Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams is undertaking the towering assignment of trying to turn a negative into a positive.
The Spirit will reel into the National Professional Soccer League playoffs Monday against the Harrisburg Heat after ending the regular season with five straight defeats. That's a club record -- the previous mark was three, on two occasions -- and the Spirit's six straight losses on the road tie another club record.
Now the Spirit is confronted by the Heat, which eliminated Baltimore from the playoffs the past two years without losing a game. Two games next week are in Harrisburg, if the series goes the full three games. Clearly, MacWilliams has his hands full.
"We're trying to make it a positive, as far as the rest of the league will look at it," MacWilliams said. "Teams may not expect much from us. We hope to use that as a motivational tool."
The semifinal matchups in the NPSL's division playoffs:
Cleveland Crunch (30-10, first place) vs. Buffalo Blizzard (20-20, fourth place). Cleveland won the season series, 5-1, outscoring Buffalo, 115-79. The Crunch, led by Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, one-two in the league scoring race, set an NPSL record with 742 points (18.6 a game). Paul Dougherty, with 171 points, led the Blizzard. This is the third straight year the teams have met in the division semifinals, with Cleveland winning the previous two.
Harrisburg Heat (23-17, second place) vs. Spirit (23-17, third place). Although the teams tied in the standings and in their season series, 3-3, the Heat earned the home-field advantage by outscoring the Spirit, 99-87. In Danny Kelly, Mark Pulisic, David Bascome and Bill Becher, Harrisburg has four players with bTC 100-plus points. The Spirit has three -- Kevin Sloan, Jon Parry and Franklin McIntosh. McIntosh, the team's best playmaker, was instrumental in ousting the Spirit the past two seasons when he was with Harrisburg.
St. Louis Ambush (30-10, first place) vs. Detroit Rockers (18-22, fourth place). St. Louis swept the season series, 4-0, outscoring the Rockers, 74-31. The Ambush has five-time NPSL Goalkeeper of the Year Jamie Swanner and four 100-point scorers in Mark Moser, Joe Reiniger, Steve Maurer and Kevin Hundelt. Led by Sean Bowers, who had 148 points and an NPSL-record 172 blocks, Detroit won its last eight games to slip into the playoffs ahead of the Wichita Wings. The series matches two player/coaches -- St. Louis' Daryl Doran and Detroit's Pato Margetic.
Kansas City Attack (29-11, second place) vs. Milwaukee Wave (23-17, third place). Milwaukee won the season series, 3-1, outscoring the Attack by six points. Kansas City rebounded from a 14-26 record in 1993-94. Ex-Spirit Goran Hunjak had a team-record 181 points and ex-Heat Lee Tschantret had a career-high 100. Severna Park High grad Warren Westcoat had a 19-7 record in the goal. Ex-Spirit Michael King scored an NPSL-record 12 three-point goals and led the Wave with 165 points.
The Spirit will stage a pep rally today at noon in the Harborplace amphitheater, replete with cheerleaders and prize giveaways. The players will arrive by water taxi. . . . Joey Kirk was named NPSL Player of the Week after four-goal performances in Detroit's seventh and eighth straight victories. . . . Kirk's teammate, goalie Bryan Finnerty, was hailed as Player of the Month on the strength of an 8-0 record and a 7.26 goals-against average. . . . The second game of the Cleveland-Buffalo series will be televised live Sunday at 3 p.m. by ESPN2. . . . Marinaro won his second NPSL scoring title with a career-high 255 points, 14 ahead of Karic, the defending champ. In only three seasons, Marinaro has 312 goals and 146 assists for 756 points and Karic has 241 and 272 for 730. . . . Cleveland and St. Louis became the seventh and eighth teams in NPSL history to collect 30 wins in one season.