Baltimore Spirit (1992-1998)

The Baltimore Spirit were a professional indoor soccer team who played in the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) from 1992 until 1998. From 1980 until 1992 the Baltimore Blast had played in the rival Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) until the league folded in 1992.

The Spirit were owned and founded by J.W, “Wild Bill” Stealey, a North Carolina based software executive and owner of MicroProse, in July 1992. He had been approached by ex-Blast Head Coach Kenny Cooper, about trying to keep indoor soccer in Baltimore. Stealey’s family had been season ticket holder for the Baltimore Blast for 5 years, and sponsored one of their visits to the UK. Prior to founding MicroProse he had been a fighter pilot, and had also bailed out the English computer company Spectrum.

Their home arena was the 11,286 capacity Baltimore Arena, which was owned by the City of Baltimore. They shared the arena with the Baltimore Skipjacks and Baltimore Bandits of the AHL, and the Thunder of the lacrosse league.

Ex-Baltimore Blast General Manager Drew Forrester was named as Vice-President for the Spirit. Dav Johnson was hired as the “voice” of the Spirit. WWLG agreed to cover the Spirit games on radio, with Nestor Aparicio being the main analyst.

Englishman Kenny Cooper was named as Head Coach of the franchise, having been Head Coach of the Baltimore Blast for the previous 12 seasons in the MISL. He was also named as President and General Manager. Yugoslav born defender Mike Stankovic, who had came from the defunct Blast was named as assistant coach, combining this with playing for the Spirit.

The inaugural roster featured a number of players who had played for the Blast the previous season. These players included Rusty Troy, goalkeeper Cris Vaccaro, Doug Neely, and forward Joe Koziol. Local players Jason Dieter and Barry Stitz were signed to the roster, Dieter being given the no. 19 shirt that the Spirit (and the Blast before them) had reserved for a local player. Ex-Blast player Tim Wittman was also signed. English forward Michael King was also signed a 1-year contract, a player Cooper had tried to sign on numerous occasions for the Baltimore Blast.

The Spirit signed a deal with HTS for them to televise 8 Spirit games throughout the first season.

For their inaugural 1992-1993 season the Spirit were placed in the 7 team American Division. Their divisional rivals were the Buffalo Blizzard, Canton Invaders, Cleveland Crunch, Dayton Dynamo, Detroit Rockers, and the Harrisburg Heat.
The franchise’s first game was away at the Milwaukee Wave on the 6th November, winning 13-11 in overtime. Their first home game was the day after against the Chicago Power, and they won that as well 19-12. During the season the Spirit bought Joey Murtaugh from the Denver Thunder.

The matches against the Harrisburg Heat quickly became the main rivalry. In nearly every game against them there were numerous brawls and ejections from play.
After the 40 game regular season the Spirit topped their division and qualified for the playoffs. The Spirit won 27 games and lost 13, scoring 582 goals and conceding 488. They faced the Cleveland Crunch in the quarterfinals, where they were beaten and eliminated over 2 games, losing 16-3 and 22-9.

Yugoslav forward Goran Hunjak was the Spirit’s leading player, scoring 53 goals, and assisting on 46 for a total of 141 points. Cris Vaccaro was named the NPSL’s ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ and named on the All-Star team.

Stealey said he had lost around $500,000 in the first season.

In the 1993 off-season the NPSL signed a TV deal with ESPN, giving national exposure to the league. The American Division lost the Detroit Rockers to the National Division, but otherwise remained unchanged.

Owner Bill Stealey sold his software company MicroProse, but stated that this would have no bearing on the Spirit.

Incoming on roster was forward Dan O’Keefe, the AISA/NPSL all-time leading goal scorer. He was traded from the St. Louis Ambush for defender Steve Boardman and two draft picks. Michael King left for the Milwaukee Wave for future considerations. English forward Paul Wright was signed on loan from the outdoor team, the Los Angeles Salsa. In the NPSL draft the Spirit signed goalkeeper Shawn Boemcke, forward Rob Ukrop, and Tarik Walker.

During the 1993-1994 season the Spirit lost forward Ukrop for a month with a broken jaw, having been elbowed in the face by Harrisburg Heat defender Denis Hamlett. Ukrop’s jaw was broken in 5 places and required 3 hours to repair. After it would remain wired for 2 weeks and was on a liquid diet. Hamlett was suspended for a month, and the match continued the tradition of rough play and brawls between the Spirit and the Heat. After this various members of the Heat team received threatening letters from Spirit fans saying that they “might be in danger the next time they play in Baltimore”. The letters were forwarded on to the F.B.I.

