," said Rusty Troy, who played with Stankovic on the Blast for four years. "Maybe not like he could in his prime, but he still has the good footwork, distribution and hard shot."

Tim Wittman, a veteran, expects Stankovic to show flashes of his old skills often enough to unsettle the opposition.

"An experienced guy knows when to turn it on," Wittman said. "You'll see bits and pieces that will remind you of the Stankovic of 10 years ago. His ball control, vision and footwork are still a notch above almost everyone else."

What can he provide? Stankovic does not shrink from the question.

"A big goal at the right time," he said. "I can slow the game, put my foot on the ball. I can control the tempo."

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