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Spirit sees little cause to change Team has 11 returnees as it opens with Heat


When coach Dave MacWilliams and team vice president Drew Forrester met to discuss the state of the Spirit after last season, they realized there were two ways to proceed.

One was to bring the team back virtually intact, adding only a few players.

The other was to make wholesale changes.

They decided that the first course was the wiser.

When the Spirit opens its fourth National Professional Soccer League season at 7:30 tonight against the Harrisburg Heat at the Baltimore Arena, it will have 11 returnees. Only six players are new.

"We felt it was in our best interests, long term, to stay with what we had," Forrester said. "We kept this team more intact than in any of our previous two seasons, mainly because we felt we had made progress."

Although Harrisburg eliminated the Spirit in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year, Baltimore at least made a fight of it last season, winning one game after being swept the previous two years.

"All of this led to our decision to stay with what we had," Forrester said.

Seven Spirit members played last summer for the Delaware Wizards of the U.S. Interregional Soccer League. MacWilliams and Forrester liked that.

The seven -- including Franklin McIntosh and Omid Namazi, who didn't join the club until last season was under way -- also helped conduct the Spirit's youth camps. MacWilliams and Forrester liked that, too.

"It showed a commitment," Forrester said. "Chemistry is paramount. This is a group of guys who get along, not necessarily love each other but who will play for one another.

"If we're playing for the championship in April, this will be a major reason. These guys worked camps together and then rode up together to Delaware for the Wizards games."

Only two of the team's top players aren't back. Second-leading scorer Jon Parry was lost to the Tampa Bay Terror in the NPSL expansion draft and veteran Tim Wittman, the No. 4 scorer, asked for his release after the club wouldn't give him an early commitment for this season.

The Spirit's first off-season acquisition was Bobby Joe Esposito. MacWilliams installed him as the target man on the forward line, allowing McIntosh to return to midfield, where he is more comfortable and effective.

"Bobby Joe is a team player, no fussing or fighting, good man in the clubhouse," Forrester said.

Early this month, the Spirit signed midfielder-defender Zak Ibsen, 23, a U.S. national team member who had never played indoor soccer.

"Zak represents new blood," Forrester said. "Teams in our league have never seen him. They don't know what he can do."

For two years, Forrester tried to get Dave Vaudreuil, a free-agent defender who spent the past three seasons with the Milwaukee Wave and who once played for the old Blast.

"He's the most underrated guy in the NPSL," Forrester said. "The past five years, he has made gigantic improvement."

After signing veteran Mike Stankovic, who provides leadership as well as experience, and rookies Peter Schneiders and Ronald Simmons, the Spirit completed the picture.

The team even has a third goalie, rookie Jim McCombs, to serve as a backup to Cris Vaccaro and Joe Mallia.

"You look around the league and see the familiar names -- teams aren't developing new goalies," Forrester said.

"Cris and Joe are the best one-two in the league, but a third guy gives them a break and Cris [at 37] doesn't have to go 100 percent in practice all the time. We'll need a new goalie in a few years, anyway."

The pieces are in place. The chemistry appears right. MacWilliams and Forrester are talking championship.

"We have all the tools and players to contend for the championship," Forrester said. "I don't think any team in the league has improved as much as we have."

NPSL tomorrow

Capsule previews of NPSL teams will appear in tomorrow's editions.

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:35

Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM, Harford County)

Outlook: The Spirit will open its fourth National Professional Soccer League season against its main rival, the Harrisburg Heat. Harrisburg, which lost to the St. Louis Ambush in last season's championship game, leads the all-time series, 15-9, after eliminating Baltimore from the playoffs last spring for the third straight year. The Spirit hammered the Heat in two exhibition games this month by a combined 50-23, although the Heat didn't have all of its top players. Spirit forward Brad Smith will miss the game with a sprained knee.

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