This was a soccer game of interrupted momentum on both sides.
The Spirit had won four of its last five. The Philadelphia Kixx had dropped five of its last six.
Both streaks were broken last night as the Kixx decisioned the Spirit, 17-11, before 4,709 at Baltimore Arena to regain sole possession of first place in the National Professional Soccer League's East Division.
The Spirit, which inched into a tie for first with the Kixx with its 20-11 win last week in Philadelphia, dropped a full game behind with an 8-7 record. Philadelphia improved to 9-6.
What went wrong?
"Everything," Spirit player-coach Mike Stankovic said wryly. "I tried to remind the guys when you beat a team like we beat them last week, they're going to come back and be tough. We were out of balance a bit. It wasn't one of our best performances, obviously."
Not even close. During its 4-1 surge this month, the Spirit had limited opponents to an average of 10.6 points after surrendering 12.3 in its first nine games.
In the first nine, the Spirit averaged only 11 points, but 15.8 during the 4-1 run. Last night, the club managed only 11, as Philadelphia goalie Pete Pappas made 20 saves, and gave up 17.
So much for momentum.
"Speaking for myself, I was flat and had no determination," said Bo Vuckovic, the Spirit scoring leader who has 27 points this month, but was blanked by the Kixx. "The team was flat, too, and I don't know why. [The Kixx] looked like they wanted to win more."
The expansion Kixx, pleased by the break in its downward momentum, reminded coach Dave MacWilliams of the team that bolted from the starting gate.
"We played like we did when we were 7-1," MacWilliams said. "We went through a spell there, but our energy level tonight was back to where it was the first seven, eight games."
Stankovic had said the Spirit's focus was simply to play well, and the score would take care of itself. Clearly, the Spirit didn't play nearly well enough for the score to take care of itself.
"This game couldn't be any more important," Philadelphia defender Omid Namazi said beforehand. "Whoever wins can go on to better things."
At this point, that team is the Kixx.
The first half last night was tight all the way. After Jason Dieter scored the game's first goal for the Spirit, Willy Giummarra made it 3-2 with a three-pointer.
Late in the first quarter, Sasa Zoric gave Baltimore a 4-3 lead.
The only goal in the second quarter, by ex-Spirit Clark Brisson, provided Philadelphia with a 5-4 halftime edge.
NOTES: Tampa Bay Terror coach Kenny Cooper, who's had pneumonia since Dec. 4, turned over the team on an interim basis to Perry Van Der Beck, who's 3-2; the team is 5-9 overall. Philadelphia's leading scorer, Pete Vermes, missed last week's game against the Spirit with a sprained ankle and missed last night's after undergoing hernia surgery yesterday morning. He'll be out two to three weeks. Scott Henderson, one of the Kixx's best defenders, sat out with a sprained knee. The Spirit sent goalie Jim McCombs to Cincinnati by plane yesterday for a good night's sleep for his 2: 05 start today against the Silverbacks. That's the luxury of having three keepers. Cris Vaccaro started last night, with Joe Mallia in reserve.
Opponent: Cincinnati Silverbacks
Site: Cincinnati Gardens
Time: 2: 05
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: Jim McCombs will start in goal for the Spirit. Cincinnati features Franklin McIntosh, who's among the top 10 in the National Professional Soccer League scoring race. In their only other meeting this year, the Spirit edged the Silverbacks, 13-12, holding McIntosh to one assist. Cincinnati has a sub-.500 record, but is in a stretch in which it's playing eight of 10 games at home, where it is 14-11 the past two seasons.
Pub Date: 12/28/96