Two hours before the game, coach Kenny Cooper sat in the Spirit locker room and expressed his fears about the next 24 hours.
"These are two difficult games," he said. "Teams will do everything to try to stop you. When they hack at you, it's a sign of respect. We have to be smart, play good soccer and keep the ball moving. Every team wants to be the first to beat you. Teams do play different against us."
That was Friday night, when the Spirit's record was 10-0 and counting. The counting stopped when the team lost that night to the Detroit Rockers. The next night the Spirit went to Buffalo and lost again, to the Blizzard.
Cooper tends to dismiss the losses as one of those dips that are inevitable during a 40-game season. In Detroit's Bryan Finnerty and Buffalo's Jamie Swanner, the Spirit ran into two hot goalies.
"When you don't score, it gets awfully frustrating," Cooper said.
The Spirit, which is averaging 15.5 points, scored only 12 in the two games -- four against Buffalo, which represents a club-record low for a regular-season game. It gave up 12 to Detroit and nine to Buffalo (which scored 28 the previous night in a victory over the Chicago Power), leaving the defense virtually blameless. The Spirit has given up an average of 9.28 points in its past seven games, well under its league-low 11.3.
rTC Goalie Cris Vaccaro played both games and has a sore knee to show for the effort. He is expected to be ready for Sunday's road game against the Cleveland Crunch, which at 9-3 is the team closest to the Spirit (10-2) in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division.
Cooper intends to step up the pace in practice this week, mainly for the benefit of Dan O'Keefe, Goran Hunjak and Barry Stitz, who missed time with injuries, but are back. The team will have double sessions today, tomorrow and Thursday and engage in three-on-three drills instead of six-on-six drills so that players will have to run more.
"This week is a chance to work on our fitness," Cooper said. "We're not as sharp as we need to be. Dan missed three weeks with the knee. He came back for Detroit, but didn't play in Buffalo because the fitness isn't there yet."
Karic still hot
With 95 points in 12 games, Cleveland's Zoran Karic is on a 317-point pace, which would shatter the NPSL record of 248 by teammate Hector Marinaro set last season. Marinaro became the fastest to reach 100 points, in 15 games.
Karic, 30, a native of Yugoslavia, has at least one point in 45 straight games and at least one assist in 26 straight, both league records.
Heat's on the Heat
The pressure is on the Harrisburg Heat to stage the same kind of strong finish that it did last season when it knocked the Spirit out of the playoffs in the first round. The Heat started 2-8, won 12 of its next 14 and 20 of its last 30. Once again Harrisburg has started 2-8.
After 71 games, NPSL average attendance is up 20 percent, 4,822 to 5,780. Spirit crowds also are up 20 percent, 4,614 to 5,560. The advance sale for the next home game, Dec. 29 against the Dayton Dynamo, is 5,800. . . . Tatu, one of the Wichita Wings' leading scorers, is on the 15-day disabled list with a pulled hamstring. . . . Rookie Lance Johnson will be a guest on Nestor Aparicio's "Spirit Talk" show Thursday, 7 to 8 p.m., on WWLG (1360 AM). . . . Detroit and Cleveland are the only teams without a loss at home. The Spirit is the only team with a winning road record (3-1).