Kenny Cooper was sitting in a hotel lobby after the Spirit lost to the Harrisburg Heat in the playoffs last April when two players walked in. One, Jason Dieter, had tears in his eyes.
Dieter spoke of the rich experience of playing as a rookie in the National Professional Soccer League and how much more demanding, emotionally as well as physically, the playoffs had been than the regular season.
"Right then, it jumped out at me," Cooper said. "Harrisburg looked so much bigger. We needed more speed, size and strength. In losing, we learned a lot."
The latest team sculpted by Cooper will be on display tonight at 7:05 at the Baltimore Arena. Bigger and faster, the undefeated Spirit (10-0) will play the Detroit Rockers before a national ESPN2 audience.
When the Spirit joined the NPSL in the summer of 1992, Cooper asked for advice from commissioner Steve Paxos and got it.
"I told him the NPSL wasn't like the Major Soccer League that had folded, with its slower game and beautiful passing," Paxos said. "To be competitive in this league, you need young American kids with the size and strength to take a pounding. American fans look for action and a fast-paced game."
From the old Blast, Cooper had a nucleus of Cris Vaccaro, Doug Neely, Rusty Troy, Tim Wittman, Joe Koziol and Goran Hunjak. Convinced since the mid-1980s that it was wise to build by drafting American players, the Spirit picked a prime rookie group for its inaugural NPSL season, led by Dieter and Barry Stitz.
"We threw them into the deep end right away," Cooper said.
But in the end the Spirit came up short to bigger, stronger Harrisburg, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
For more size, the Spirit traded for Dan O'Keefe, the NPSL's all-time leading goal scorer, and drafted Rob Ukrop and Tarik Walker. All are between 6-0 and 6-2 and 185 to 200 pounds. For more speed, the Spirit signed Paul Wright and drafted Lance Johnson.
"When teams try to push us around now, they can't do it," Cooper said. "We're bigger, stronger and wiser. This is the biggest team I've had."
A team of many strengths, the Spirit is No. 1 in the league in defense and No. 2 in scoring. It has yielded an average of less than eight points in the past five games.
It has won by blowout and by a whisker, as little as a point. It has won by coming from behind; after trailing Canton, 10-2, the Spirit won, 19-17. When injuries strike, others capably fill the breech.
The scoring is spread, with 10 players in double figures in points. The defense, led by the league's top-rated goalie, Vaccaro, is suffocating, having permitted an NPSL-low 30.2 shots a game.
As a promotion tonight, the Spirit will conduct "A Banner Night for Baltimore" contest (maximum size, 4 feet by 8 feet) in these categories: 1) promoting Baltimore to the ESPN2 audience, 2) concerning the NFL expansion decision, 3) centering on the Spirit, and 4) focusing on a pro sports commissioner.
A banner must be in good taste to be displayed. The designer of the best banner will receive $500, and the category winners will receive $100 each.
"This has been a difficult month or so for Baltimore, losing out on NFL expansion," Cooper said. "Some pride and dignity has been stripped from the city. But life does go on, and we represent part of that life."
Via draft Shawn Boehmcke (1993)
Eric Dade (1992)
Jason Dieter (1992)
Lance Johnson (1993)
Rob Ukrop (1993)
Tarik Walker (1993)
Via trade Dan O'Keefe
Free agents Clark Brisson (1993)
Brian Hartlove (1992)
Goran Hunjak (1992)
Doug Neely (1992)
Billy Reinhardt (1992)
Barry Stitz (1992)
Rusty Troy (1992)
Cris Vaccaro (1992)
Tim Wittman (1992)
Paul Wright (1993)
John Abe (1993)
Opponent: Detroit Rockers
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)
CTickets: Many available; advance ticket sale of 7,000 is largest of season.
utlook: At 10-0, the Spirit is three shy of the NPSL record for most wins at the start of a season, by the 1989-90 Canton Invaders. Dan O'Keefe is probable after missing four games with a sprained knee; Goran Hunjak, who hurt a knee in Sunday's win at Chicago, also is probable. The Rockers have won three straight and are second with a 6-6 record in the National Division behind the St. Louis Attack. The Rockers are 1-6 on the road. They are buoyed by the recent signing of former Spirit D Steve Boardman. The first 3,000 fans will receive free NPSL team posters.