This time, Abe switches his playoff allegiances


The Spirit's John Abe could be forgiven for fraternizing with the enemy.

After a 20-5 loss to the Harrisburg Heat on Saturday night in the teams' regular-season finale, Abe went out to eat with Franklin McIntosh, Danny Kelly and Bill Becher, three of the Heat's best players.

Although Abe has been with the Spirit since late November, he played last season for the Heat and still lives in Harrisburg, Pa. He helped the Heat a year ago boot the Spirit from the playoffs -- an event that is still vivid for Spirit players.

The Heat, seeded fourth, upset the National Professional Soccer League's American Division champion Spirit in two games.

Abe and his former teammates were talking about that and related soccer matters Saturday night. An hour or so before, it had become official that once again it would be the top-seeded Spirit against the No. 4 Heat in the first round of this year's playoffs, starting tomorrow night in Harrisburg.

"It'll be a dogfight," Becher said.

It is not likely to be like it was last weekend, when the Spirit, with six players sitting out with injuries minor and major, lost twice to Harrisburg by the combined score of 35-10. Most, perhaps all, of the players will be back, including goalie Cris Vaccaro and scoring leader Paul Wright.

"They know we'll have our players back," Abe said, "and they know it'll be a war."

Abe, 32, came back to a Kenny Cooper-coached team via a circuitous route. At Baltimore's Northern High, he was two-time, first-team All-Metro and, as a senior, an all-state selection. When he came out of Essex Community College as a two-time national junior college All-American in 1981, Cooper, then the Blast coach, drafted him.

Unfamiliar with indoor soccer, Abe didn't make the club. He then played outdoors for the Maryland Bays and indoors for the NPSL's Hershey Impact, which two years ago moved to Harrisburg and became the Heat.

Abe balked at contract terms after three weeks of Heat training camp last fall, however, and went to work as a service representative for Health America. In November, after rookie Rob Ukrop broke his jaw, Cooper called Abe. He has 32 regular-season points.

"He's been invaluable, like a third assistant coach," Cooper said. "I can tell the team what it needs to do against Harrisburg and John, because he played there, can endorse what I say or say it wasn't quite that way.

"We've allowed him to express himself in team meetings all year. We have a better understanding of Harrisburg because of him."

With the Baltimore-Harrisburg series this season tied at 3-3, it remains to be seen whether that understanding can be translated into playoff victories.

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