Goalie Cris Vaccaro's Spirit teammates believe it all comes down to learning tendencies. Their tendencies. Opponents' tendencies.
That partly explains how Vaccaro, at 35 and in his 14th pro indoor season, is on the way to matching his performance last season that gained him the National Professional Soccer League's Goalie of the Year award.
"He's seeing NPSL players for the second year now," said Rusty Troy. "He knows the tendencies of certain guys. For example, he has learned that Karic likes to go to his left rather than his right."
The Cleveland Crunch's Zoran Karic, who leads the NPSL with 43 points, and Vaccaro are the co-recipients of the league's Player of the Month award. Vaccaro is 6-0 for the undefeated Spirit (7-0) and leads NPSL goalies with a 10.97 points-against average entering tonight's game against the Buffalo Blizzard at the Baltimore Arena.
"He's always been one of the top goalies," Troy said. "But this year more than ever he seems to be in the right place at the right time. That's experience, learning tendencies."
After 12 years in the Major Soccer League, Vaccaro is in his second NPSL season. He is learning the tendencies of his Spirit teammates as well as those of opponents.
"He trusts the people in front of him more," said defender Doug Neely. "It's a matter of learning our tendencies, too, and feeding off that. He has come up with a lot of big saves."
There is an added dimension to him. The MSL's all-time leading scorer among goalies with 68 points (nine goals, 59 assists), Vaccaro already has three goals this year.
All were into an open net at the end of games when opponents, trailing the Spirit, pulled their goalies and used a sixth attacker. In a 25-17 win over the Canton Invaders, he became the first goalie in NPSL history to score two goals in one game.
"Teams will be cautious," Neely said. "They know if they make a mistake, the ball will be in the back of their net. Cris dictates a game. Teams know they have to beat him to win."
Another Spirit defender, Eric Dade, put it this way: "Cris makes us look good. He's fun to watch, the things he does, the saves he makes."
The last time Vaccaro started a season 6-0 was 1987, when he was with the MSL's Chicago Sting. He played in 49 of 56 games that season and finished with a 23-23 record.
"I've averaged 30 games a year for a good portion of my career," Vaccaro said, noting that he played in 34 Spirit games last season. "I'm used to it. I stay as fit as possible. Physically, I feel like I'm 24."
With experience has come a knack of avoiding injuries, most of which, Vaccaro says, are suffered in practice.
"I may not put my body on the line in practice like I would in a game," Vaccaro said.
Coach Kenny Cooper says Vaccaro acts "like a man on a mission to be one of the top indoor goalies in the world."
Opponent: Buffalo Blizzard
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM)
Tickets: Many available
Outlook: The Spirit, the National Professional Soccer League's only undefeated team at 7-0, still has a way to go to match the best start in league history -- 13-0 by the 1989 Canton Invaders. The Spirit is led by veteran Tim Wittman and newcomer Paul Wright, tied for sixth in the league's scoring race with 29 points apiece. Two notches below is Buffalo's leader, Dave Hogan, with 27. The Blizzard (4-3) is coming off a 13-10 victory Thursday over the Milwaukee Wave. The Spirit expects attendance tonight to top the season high of 6,191 for the opener. It's "Youth Fanny Pack Night," with the first 3,000 children under age 16 receiving free Spirit fanny packs.