CLEVELAND -- The Spirit came up one point short in its attempt to bring down the National Professional Soccer League giant.
The Spirit led by one goal as late as 11 minutes into the fourth quarter, but the Cleveland Crunch rallied for a 14-13 victory last night before 7,097 at the Cleveland State Convocation Center to eliminate Baltimore, 2-1, in the American Conference semifinals.
"We played our hearts out," goalie Joe Mallia said. "We played with dignity and class. That's all anyone could ask."
The Spirit, which also lost to the defending champion Crunch in the second round last season, took Cleveland down to the wire, putting up a fight in the arena where the Crunch was 18-2 during the regular season.
Not until 4: 01 remained did the Crunch overtake the Spirit for good at 14-13, on Henry Gutierrez's goal off an assist by Hector Marinaro. That was it, as Cleveland goalie Otto Orf stopped Baltimore's final shot, by Ronnie Simmons, with eight seconds left.
"It was a great game," Spirit defender Doug Neely said. "For the fans, it doesn't get any better than that. There's no reason to hang our heads."
The third quarter was particularly frenzied. Orf had seven of his 14 saves in the period as the Spirit tried to put the game away.
The Spirit got three goals from Bo Vuckovic and two from Neely. Vuckovic led the Spirit in its five playoff games with 25 points; Branko Segota had 24.
"I think we deserved better," Vuckovic said. "All the guys gave 100 percent, and left a piece of themselves on the carpet. We can walk out of this locker room with our heads up. This team has a very good future."
Nineteen seconds into the game, the Spirit announced its intention in the form of a three-point goal by Vuckovic. The Crunch then ran off three straight one-point goals, two by Kia, before Barry Stitz put the Spirit in front again with a two-pointer.
It was more than 22 minutes before anyone scored again. Baltimore scored three more goals, another by Vuckovic and one each by Segota and Neely for a 9-3 halftime advantage. In the second quarter, the Spirit had three goals on only four shots.
For the fifth straight playoff game, Mallia started in goal for the Spirit. Goalie-assistant coach Cris Vaccaro could have played, but was not game-sharp after recovering from a hamstring injury and Mike Stankovic went with his hot goalie.
"Joe played great throughout the playoffs," Stankovic said after Mallia matched Orf's 14 saves. "There was no reason to change. While I was playing myself, it was good to have Cris on the bench directing things."
To inspire the Crunch before Game 2, coach Bruce Miller showed clips of Cleveland's title-clinching win over the Kansas City Attack in the NPSL finals last season.
"We had to do something to get the feeling back," Miller said after the Crunch's 21-9 rout Sunday night. "The emotions of playoffs finally kicked in."
And remained there long enough to enable the Crunch to end the Spirit's season.
"The guys gave everything they had," Stankovic said. "We had 'em until almost the very end. I'm proud of this team. We lost by one point to the defending champions. You don't build a championship team overnight. You've got to be patient."
The Crunch will face the Harrisburg Heat for the conference championship in a best-of-five series starting here Saturday and Sunday. Games 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 will be in Harrisburg next Wednesday and Friday. A fifth game would be here April 27.
NOTES: The only Spirit player who missed the series with an injury was Jason Dieter, who aggravated a knee injury in the first round against the Philadelphia Kixx. Vuckovic and the Crunch's Zoran Stojanovic played for the same club in Yugoslavia for three years.
(NPSL playoff schedule, 7E)
Spirit ...5 4 2 2 -- 13
' Cleveland 3 0 7 4 -- 14