This is the ideal week for the Spirit to devise a way to win a close game on the road.
After dropping three straight one-point away games by squandering second-half leads, the Spirit will travel to Harrisburg TC Friday for a game against the Heat that will help determine which team has the home-field advantage in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.
For the third straight year, the Spirit likely will be confronted by Harrisburg in the first round. The Heat, which eliminated Baltimore the previous two seasons without losing a game, is in third place in the American Division, only 1 1/2 games behind the runner-up Spirit, close enough with five games remaining to move into second and thus have the home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"We need to go up there and set the tone," Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams said. "We'll be meeting them in the playoffs, so it's an important game not only in the standings, but psychologically, too."
What perturbs MacWilliams is the Spirit's tendency to dissipate late leads. By his count, it has happened four times, including the last three road games.
The Spirit led the Cleveland Crunch, 11-6, in the fourth quarter, but lost, 12-11. The Kansas City visit was next: Ahead of the Attack, 9-3, in the third quarter, the Spirit lost, 11-10. Last Sunday in Wichita, the Spirit turned a 16-13 edge with two minutes left into a 17-16 defeat.
"Poor decision-making at crunch time is a big part of it," said Omid Namazi, the Spirit's top defender.
MacWilliams doesn't dispute that. The winning goals in all three games came when the opponent pulled its goalie and used a sixth attacker.
"We did different things wrong," MacWilliams said. "Pushed forward when we should have stayed back to defend; didn't defend properly on a restart goal; fouled somebody in the defensive end when there was no need to."
Said leading scorer Kevin Sloan: "Let's hope we've got it out of our system now."
Seven teams have qualified for the playoffs, leaving Wichita to compete with the Detroit Rockers for the fourth spot in the National Division.
Spirit tormentor honored
Wichita's John Garvey was named NPSL Player of the Week after scoring 11 points in the 17-16 win over the Spirit. Garvey had a hand in both goals in the final minute, assisting on one with 58 seconds left and banging home the game-winner with 32 seconds remaining. Garvey completed the cycle, with a three-pointer, three two-pointers, a one-point shootout and an assist.
St. Louis attendance leader
More than 27,000 attended two St. Louis home games last weekend, raising the Ambush's average to an NPSL-high 7,717. The Buffalo Blizzard upset the Ambush Friday night before 14,738, the league's top crowd of the season, and 12,658 turned out the next night to watch Kansas City edge the home team in overtime, 23-22.
The Spirit injury report for the Harrisburg game: Tim Wittman (calf, back, toe), questionable; Ricky Bush (broken cheekbone), out; Mike Stankovic (ankle) questionable, Namazi (groin), probable. . . . The Baltimore Football Club's O. J. Brigance, Karl Anthony and Reggie Perry will appear at the Spirit's final regular season home game Sunday against St. Louis to sign autographs and engage in a shootout between the third and fourth quarters. . . . Detroit and the Chicago Power will play Friday in New Haven, Conn., in the league's third neutral-site game of the season as a test of that city's drawing power. Philadelphia, which drew 9,371 for the Spirit and Chicago in October, has applied for a franchise for the 1996-97 season. A Tampa Bay team headed by ex-Spirit coach Kenny Cooper will begin play next season as the NPSL's 13th club. . . . Detroit's Sean Bowers increased his NPSL record for blocks in one season to 155. . . . With 347 goals, Buffalo's Rudy Pikuzinski is two behind all-time leader Dan O'Keefe, who played for the Spirit last year, retired, came back with Detroit this season and retired again after eight games.