Any schoolchild can grasp the Spirit's formula for success: Restrict the opponent to 10 or fewer points and you usually win.
The Spirit has gone 11-4 this season when it has abided by the formula and 9-16 when it hasn't.
Obviously, then, the Spirit's intention when it entertains the Philadelphia Kixx tonight in the opener of a best-of-three series in the first round of the National Professional Soccer League playoffs will be to hold the visitors to 10 or fewer points.
"That's always our goal," said Joe Mallia, who will become the first goalie other than the injured Cris Vaccaro to start a playoff game for the Spirit.
"When we keep a team under 10 points, we usually score enough goals to win."
One of the few times the formula didn't work was last weekend when the team played the Kixx in the regular-season finale in Philadelphia.
The Kixx won, 9-5, but the Spirit held out four key players who were slightly injured or simply needed a rest.
"Good team defense wins in the playoffs," said defender Lance Johnson. "The reason? Everybody steps it [defense] up in the playoffs; the offense is always there."
To player-coach Mike Stankovic, team defense means many things.
"It means keeping your discipline and not going into the box and making silly fouls," he said. "Stay with your man. Help your teammates. Stay within the game plan. Discipline is the key word."
The Spirit ranked fifth in the league in defense with a 12.35 points-against average. Offense was a problem; the club was 11th among 15 teams with a 12.7 average. The Spirit is not geared to play catch-up.
"We must come out strong early on defense," said Vaccaro, the assistant coach. "We've slacked off on that lately, forcing us to fight to get back in the game."
After six meetings and a preseason game, the teams are thoroughly familiar with each other. An expansion team, Philadelphia has been particularly difficult for the Spirit, winning three games.
The winner of the series will face the Cleveland Crunch or Harrisburg Heat, which drew first-round byes as division champions, in the American Conference semifinals.
The opponent will depend on who wins the other quarterfinal series between the Cincinnati Silverbacks and Tampa Bay Terror.
If it's third-seeded Cincinnati, the Spirit-Kixx winner will play Cleveland. If it's sixth-seeded Tampa Bay, the winner will meet Harrisburg.
(NPSL playoff schedule, 10C)
Opponent: Philadelphia Kixx
Site: Baltimore Arena
Time: 7: 35
Radio: Updates after each quarter on WWLG (1360 AM) and WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: The Spirit is in the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but matched against a team other than the Harrisburg Heat in the opening round for the first time. The Spirit and Kixx split six games during the season, each, oddly, losing two of three at home. Spirit rookie Mike Henning (sprained ankle) will miss the game. The teams will also play tomorrow at 4: 05 in Philadelphia and, if necessary, Tuesday at 7: 35 in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 4/05/97