Stankovic has Spirit ready for Crunch time tonight In 5 weeks, new coach sparks turnaround


It was in April 1994 that Kenny Cooper recommended Mike Stankovic to succeed him as coach of the Spirit.

Not until 22 months later did Stankovic get the job.

In an unusual turn of events, the Spirit passed over Stankovic after Cooper resigned and tapped Dave MacWilliams. Five weeks ago, after a 3-8 stretch dropped the Spirit from second to fourth in the NPSL's American Division, MacWilliams resigned, frustrated by the team's lack of response to him.

Only then did the Spirit turn to Stankovic, and the turnaround under the 39-year-old player/coach has been dramatic. Going into its biggest game of the season tonight against the Cleveland Crunch, which has the best record (28-4) in the league, the Spirit has won five straight and six of its past seven. Once more, Baltimore is in second place.

"In my mind, there was never any doubt Mike was the right man for the job," said Cooper, now coaching the expansion Tampa Bay Terror. "He's a student of the indoor game, with a constantly high intensity level and a passion for soccer, imperative for a coach."

Spirit general manager Drew Forrester says he and owner Bill Stealey aren't second-guessing themselves about not selecting Stankovic over MacWilliams in the first place.

"Timing is everything, and 1994 was not meant to be for Mike," Forrester said. "We're not looking back with regrets. It's wonderful how the team has responded to Mike. It's just sad it didn't work for Dave."

In drawing comparisons between Stankovic and MacWilliams, the Spirit players say they have more respect for Stankovic. He doesn't ask them to do something; he demands it.

"Mike's a lot stricter," defender Omid Namazi said. "Either do it his way or sit in the stands. Dave didn't get that much attention and respect from the players."

Franklin McIntosh, the Spirit's star playmaker and leading scorer, was suspended for one game in November after popping off to MacWilliams about tactics during a game against the Chicago Power in Philadelphia. The issue: lack of respect.

"The main thing is respect," McIntosh said. "Mike tells us how he wants it done. If you don't like it, go sit next to the trainer.

"Mike also has a better way of communicating. If he wants something done a certain way, he comes to you. Dave would let us figure it out for ourselves, so as a result we were all thinking something different."

No one on the Spirit squad, Cooper says, is in position to tell Stankovic how indoor soccer should be played.

"I've known Dave for a long time -- he was captain of our championship Blast teams -- and it's unfortunate that this happened," Cooper said. "But for whatever the reason, the team didn't want to play for him."

When discussing his coaching approach, Stankovic mentions attitude, daily commitment, each player challenging himself and discipline.

"I have to inspire them to bring these things out," Stankovic said. "How determined are they to get through a difficult time, a loss or an injury? When a guy gets beat, does he get right up and help a teammate look good with second effort?"

Under Stankovic, the team's principal focus has been defense. The Spirit has allowed only 8.3 points a game during its 6-1 surge, lowering its season average to 12.54, third best in the league.

As the team's top defender and No. 3 scorer, Stankovic is having a banner season. He played some under Cooper and MacWilliams the past three seasons, but this is his first full campaign since 1990-91.

(NPSL standings, 10D)

Spirit tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Crunch

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:35

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

Outlook: For the biggest game of the season, the biggest crowd, about 8,000, is expected. Winner of five straight and six out of seven under new coach Mike Stankovic, the Spirit takes on the Crunch (28-4), the winningest team in the NPSL. The teams split two previous meetings. Cleveland's Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic are 1-2 in the NPSL points race. The Spirit's Franklin McIntosh is fourth, Kevin Sloan 10th. The first 3,000 fans under 16 tonight will receive free Spirit gym bags.

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