It’s hard to believe it has been 25 years since the Cleveland Crunch delivered my very first taste of a pro sports championship.
The Crunch are a defunct indoor soccer team that played in the National Professional Soccer League. In between the demise of the North American Soccer League in the early 1980s and the birth of Major League Soccer in 1996, indoor soccer kept the pro game alive in the United States. It was nothing like outdoor soccer, but it was a version of soccer nonetheless.
I grew up on indoor soccer, which is a frantic game played on hockey rink dimensions, where the walls are in play. It is often described as human pinball, but there is also a lot of skill involved– quick passing, deft touches, working in tight spaces.
Like all of my sports teams, the Crunch, and their predecessors the Cleveland Force, served up their share of broken dreams. The Force were annual contenders in the 1980s but always came up short, often losing in the playoffs to their rivals the Baltimore Blast. The Force lost five consecutive conference finals before finally getting over that particular hump. In their final year of existence in 1988, the Force finally made the MISL Championship Series, but were swept by the San Diego Sockers. Then the team folded.
The Crunch took their place and in 1991 also reached the MISL Championship Series, also succumbing to the Sockers, this time in six games. The next year, the Crunch lost a semifinal series to the Dallas Sidekicks in which four of the six games were decided in overtime. In 1993, after jumping leagues to the NPSL following the MISL’s demise, the Crunch advanced to the NPSL Finals and lost three games to two to the Kansas City Attack.
By the time the 1993-94 season rolled around, I had witnessed Cleveland indoor soccer teams suffer six semifinal defeats and three defeats in the finals. So much success with so little to show for it.
The 1993-94 Crunch were lead by the “Dynamic Duo” of Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, who terrorized the league for the better part of a decade with their scoring exploits. Karic was a crafty and temperamental Serbian set-up man who could also score goals himself, whereas Marinaro was a Canadian goal-scoring machine. He would go on to score over 1,000 goals in his career.
The team was riding high with the best record in the league until the bottom fell out in the final month or so of the season. They tumbled down to second place in the division with a 23-17 record. It seemed like another promising season would be going down the drain. But then the Crunch advanced past the Buffalo Blizzard and Harrisburg Heat to make a second consecutive finals appearance. this time against the St. Louis Ambush.
The Ambush blew out the Crunch 26-6 in game one. Please note that the NPSL used ridiculous basketball scoring, so common goals were worth two points, but there was a three-point arc. Also penalties resulted in a one-point shootout attempt, followed by a one-point power play attempt. As a general rule, divide the final score by two to get a sense of how the game actually played out. In this case, it would be the equivalent of a 13-3 thumping.
The Crunch rebounded to win game two in St. Louis, 21-14, and then came home and drilled the Ambush 29-8 to put Cleveland on the precipice of its first indoor soccer title and first championship of any kind since the Browns won it all in 1964.
When the historic opportunity presented itself on April 27, 1994, I was four hours away in Athens, Ohio.
As you might expect, despite my class schedule at Ohio University, I really wanted to be home to see if Cleveland could finally win a championship. The problem was that I didn’t have a car on campus. My buddy Abrahm wanted to go to the game too, so we asked around and finally got the keys to a pickup truck from a guy named Wes that lived in our dorm.
Abrahm and I then made the trek to Cleveland, listening to the newly-released Pink Floyd album “The Division Bell” multiple times along the way. We got to Cleveland in time for kickoff and met up with my dad and my girlfriend inside the arena. It wasn’t quite a sellout, but a healthy crowd of over 11,000 was on hand.
The game started as a tense and cautious affair. St. Louis led at the half by the score of just 2-1. It was a preposterous scoreline given the rest of the series.
In the third quarter, the offenses exploded. St. Louis pumped in five goals, while Cleveland scored three. The Ambush held a 12-9 lead on the Crunch and then grew the lead to 15-10 early in the fourth quarter. The prospect of driving back to Athens that night was going to feel like a million hours.
But then Tommy Tanner scored a power play goal to cut it to 15-11 with a little over ten minutes to play. Then Karic nutmegged a defender to feed Marinaro on a close-range finish to cut the lead to 15-13 with 6:47 to play. Just 42 seconds later, Karic fed Marinaro on a restart goal that tied the game.
And then things got tense. The game went to overtime and overtime was not good for the Crunch. St. Louis had chance after chance. They hit the post. The missed just high or just wide. Crunch goalie Otto Orf appeared to cramp up and was gimping around the field, yet still made an incredible sprawling finger-tip save to keep the championship dream alive. St. Louis outshot Cleveland 17-2 in the first overtime, but the hobbling Orf kept the Crunch in the game.
I was a nervous wreck.
I wouldn’t have to be nervous for long. Not even two minutes into the second overtime, Orf limped out of his goal area–on what was later revealed to be a torn hamstring!–to head the ball forward. It eventually found its way to Andy Schmetzer along the left wall. As the Devo song “Whip It” played over the PA, Schmetzer carried the ball forward and played a combination in the corner with Tommy Tanner. Schmetzer then banked the ball of the boards to Marinaro, who was improbably unmarked right in front of the St. Louis goal. Marinaro popped the ball almost straight up into the roof of the net.
For a split second, the Cleveland sports fan in me was convinced that the greatest goal scorer in indoor soccer history had missed a sitter from a few feet out and popped it up off the crossbar. The celebration on the field, with a sprinting Marinaro being chased by delirious teammates, finally told me otherwise. The ball had indeed hit a back bar before popping out of the goal. At long last, after so many heartbreaks and narrow misses, Cleveland had an indoor soccer championship. (See the video at the end of this post for the winning goal.)
Abrahm and I stayed for the trophy presentation and then embarked on the four-hour drive back to Athens. I remember the topic I kept coming back to during the ride was the idea that I didn’t know how to feel. It was too strange to comprehend. Sports seasons always ended in a whimper or in excruciating heartache. There were all those good-but-not-great Cleveland indoor soccer teams. There were the Browns losing three AFC Championship Games, including The Drive and the Fumble. There was the championship contender Cavs losing in the first round on Michael Jordan’s famous shot. The Toronto Maple Leafs, my childhood hockey team, lost the 1993 conference finals largely because of a missed (or conveniently overlooked) high-stick by Wayne Gretzky on Doug Gilmour. The Indians had never amounted to anything in my lifetime to that point, so they were a non-issue. (Although they would go on to deliver the two most devstating sports heartbreaks of my life in the form of extra-inning Game 7 losses in the 1997 and 2016 World Series.)
But this….this was different. No heartbreak. Just elation. It felt so foreign.
I would go on to experience it two more times with the Crunch in 1996 and 1999. And with the Columbus Crew in 2008. And with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. And I hope to someday experience the feeling again with the Indians, Browns, and Blue Jackets. After all, first title you experience with each team is unique, as each team has its own backstory and your fan relationship is different with each sport.
But there is only one truly bewlidering first championship experience.
And mine was 25 years ago tonight, courtesy of Hector Marinaro, Zoran Karic, Otto Orf, Andy Schmetzer, Tommy Tanner, George Fernandez, Tim Tyma, Doug Miller, Shawn Medved, Mark Thomas, Glen Carbonara, coach Gary Hindley and the rest of the 1994 Cleveland Crunch.
Thank you forever, fellas.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.