The Kansas City Attack and Cleveland Crunch, the two teams which marched to the playoff finals last season, are favored to repeat as top clubs in the National Professional Soccer League's 14th season, which starts in Buffalo and three other cities on Saturday.
In their annual preseason poll, the NPSL's 13 coaches picked defending champion Kansas City (26-14 last year) and the Crunch (29-11) to hook up in the finals for the third straight year.
Kansas City -- which swept the Buffalo Blizzard in two games in last season's National Conference semifinals -- again will be anchored by goalkeeper Warren Westcoat (won 23, lost 13 with a 11.95 points-against average) and an offense featuring Buffalo-killers Wes Wade (97 points) and Lee Tschantret (107).
The Blizzard hosts the Attack on Dec. 6 and Jan. 31 and visits the Kemper Arena on Jan. 11.
Cleveland -- which beat Buffalo, 2-1, in the opening playoff round during the Blizzard's first four years in the NPSL -- will be headed again by the "Dynamic Duo" of leading scorers Hector Marinaro (265) and Zoran Karic (242). Elma native Otto Orf (28-9, 13.37) again will be in goal for the American Conference champions.
Once six-games-per-season foes, Cleveland and Buffalo now play in different divisions and will meet only twice: here on Feb. 1 and there on Feb. 28.
The coaches' poll made the Edmonton Drillers the heavy favorite to win the North Division over Buffalo, the Detroit Rockers and the Montreal Impact.
Edmonton, a virtual expansion team last year, rallied late in the season to match Buffalo's 21-19 record, but lost the title on a tiebreaker. However, the club's performance was impressive enough to earn coach of the year honors for Ross Ongaro.
Goalie Scott Hileman (21-19, 11.29) and leading scorer Carmen D'Onofrio (112) return, but the Drillers have lost big gun Nick DeSantis (110) to the new North Division team in Montreal.
Montreal picked up the franchise of the lowly (5-35) Columbus Invaders, but the new organization does not expect to repeat as the league's pushover.
Coached by former Buffalo Stallion Oscar Pisano, the Impact is built around a nucleus of players who had the best record (21-7) in the outdoor A-League last summer. Players with experience in the NPSL last season include ex-Blizzard midfielder Mauro Biello (38) and former Tampa Bay terror goalkeeper Stuart Dobson (14-24, 13.02).
Toronto (6-34) and Tampa Bay (15-25) which had the next-worst records last year, have dropped out of the NPSL for at least a season.