When the subject is the Cleveland Crunch duo of Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, perennially the most prolific scorers in the National Professional Soccer League, the opinion is universal.
Spirit general manager Drew Forrester: "Two of the best indoor players ever."
Cleveland general manager Al Miller: "A one-two punch like nothing else."
Spirit goalie Joe Mallia: "They're the two best players on the same line in the league. They play so well together because they've been together so long."
This, in fact, is the seventh season Marinaro and Karic have been together. They will be on display when the Crunch visits the Spirit tonight at the Baltimore Arena.
Their numbers speak volumes.
Marinaro was the NPSL scoring champion and MVP in the 1992-93 and 1994-95 seasons. In the season between, 1993-94, Karic was the scoring champ and MVP. Today, they are in their accustomed spots atop the NPSL, Marinaro first with 45 points and Karic next with 37.
"We know each other so well, we don't have to talk to each other on the field," Marinaro said. "We work off eye contact. It was a match that clicked from the start."
Marinaro's specialty is goals. Last week he became the fourth player in indoor history to score 600 goals, joining Steve Zungel, Tatu and Andy Chapman.
"No two players have ever had a better understanding of one another," said Forrester. "Mike Stankovic and Stan Stamenkovic had a special relationship with the Blast in the early 1980s, but Mike was more of a defensive player, and they weren't always on the same line. Hector and Zoran have an almost magical understanding of one another."
Karic is the playmaker. He has led the NPSL in assists for three straight years, and last Saturday recorded the 450th of his career.
"The quality of players in this league isn't close to what it was in the old Major Indoor Soccer League that folded," Karic said. "That makes it easier for Hector and me. Most teams have two experienced players and the rest young."
Marinaro, 30, a native of Toronto, was a teen-ager when Miller first saw him as "a talented but immature player." The young Marinaro once committed the sin of not saying good morning to then-Cleveland owner Bart Wolstein, who promptly told Miller to release him.
Marinaro wound up with the Minnesota Strikers. The one redeeming feature of his stay was that Minnesota coach Alan Merrick, suddenly short of forwards with three injured, turned to Marinaro, a defender.
"Hector called one day and wanted to come back, because it was nearer home," Miller said. "By then, he was a forward. The rest is history."
"Back then," Marinaro said, "I never thought I'd score 600 goals."
Karic, 32, a native of Yugoslavia, was new to this country and playing, rather unhappily, for the San Diego Sockers when Miller concocted a way to acquire him. San Diego general manager Ron Cady wanted Paul Wright, and Miller happened to have him.
"Wright for Karic," Miller said. "That was the single best swindle I ever made. Wright could score [he was the Spirit's high scorer in 1993-94], but Karic was a legitimate superstar. He was a guy who could lead an expansion team, which we were then, to the championship."
In 1994, his MVP year, Karic did just that. And it was Marinaro who scored the winning goal in overtime in the final game.
Teams almost never stop Marinaro and Karic. The Spirit came close in its 19-11 victory over Cleveland eight days ago, holding them to a combined three goals worth four points.
"Baltimore didn't do anything out of the ordinary," Marinaro said. "Team defense stops good scoring, and Baltimore plays that with the best."
The Crunch duo's slump didn't last long. The next night they erupted for eight goals worth 17 points in an 18-8 win over the Detroit Rockers.
Opponent: Cleveland Crunch
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: In the teams' previous meeting this season, the Spirit handed the Crunch its first loss, 19-11. Cleveland still leads the National Professional Soccer League's American Division. The Crunch has won more regular-season games (85) over the past three-plus seasons than any NPSL team, five more than the runner-up Spirit. The Spirit (5-1) will play without leading scorer Franklin McIntosh, who was suspended for at least one game for violation of team rules; specifically, for showing disrespect for coach Dave MacWilliams. Spirit F Bobby Joe Esposito is doubtful with a hip injury.