Philadelphia Kixx coach Dave MacWilliams expected a defensive battle against the Spirit.
He got it, although the score didn't necessarily reflect it.
"In the playoffs in particular, the team that makes the fewest mistakes, and plays disciplined, will come out on top," MacWilliams said. "Teams step it up in the playoffs. It's tougher to score."
Sure enough, the Spirit had a mere 4-3 halftime lead and went on to defeat Philadelphia, 15-8, in a tense National Professional Soccer League playoff opener last night before 3,419 at Baltimore Arena.
The Spirit can wrap it up in Game 2 today at 4: 05 at the Core- States Spectrum. They will return to Baltimore, if necessary, for the third game of the best-of-three, first-round series Tuesday night at 7: 35.
The winner will face the Cleveland Crunch or the Harrisburg Heat, who received first-round byes as American Conference division champions, in the semifinals.
The Spirit's valuable relics, player-coach Mike Stankovic, 40, and Branko Segota, 35, showed the young players how it should be done in the playoffs. Segota had two goals and two assists, Stankovic a goal and an assist.
The prettiest goal, which made it 11-8 in the third quarter, was scored on a header by Bo Vuckovic on a soft pass from Doug Neely.
The Spirit jumped to a 4-0 first-quarter lead on the 120th playoff goal of Segota's indoor career and another two-pointer by Ronnie Simmons.
Philadelphia's Jim McGeough had a three-pointer, leaving the score at halftime at 4-3.
MacWilliams doesn't think his 1 1/2 seasons as Spirit coach, ending last January when he resigned because the players weren't responding to his urgings, is that much of an advantage in the playoffs.
"I know the tendencies of some of their players who are still here, but a lot of them are gone," MacWilliams said. "We play enough during the season so that everyone in the division knows the tendencies and strengths and weaknesses of everyone else."
The Spirit and Kixx split six decisions, each losing two of three at home. Only eight days ago the Kixx beat the Spirit, 9-5, in the regular-season finale. On the season, Baltimore outscored Philadelphia, 78-68.
Twelve of the Spirit's 21 players have playoff experience, totaling almost 400 games. Segota has the most, with 95 games and 10 championship rings. Stankovic, Bobby Joe Esposito and Steve Boardman also have been on championship clubs.
"Experience is important in the playoffs," Segota said. "The rookies have never been here, to know what the tempo is like and what it takes when you have to dig down and give even more."
NOTES: Boardman, who played parts of two previous seasons with the Spirit, signed in February and dressed last night for the first time, replacing Todd Hicks (hamstring). Rookies Mike Henning (sprained ankle) and Sasa Zoric (Achilles' tendon) also sat out. In a postgame ceremony, the Spirit honored five players: Bo Vuckovic, Offensive Player of the Year; Neely, Defensive Player of the Year; Zoric, Rookie of the Year; Jason Dieter, Unsung Hero; and Jim McCombs for his work in the community. The Spirit is in the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but facing a team other than the Harrisburg Heat in the first round for the first time.
Opponent: Philadelphia Kixx
Site: CoreStates Spectrum, Philadelphia
Time: 4: 05 p.m.
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: This is the second game of a best-of-three series in the first round of the NPSL playoffs. If a third game is necessary, it will be played Tuesday at 7: 35 in Baltimore. In the six-game regular-season series, which the teams split, both lost two of three at home. The Spirit dropped the regular-season finale, 9-5, to the Kixx in Philadelphia eight days ago. The winner of this series will face the Cleveland Crunch or Harrisburg Heat in the second round.
Pub Date: 4/06/97