When coach Kenny Cooper watches his 14th indoor soccer team in Baltimore run up and down the practice floor, one word occurs to him more than any other.
"Speed," Cooper said. "This appears to be the fastest team I've had."
Spectators can determine for themselves how fast the team is when the Spirit opens its second season in the National Professional Soccer League against the Chicago Power tonight before an anticipated crowd of more than 7,000 at the Baltimore Arena.
Tim Wittman and Eric Dade were the only speedy players last season when the Spirit won the American Division regular-season title, only to be knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Harrisburg Heat.
Now the Spirit has Paul Wright, who may be the league's fastest player. Rookies Lance Johnson and Tarik Walker give the Spirit five men with speed.
"We will be getting behind some defenders," Wright said.
PD As testimony to the value of speed, Wright points to the 1991-92
San Diego Sockers of the now-defunct Major Soccer League. Wright, Wittman, Wes Wade and Terry Woodberry accounted for the speed on that club.
"All I can tell you is that with the four of us, we won the championship," Wright said. "When a team is fast, it's hard for the other team to keep up. An opposing team can handle two fast players, but three or four are too many."
Johnson, the Spirit's territorial choice in this year's NPSL draft after four strong years at Towson State, smiled when asked about acceleration.
"That's always been the first thing associated with my name -- speed," Johnson said.
In seven pro seasons, defender Doug Neely has never played on a faster team.
"The defense can shut down the other team quicker and it's from there that you start fast breaks," Neely said. "Then, getting the counterattack going -- that's where you utilize speed."
Speed can do many things for a soccer team, ranging from
improving the transition game to forcing turnovers to creating scoring opportunities to cashing in.
"You can never have enough of it," Cooper said. "If you have speed, things can happen. If you don't run, you don't win."
Cooper also has spoken often in recent weeks of the addition of more target men -- strong, skilled forwards who can play with their backs to the goal and absorb abuse. Rusty Troy and Michael King thrived as Spirit target men the first half of last season, but then King went down with a knee injury and Troy had nagging injuries.
King is gone, trying to make a comeback with the Milwaukee Wave. Now the Spirit has three new target men, plus Troy. Dan O'Keefe, the NPSL's all-time leading goal scorer with 311, is joined by rookies Walker and Rob Ukrop.
"You've got to have depth, especially at that position, so that wheninjuries come you won't slip a notch," Cooper said. "We looked almost unstoppable last season until King and Rusty got hurt."
Still, the Spirit limped to the division title. The two defeats to Harrisburg in the playoffs were sobering.
"It was a new league for us, and we had a lot of players who had never been in playoffs at this level," Cooper said.
The experience against Harrisburg, Cooper said, will serve as a "stimulus" for the 40-game season that starts tonight.
Opponent: Chicago Power
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM)
Tickets: Many available
Outlook: This is one of four opening-night games as the National Professional Soccer League begins its 10th season. The Power, which finished third in the National Division last season, is led by player/coach Pato Margetic (118 points). The Spirit, the defending American Division champion, has a corps of new players, including veterans Dan O'Keefe and Paul Wright. The halftime ceremony will be a wedding uniting Jeannie Rehmert and William Snyder Jr. of Arbutus.
Today Chicago 7:35
6 Canton 7:05
at Harrisburg 7:35
13 at Canton 7:35
19 Harrisburg 7:35
24 Milwaukee 7:05
27 Chicago 7:05
4 Buffalo 7:05
12 at Chicago 7:05
17 Detroit 7:35
18 at Buffalo 7:35
26 at Cleveland 3:05
29 Dayton 7:05
2 at Buffalo 1:35
14 Harrisburg 7:35
15 Canton 7:05
21 Wichita 7:35
28 Kansas City 7:35
29 at St. Louis 8:35
2 at Canton 7:05
at Buffalo 7:35
11 Buffalo 7:35
12 Dayton 7:05
13 at Dayton 5:35
18 at Milwaukee 8:35
25 Wichita 7:35
26 St. Louis 7:05
27 at Dayton 5:35
4 at Wichita 8:35
at Harrisburg 7:35
11 Cleveland 7:35
13 at Milwaukee 2:05
18 at Kansas City 8:35
20 at Detroit 5:05
25 at Cleveland 7:35
26 St. Louis 8:35
1 Harrisburg 7:35
at Harrisburg 7:35