For Spirit, Stankovic is an oldie but goodie 38-year-old could play first full season in 5 years


Mike Stankovic is older than any of his Spirit teammates. He is older than assistant coach Cris Vaccaro. He is even older than coach Dave MacWilliams.

"Mike has been playing soccer so long, he was kicking stones into a cave when he started," equipment manager Mike Zolotorow said jokingly.

Stankovic's hair is gray and next month he will turn 39, but he still is in demand by the Spirit.

He didn't ask to come back. The club persuaded him to, convinced he was still one of the best 16 players it could find. It was less than two weeks ago that he arrived at training camp, finally satisfied with the contract offer.

"Mike's still going strong," Vaccaro said as the Spirit prepared for its National Professional Soccer League opener against the Harrisburg Heat at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Arena. "He keeps himself fit 12 months out of the year. With so much experience, he'll always help you, never hurt."

This could turn into Stankovic's first full season since 1990-91, when he played 49 games with the Blast of the old Major Soccer League.

The next season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in December. In 1992-93, the Spirit's first season in the NPSL, he was coach Kenny Cooper's assistant and played in only five games in March. Again the assistant in 1993-94, Stankovic was pressed into service by Cooper during the second half of the season and played in 16 games.

When Cooper quit after the season, Stankovic was a candidate for the coaching job that eventually went to MacWilliams. Stung, Stankovic stayed in the background and conducted his fall youth soccer camps until MacWilliams and vice president Drew Forrester contacted him about playing again.

"Since I was in decent shape, I felt I could. I thought it would be fun to play again," said Stankovic, who collected 25 points in 18 games.

Stankovic proved last summer that he hadn't lost his edge when he, Omid Namazi, Goran Hunjak and Hormoz Tabrizi won a four-on-four tournament in Chicago.

Asked if he can still help the Spirit, Stankovic said: "Easily. The game has changed, but experience never does. I've been playing so many years. As a defender, I like to control a game.

"You can't just run, run, run. You've got to play soccer, too. I try to outsmart people, rather than be stronger and faster. A team needs a balance of speed and slowing down. I can recognize when to do each."

It seems as if Stankovic came with both Baltimore indoor soccer franchises, first the Blast and then the Spirit. The native of Yugoslavia has played here since 1981, and has been a U.S. citizen since 1988 and a Lutherville resident since 1989.

"Mike is a veteran defender and leader, so composed with the ball in the back," MacWilliams said. "If we win it, he can go out a winner."

Go out? The old man may have still another season left in him after this one.

NOTE: Forward Brad Smith, who has a sprained knee, will miss the Spirit's opener. He will be out two to three weeks.

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