Spirit shows soccer more than Cooper

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's never easy for indoor soccer in our town, but people continue to come forth and keep the flame burning.

Other sports? Hey, it doesn't matter what they do. The citizens take their lumps and come back for more, money in hand.

The NFL put this city through all kinds of hoops. It made us sell out an exhibition game to prove -- after all those years of great support in Baltimore -- that this is a football town. It made us buy season tickets for a nonexistent team.

And then it kicked us in the teeth. Twice.

Baseball? Players go on strike. Ticket prices, already high, go higher. No problem. People can't wait for the gates at Camden Yards to reopen.

But soccer, the world's most popular sport?

No sport has to hustle the way soccer does just to survive.

If it hadn't been for a hustler from Liverpool, England, 14 years ago, there wouldn't be indoor soccer in Baltimore.

Kenny Cooper, he of the stars-and-stripes neckties, sold Baltimore a package that many thought was unsaleable. It's hard to imagine another person doing the promotion job Cooper did in establishing the sport here.

New Yorker Bernie Rodin was the owner, but Cooper was the Baltimore Blast when the franchise was in its heyday, selling out the Arena and winning championships.

Nothing is forever. Times change. So do the people.

We had Nathan Scherr's ownership, which was when the Blast began to cut back on its aggressive marketing.

We had the stewardship of Ed Hale, who learned one thing from the experience: that he no longer wished to be involved in pro sports ownership, which was what he told Pete Angelos last fall when invited to become a partner of the Orioles owner in buying the Tampa Bay Bucs and moving them here.

Hale sold the soccer team to the aptly named Wild Bill Stealey in July of '93.

Always, until this year, Cooper was the most visible person in the mix. Now Kenny is in Tampa, hanging out with Chris Thomas, the ex-Baltimore TV sportscaster, and putting together a franchise that will come into the NPSL next year. Cooper vs. Baltimore. That will be something.

Meanwhile, our current team, the Spirit, has won 19 of its 29 games and is one victory from clinching a playoff spot. That could be accomplished against Canton here tomorrow night.

The Spirit's first-year coach is Dave MacWilliams, who once played for Cooper on the Blast and is the spiritual opposite of Cooper.

Both believe in discipline, in insisting that things be done a certain way. But Cooper is the nonstop supersalesman sometimes accused of overselling.

MacWilliams, who will coach in the NPSL All-Star Game Sunday in Buffalo, is younger (37 compared to 50), quieter and less emotional. MacWilliams is your basic no-frills guy.

After practice yesterday at the Du Burns Arena in Canton, MacWilliams sat in the stands and discussed being a rookie coach following Cooper's act.

"I'm not Kenny and I'm not going to try to be," said MacWilliams. "I have to be myself. Our philosophies are different."

Cooper drove his players the way he drove himself, sometimes to apparent burnout. After a loss, he would run his players up Federal Hill. MacWilliams gave his players three days off after last Friday's win over Buffalo.

"I think it helps the players at this stage, mentally and physically, to get a little time off," MacWilliams said matter-of-factly. "If they're not in shape after 30 games, they'renever going to be."

"Davey MacWilliams is more geared to the playoffs," team owner Stealey was saying yesterday by phone from New York, where he was doing some business.

Stealey feels "pretty good" about where the Spirit is. He feels good about MacWilliams. He likes the fact that his general manager, Drew Forrester, has been able to cut the team's losses in half from last year.

"This is the first year," Stealey said, "that the Blast or the Spirit has really, really had a budget. We're almost to the level now where we can sustain the franchise for a number of years, to the point where it's almost a tax write-off.

"I've brought my brother, Jeff, in from Texas to head group sales, and they're up. A couple sponsors left because they were Kenny's friends, but we've added 11 new sponsors."

Still, attendance is averaging only 5,600, though the last three games combined have drawn nearly 24,000. The team would like to get the average up to 7,500 or 8,000.

In a sport Baltimore thought it might lose 2 1/2 years ago, the Spirit is doing well. The team is playing well and the playoffs loom. MacWilliams is coaching the All-Stars. Leading scorer Kevin Sloan and local favorite Tim Wittman, who's having a great year, are playing in the game, which will be broadcast on tape-delay by ESPN.

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