After the 40 game regular season the Spirit again topped the division, winning 26 games and losing 14. They scored 594 goals and conceded a league low 533. In the Playoffs they again lost in the first round, losing 21-9 and 13-7 to the Harrisburg Heat.

English forward Paul Wright was the Spirit’s top player, scoring 62 goals, and making 43 assists for 146 points. Defender Tarik Walker was named the NPSL ‘Rookie of the Year’.

The 1994 off-season saw the Spirit again in an unchanged American Division. Kenny Cooper stepped down from all his roles within the Spirit organization. He was replaced as Head Coach by Dave MacWilliams on the 2nd August 1994. Assistant General Manager Drew Forrester was appointed to replace Cooper as GM. Their goalkeeper Cris Vaccaro took up a role as Assistant Coach, whilst continuing to play in nets.
During the off season around 30 NPSL players, including Clark Brisson, Eric Dade and Goran Hunjak, filed lawsuits against the NPSL claiming that the NPSL had violated anti-trust laws by preventing players from playing from playing professional soccer during the NPSL off-season. The players ended up withdrawing this claim.

The Spirit lost high scoring slav, Goran Hunjak, to the Washington Warthogs in the expansion draft. However they gained midfielder Kevin Sloan and goalkeeper Joe Mallia from the Dayton Dynamo in a trade for Clark Brisson and Robert Ukrop. The Spirit acquired midfielder Jon Parry from the Kansas City Attack in a trade for Eric Dade and future considerations. The Spirit also re-acquired Steve Boardman after a season away at the St. Louis Ambush on a one-year contract.

The opening game of the 1994-1995 season on the 29th October saw the Spirit play the Chicago Power at the Baltimore Arena. The Spirit won 21-10 in front of a record NPSL opening game attendance of 8,588. The Spirit bought Brad Smith from the Dayton Dynamo for cash. Steve Boardman didn’t last long back at the Spirit as he and Tarik Walker were traded to the Harrisburg Heat for English forward Franklin McIntosh. McIntosh was the NPSL all-time leading goal scorer. Defender Tim Wittman was suspended by the team indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team”. After a game against the Dayton Dynamo 30 players were investigated by the NPSL for a 30-man brawl. English midfielder Michael Brady was signed in February, and Chris Love waived to make room for him on the roster.

After another brawl against the Kansas City Attack, Lance Johnson, Jon Parry, and Brad Smith were banned for 1 game.

In the 1994-1995 season the Spirit finished 3rd in the 6 game league, winning 23 games and losing 17. They scored 615 goals and conceding 573 and qualified for the playoffs. In the 1st round of the playoffs they lost to the Cleveland Crunch over 3 games.

Kevin Sloan was the leading performer for the Spirit, scoring 73 goals and making 32 assists for a total of 165 points. This placed him joint 7th in points scoring that season in the NPSL.

In the 1995 off-season the Spirit lost 2 year veteran Omid Namazi to the Philadelphia KiXX in the expansion draft.

The 1995-1996 season saw the Spirit were again in the American Division. Divisional foes this season would be the Buffalo Blizzard, Canton Invaders, Cincinnati Silverbacks, Cleveland Crunch, Harrisburg Heat, and the Tampa Bay Terror.

During the season Franklin McIntosh was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, although he was soon brought off the suspended list. He was then suspended again for unknown reasons for the last 2 games of the regular season.

On January 29th Head Coach Dave MacWilliams quit, and was replaced by assistant and player Mike Stankovic who combined playing with being Head Coach. During the season they also traded the midfielder John Garvey to the Tampa Bay Terror for Zak Ibsen. The team went of surge of form under Stankovic that took them into the playoffs.

After the 40 game season the Spirit placed 2nd in the 7 team American Division, qualifying them for the divisional semi-final. In their 40 regular season games they won 25 and lost 15, scoring 604 and conceding 492. They faced the Harrisburg Heat in the division semi, winning two games 16-11 and 7-6. The regular season divisional winner the Cleveland Crunch met them in the divisional final, and the Crunch ran out winners over 4 games of the best-of-5 series.

Kevin Sloan was the leading goal scorer in the regular season with 63 goals. English midfielder Franklin McIntosh was the NPSL leading assist make with 77, and finished as the Spirit’s leading points scorer with 177, placing him overall 3rd in the NPSL.

