The way things are going for the Buffalo Blizzard this year, reaching its annual .500 record will be a big achievement. Or maybe a miracle.
After Sunday's 8-6 road loss to the St. Louis Ambush, one of the sorriest teams in the National Professional Soccer League, the Blizzard hit the 1999-2000 midpoint with a 10-12 (.455) record, the first time it has ever turned the corner under .500.
Last week's Midwest Division road trip, which finished with losses at Kansas City and St. Louis, knocked the stuffings out of an encouraging post-Christmas turnaround that started Dec. 20, when coach George Fernandez gave the pink slip to 40-year-old Rudy Pikuzinski, the team's career scoring leader and most recognizable player.
On the same day, Fernandez cracked down on what he called a "lackadaisical" atmosphere at practice.
It was back to passing, dribbling and shooting drills. Two vs. one drills, three vs. two. And run, run, run.
"The atmosphere was more laid back before then. We weren't really intense or sharp," Fernandez said. "It's made them a lot sharper, it's made them a lot quicker. It's also worked on their fitness. Some of them were definitely out of shape. It's given them a harder attitude."
On Dec. 24, the team signed four new players, including Steve Butcher, the 21-year-old University at Buffalo star.
For a while, things went well as the team bounced back from its 4-8 start.
Starting Dec. 26 -- when all-star forward Doug Miller scored a team-record eight goals against Wichita -- the team won six of eight and even climbed back to .500 with last Thursday's 11-10 victory at Wichita. But then the Blizzard reverted to its old ways.
The second-half schedule, loaded with NPSL powerhouses, looks much tougher than the first. There are still 16 games left with Cleveland, Baltimore, Montreal, Milwaukee and Edmonton.
Here is a midseason report card.
Carlos Pena (6-8, 12.98 points-against average) and Kaj Stefansen (4-4, 11.87) give the Blizzard more than adequate replacements for last season's pair of Stuart Dobson (9-11, 12.87) and Bill Andracki (13-7, 14.21).
Pena, an 11-year NPSL veteran, was a known quantity. Stefansen, an import from Denmark who never saw an NPSL game before he played in the season opener, is a pleasant surprise. Each has played well enough to earn defensive player of the week honors at separate times. Grade B.
Fernandez, a former Cleveland defender, constantly stresses that a good offense starts with a good defense. He has loaded the roster with good defenders and is even working on converting two of them -- Scott Blokker (4 goals, 7 assists, 16 points) and rookie Tony Mermigas (0-0-0) -- to midfielders and forwards.
This "you can never have too many defenders" philosophy works well in a sport in which injuries are frequent. While Tim Hardy (1-0-2) has missed 12 games with a shin injury, the business "in the back" has been rotated among Bobby DiNunzio (the team leader with 25 blocks), Ricky Rodriguez, Carlos Zavala, Mali Walton and Christmas Eve signee Mike Britton.
Zavala -- who has a very powerful left leg -- is also used as a shooter (or a decoy) on restart plays. Zavala (12-15-40) leads the club with 100 shots and seven restart goals.
The Blizzard has allowed 12.7 points per game, down from last year's full-season average of 14.0. Buffalo also has limited opponents to a league-low 29.8 shots per game, down from last year's full-season average 30.2. Grade B.
Veteran Randy Pikuzinski (5-15-25), who leads the NPSL with 486 career games, has been hampered by a leg injury that kept him out the last five games and hurt his performance in several games before that.
Danny Barber (8-16-32), the Blizzard delegate to last season's All-Star Game, missed five of the first six games with injury. But since then he has scored at least one point in 14 of 16 games and become the team assist leader.
Blokker, a fourth-year player converted from defender, can't be faulted for his hustle, but he is still learning the offensive ropes. Grade C.
Miller (26-4-55), the NPSL's No. 2 scorer last season, has been sidelined by knee surgery and missed the last seven games. The team won four games in his absence, but his scoring touch is sorely missed.
Andrew Crawford (25-12-58) got off to a slow start, but came on strong and passed the idle Miller as club scoring leader. Injuries and an active appetite led Jim Hesch (11-7-29) to report to training camp out of shape. But he's been on a slim-down diet and in the past month his play has improved with every lost pound.
Brad Smith (8-2-18) plays the "target" position with strength and intensity. Butcher (5-2-14) is the Blizzard's youngest and fastest player. Both factors go a long way to compensate for his inexperience.
Buffalo still has the NPSL's second-worst offense (11.4 points per game). Since Christmas, that has improved to 13.9 ppg, but the club still needs another sniper (in addition to a healthy Miller) up front. Grade C.
Crawford led the league with 22 shootout goals (on 35 attempts) last year to lead the team's 34 for 56 (.607) effort. Crawford still leads the club with a 6-for-12 mark, but the Blizzard is only hitting the one-pointers at a .455 (10 for 22) clip.
Buffalo also ranks last in the league in penalty killing (46 percent), and is No. 4 in power-play efficiency (45 percent). The Blizzard also ranks second-last in restart goal differential (minus 8) and sixth-attacker goal differential (minus 8). Grade D.
Fernandez, the sixth coach in eight seasons, came close to joining Rudy Pikuzinski on the unemployment line, but was saved by the post-holiday resurgence.
Fernandez rarely looks for excuses, but he could cop a number of them -- including injuries and the late formation of the squad, which never played together in training camp -- to explain the current malaise. Fernandez deserves credit for making the tough -- and largely unpopular -- decision on Rudy. But he still has much work to do. Grade C .
Jim May, director of soccer operations, has been drawing and discarding since 1992 with little progress to show. May believes his latest additions -- especially Stefansen, Butcher, Smith, Walton, Zavala and Hesch -- have improved the team considerably.
If May can swing the right deal, he plans to add another veteran forward or two.
Still, other teams have improved also and Buffalo's record is worse than last year at this time, when the club was 11-9 in a 40-game season. Grade C .
General manager Mike Ferguson heads a crew that does its darndest to put people in the seats. The team even has a human being, not a computer, answer the office phone.
But results are scarce. Attendance for 11 home games has averaged only 6,268, down about 3 percent from the midpoint last year and about 11 percent from last year's 7,068 for the full season.
Ferguson said the declining attendance has again led to rumors that the club will fold. He denied the rumors, calling them "an annual event, like the swallows' return to Capistrano."
Ferguson said progress has been made in attracting corporate sponsors (most notably Tops Markets and HSBC Bank), and forecasts that attendance will increase to last year's level in the second half, when major promotions and group nights are planned.
"I won't be satisfied until we're averaging 8,000 to 9,000 per game. I think it's a realistic goal, not pie in the sky," he said.
Besides its troubles on the floor, the Blizzard -- like the rest of the NPSL -- suffers from lack of TV exposure. Not one Blizzard home game has been (or is scheduled) on TV this year. And the league has not had any national TV presence -- not even a "Game of the Week" -- for years.
In today's sports environment, teams are invisible if they're not on TV. And until the NPSL team owners decide to shell out for TV exposure, their game will continue to be one of the most invisible sports. Grade C .