When Spirit coach Dave MacWilliams thinks about the Buffalo Blizzard, one thing leaps to mind. Make that two things.
One was the game last Dec. 9 when Buffalo handed the Spirit its worst home loss in club history, 30-14. The other was Jan. 13, when the Blizzard hammered the visiting Spirit, 20-6.
It was of small consolation that the Spirit rebounded Feb. 10 with a 22-6 victory here when Buffalo had U.S. national team hero Tony Meola in the goal.
"They embarrassed us twice," MacWilliams said. "They got into a rhythm both times and we never recovered. They're a good team. They can knock the ball around with anybody."
Buffalo will knock it around again with the Spirit at 7:35 tonight at the Baltimore Arena in the teams' first meeting of the National Professional Soccer League season.
In the opinion of the Spirit's Barry Stitz, the Blizzard is difficult to handle in part because of two sets of brothers, Randy and Rudy Pikuzinski and Bobby and Mike DiNunzio.
"Because of them, their style of play is different from most teams," said Stitz, who has played against the Blizzard for three seasons. "They've been together a long time and read each other so well. They play so well off the boards and fool you with their decoy runs."
Four of the NPSL's top nine all-time scorers will be on display tonight. In his eighth season, the Spirit's Franklin McIntosh is No. 1 with 859 points, followed by Rudy Pikuzinski with 782. Gino DiFlorio is No. 5 (687) and Randy Pikuzinski is No. 9 (647).
DiFlorio is back, at 100 percent, after rupturing his Achilles' tendon 12 games into last season, at which point he was sixth in the league with 59 points. He led the Blizzard to a 3-0-1 record in the preseason with 18 points.
Paul Dougherty, No. 6 in the league in scoring last season, was on the verge of signing with Buffalo yesterday. He accompanied the team here and is expected to play.
Buffalo is entering the season with three goalies, and there appears to be no clear-cut No. 1 at this point. Rob Marinaro filled in last season for Pat Harrington, who played 11 games before suffering a knee injury. This week, the Blizzard acquired John Howard from the Milwaukee Wave.
MacWilliams' only concern after last week's season-opening win over the Harrisburg Heat was the fact his team surrendered 12 second-half points after spurting to a 10-5 halftime lead. Lax guarding, he said.
"We fell off people," MacWilliams said. "We need the killer instinct. If you have a big lead, end it then. Don't allow them to creep back into the game. Indoors, a game can turn all of a sudden."
Opponent: Buffalo Blizzard
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: This is Buffalo's National Professional Soccer League opener. The Spirit opened last week with a win over the Harrisburg Heat. Spirit forward Brad Smith is out with a sprained knee and defender Omid Namazi is doubtful with a sprained ankle. Rookie Ronald Simmons did not fracture his arm as feared in the opener and will play tonight. Veteran Cris Vaccaro will start in goal after yielding to Joe Mallia against Harrisburg. The Spirit has a 10-7 edge in its rivalry with the Blizzard, including an 8-1 advantage here.