The NPSL was expanded for the 1996-1997 season, The Spirit were now placed in the East Division of the 2-division American Conference. Their divisional rivals were the Harrisburg Heat, Philadelphia KiXX (expansion), and the Tampa Bay Terror.

In the off-season Mike Garthagan was named as Public Relations Director. Canadian international forward Branko Segota was signed on a 2-year contract. Two Yugoslavs Sasa Zoric and Nesko Milanovic were signed.

After 4 games of the season the Spirit bought Bojan Vuckovic from the expansion Tampa Bay Terror. They also re-acquired ex-player Doug Neely. They also signed Jimmy Glenn from the Cincinnati Silverbacks for cash and a first-round draft pick. Nesko Milanovic left the team to return to Yugoslavia.

The team extended their lease on the arena by another 2 years. In a match against the Cleveland Crunch Coach Stankovic ordered his team to leave the field, which earned him a $3,000 fine and the Spirit a $10,000 fine from the NPSL. The league however also reprimanded referees Richard Heron and Tamas Lauer for misapplication of the rules. During the season Player/Head Coach Mike Stankovic was suspended for 3 games and goalkeeper Cris Vaccaro stepped up as interim coach to cover his absence.

The Spirit finished the East Division in 2nd place behind the Harrisburg Heat, qualifying them for the American Conference quarter-finals. In 40 games they won and lost 20, scoring 506 and conceding 494. In the Conference Quarter-finals the Spirit beat the Philadelphia KiXX 15-8 and 18-8. They were eliminated in the Conference Semi-finals, losing over 3 games to the Cleveland Crunch.

Yugoslav Bojan Vuckovic was the Spirit’s leading player, scoring 61 goals, making 33 assists, for a total of 150 points, tallying him 9th in the total points scorers.
The team’s average attendance of 4,929 was the lowest figure in indoor soccer history in Baltimore, and 11th of the 15 team NPSL.

For the final year of the franchise (1997-1998) before they were re-sold and became the 2nd incarnation of the Baltimore Blast, the Spirit were in a 3 team East Division after the Tampa Bay Terror decided to sit out the season.

In the off season A key signing was Moroccan goalkeeper Khalil Azmi. Azmi was an ex-international who had competed for Morocco in the 1994 World Cup finals. He replaced the long serving Cris Vaccaro who had retired after the 1996-1997 season. Vaccaro also vacated his position as Assistant Coach with the team. Midfielder Jason Dieter retired to take up a position of Assistant Manager Trainee at First Mariner Bank, a bank owned by ex-Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale. Goalkeeper Joe Mallia was released.
Also signed were Dejan Belic, Denison Cabral, Gillermo Castaneda, Mirko Castillo, Nate Fairchild, Mike Mekelburg, Dave Reichardt, Renato Sampaio, Matt Tirschman, and Carlton Williams. The Spirit had tried for a more youthful roster.

According to an interview with the owner Bill Stealey, the Spirit had not turned a profit in any season since he purchased the club. He stated that after the first season the team had lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars every season. He announced a six-figure sponsorship deal with yoghurt company Danone. The sponsorship deal also involved the Spirit changing the colours of their logo and kit to Danone’s blue and gold colour. This deal was reputedly the biggest deal in NPSL history. This allowed them the funds to buy radio coverage on WCBM for all 40 Spirit games in the regular season. General Manager at WCBM was ex-Baltimore Blast player Nick Mangione.

During the season Dejan Belic was released and Wendell Regis and Derrick Marcano were signed.

The Spirit finished dead last of the 3 team East Division winning only 12 of their 40 games and losing 28. In the process they scored 487 goals and conceding 569. This meant that for the first time they failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Bojan Vuckovic was again their key player, scoring 60 goals and making 38 assists and 148 points. This placed him 6th in the NPSL scoring charts.

At the end of March the Spirit were purchased by Baltimore transportation magnate Ed Hale, who renamed them the Blast.

Over their entire 5 season history they played 240 regular season games, winning 133 and losing 107. In the process they scored 3,388 goals and conceded 3,149. They played 18 playoff games, winning 7 and losing 11. They scored 212 playoff goals and conceded 258.

Barry Stitz who played the whole 6 season with the Spirit finished up as leading appearance maker with 212 games. All-time leading goal scorer was Bojan Vuckovic with 118 goals, 2 ahead of Kevin Sloan.


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