On their merry way to the American Soccer League championship series, the Maryland Bays have dispelled the notion that a U.S. professional soccer team cannot be successful with home-grown players and a free-wheeling attack.
The Bays are the antithesis of all that was dull during the World Cup in Italy. Attacking the goal from the opening whistle, this is a 78 rpm team in what has become a 33 rpm sport.
Can they be stopped? The defending champion Fort Lauderdale Strikers are the Bays' final speed trap as the ASL final series begins Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia.
Game 2 of the home-and-home series will be Aug. 25 in Boca Raton, Fla., and, if necessary, a 30-minute tiebreaker the same night will determine the champion.
While some ASL clubs could be designated as Latin America's Team, the goal-happy Bays truly are Maryland's own. Thirteen Bays attended high school in the state, including three each from Calvert Hall in Baltimore and Oakland Mills in Columbia. The architect of the run-and-gun attack, first-year coach Pete Caringi, holds the University of Baltimore's all-time scoring record.
"I don't think there's a team that can keep up with us," said forward Phillip Gyau, the ASL's most valuable player out of Gwynn Park High School who had 12 goals in the regular season.
The Bays (17-5 overall) scored 42 goals in 20 matches, breaking the ASL record of 41 set by the Strikers in 1988. After a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 1 of its semifinal series, Maryland trounced the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 4-1, to advance to the final.
In that second game, the Bays also missed two excellent chances and had two goals in a one-minute span of the first half disallowed by offside calls.
"Our game is to score goals," Caringi said. "A lot of teams concentrate on defense, but can't put the ball in the net. I want to see excitement."
At the World Cup, 52 matches produced about 2.1 goals per game, fewest in the tournament's 60-year history. The big favorite of impartial World Cup fans was not the winner (West Germany) or the runner-up (Argentina), but unheralded Cameroon, because it was one of the few teams that went hell-for-leather for the goal.
"People want goals and we have the players to provide them," said forward Jean Harbor, who had eight goals in the regular season and three in the semifinals.
Caringi was an all-state attacker at Calvert Hall in the early 1970s. After scoring 70 goals for the University of Baltimore, he played one season for the old Washington Diplomats. And as coach of powerful Essex Community College, just outside Baltimore, his team set a junior college record three years ago with 118 goals in 20 games.
"I'm sure if we lost some games and had a bad season, people would say we concentrate too much on offense," Caringi said. "But it's not that we forsake defense and only worry about our attack. We talk a lot about our defensive strategy."
Only five of the ASL's other 10 teams yielded as many goals as the Northern Division champions (29), but the offense more than compensated. In addition to Gyau and Harbor, midfielders Rob Ryerson and Kevin Sloan have seven and five goals, respectively.
Harbor, a Nigerian who attended Alabama A&M and played two seasons with the Diplomats, is one of only two noncitizens on the team. The other is defender Chris Thomas, a Jamaican who played on Howard University's high-scoring team that lost to Indiana in the 1988 NCAA final.
When the league was formed in 1988, ASL owners and officials stated their intention to develop American talent, but some teams have opted to recycle former North American Soccer League players and import Europeans and Latin Americans.
"Looking back at this season, that's what I'm most proud of," Caringi said. "I remember going to pro games back in the '70s and people wanted to see American players given a chance.
"We won the division with local kids. It's a credit to the state and the coaches. Look what we can do when you give them a chance. Hopefully, it's a sign to the people throughout this league and other leagues that American players can play."