Tonight's game between the Buffalo Blizzard and Cleveland Crunch -- clubs already destined to clash in the first round of the National Professional Soccer League playoffs -- may seem meaningless at first glance. The teams disagree.
Both American Division clubs say they have things to do and prove in their second last regular-season game at the Cleveland State University Convocation Center (7:30, Radio 1400).
The fourth-place Blizzard wants to "make a statement" to its Lake Erie rival and nemesis, which has knocked Buffalo out of the first round of playoffs, two games to one, for two years straight.
The Crunch, which has clinched first place, still is striving to finish with the league's best record and capture the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which start March 31.
"It's a very important game," said Buffalo midfielder Michael Collins. "Going into the playoffs you don't want to go in kind of haphazardly or thinking the game is meaningless so we'll rest players or anything to that effect. . . . This is going to be a big, big test for us. Seeing if we have figured them out as of yet.
"You definitely want to have a good showing against the opponent you're going to play against in the playoffs," added Blizzard defender Kris Kelderman. "If anything, it'll get some momentum and confidence going. . . . We tried to do that last time we played Cleveland (in an 18-16 loss at Memorial Auditorium last Saturday). I thought we made a good showing, we just couldn't pull it off. You want to do well to prove to yourself and to them that you're there to beat 'em and you can."
"I think it means less to Buffalo," said Cleveland coach Gary Hindley. "We're still fighting with Kansas City and St. Louis."
Cleveland enters the season's final weekend with a 29-9 record. The Kansas City Attack has finished the 40-game season at 29-11. The St. Louis Ambush, its National Division rival, is 28-10.
This is the sixth meeting between the Crunch and Blizzard this season. Although Cleveland leads the series, 4-1, and owns a 93-65 scoring edge, both coaches say the teams are more closely matched than the numbers indicate.
"The last two times (in Buffalo) have been an overtime game and a two-point game," Hindley said. "I think there's a lot of respect between the two teams."
"This team has changed. This team has come up," Buffalo coach Jim May said of his 19-19 Blizzard. "They (Cleveland) are in for a battle all the way across. They're going to have to win it. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be a gimme for them. . . . They're (Buffalo) not going to fold up."
Last Saturday, the Crunch led, 8-2, in the first quarter, before Buffalo came back to tie at 14-14 and 16-16. Cleveland stars Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic -- the league's No. 1 and No. 2 scorers -- combined for five goals and two assists. Karic's assist and two of his three goals came on restarts.
May said several of the restart scores were "bad goals" resulting from mistakes by Buffalo's free-kick defense.
"You can't have a restart like that," May said. "The wall wasn't set up right. We gave them a couple bad goals. But despite giving up a couple bad goals, we were in the game all along."
Buffalo finishes the regular season at home with a Sunday matinee (2 p.m.) against the Harrisburg Heat (22-16).