Purely coincidental, says Spirit defender Ronnie Simmons. Not entirely, says player-coach Mike Stankovic.
A case can be made that Simmons is the key to the Spirit's surge that has led to a 4-1 record this month and lifted the team into a tie with the Philadelphia Kixx for the lead in the National Professional Soccer League's East Division. The teams play tonight at Baltimore Arena for sole possession of first place.
When Simmons returned after missing eight games with torn knee ligaments, the Spirit had a 3-5 record. Now it is 8-6.
tTC "That's purely coincidental," Simmons said. "I came back at a time when we were beginning to gel, understand our roles and make a total commitment to defense. That will lead to victory nine times out of 10."
Simmons' humbleness tends to obscure the true picture. At 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds, he gives the Spirit a physical presence that can be intimidating and an intensity that is contagious.
Stankovic stops short of giving Simmons a major share of the credit for the Spirit's four wins in the past five games, pointing out that Doug Neely, Jason Dieter and Sasa Zoric also are playing strong defense.
"But Ronnie brings the emotion and physical power that we need," Stankovic said. "Having him back raises the intensity level of everybody. He brings that [contagiousness] more than anyone else. The whole team has played well on defense the last five games."
During the 4-1 streak, the Spirit has allowed an average of 10.6 points. In the first nine games of the season, it allowed 12.3.
Simmons' knee is still tender, but he has become calloused about it, spurred by the knowledge that few players get through a season without playing hurt at some point. He also has a slight ankle sprain suffered last week in Philadelphia.
"I don't have much flexibility in the ankle, but I think I'll be ready for this game," he said. "You know, once the adrenalin starts."
Opponent: Philadelphia Kixx
Site: Baltimore Arena
Time: 7: 35
Radio: Updates after each quarter on WWLG (1360 AM) and WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: No. 1 draft choice Shane Dougherty will be in uniform and perhaps make his pro debut. To clear a roster spot, Bill Harte was put on waivers. The teams are tied with 8-6 records, and tonight's winner will take sole possession of first place in the NPSL's East Division. In their last meeting, six days ago, the Spirit romped, 20-11. The Spirit has won four of its last five; Philadelphia has dropped five of its last six. Lance Johnson, Mike Stankovic, Branko Segota and Mike Henning will miss the game because of injuries.
Pub Date: 12/27/96