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Newman Expects No Miracle Award : Soccer: Socker coach concedes league award for top coach will not be his this season.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the ninth time in 10 years, the Sockers enter a championship series when they play host to the Cleveland Crunch tonight at the Sports Arena (7:35).

Only one person remains from the 1981-82 team that began the streak, Coach Ron Newman.

Despite Newman’s continued success, the Sockers are not expected to continue their monopoly on postseason awards when the Coach of the Year is announced next week.

The Sockers already have taken three of the four awards, but speculation is the award will go to Newman’s counterpart in the championship series, Trevor Dawkins.

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Newman concedes as much.

“The voters (two media representatives from each MSL city) like to give it to someone they feel has worked miracles,” Newman said.

The miracle Dawkins worked was taking over a last-place club with a 7-14 record, a team that fell as many as 7 1/2 games behind first-place Kansas City, and reversing its fortunes, eventually taking the Crunch to first place by winning 10 in a row and 15 of 16.

Now the Crunch, an expansion team for the 1989-90 season, is four victories away from a title.

Miraculous? Dawkins at times thought it a mirage.

“Myself and several of the players had to look at the standings quite often to make sure we weren’t daydreaming,” Dawkins said.

They weren’t. They realized they had sleepwalked through the first half of the season.

League coaches insisted at the outset--and still do--that Cleveland had the most depth.

“I remember seeing the potential power they had at the beginning of the season when the beat us (9-3 in early November),” Newman said. “But later, I couldn’t believe how bad they got . . . such great players all playing with their heads hanging down.”

Great players indeed.

The defense consists of defender George Fernandez, the most valuable player from the 1989-90 All-Star Game who was signed during the summer as a free agent from the Sockers; Greg Willin, considered one of the toughest defenders in the league; Bernie James, the MSL’s all-time leader in blocks (1,012); and Mike Sweeney, a defensive midfielder known for dominating play with physical tactics.

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On offense, there is Zoran Karic, whose 121 points this season were second-most in the MSL; Hector Marinaro, whose 107 points were fifth most; Michael King, who scored a career-high 46 goals in the regular season; Ali Kazemaini, who was rookie of the year in 1985 and an All-Star in 1986; and Rudy Pikuzinski, the all-time leading goal-scorer of the National Professional Soccer League, where he won three MVPs before moving to the MSL this year.

And then there is Kai Haaskivi, the MSL’s third all-time leading scorer with 663 points. Haaskivi, 35, took the blame for the team’s first-half struggle. He was not only a player, but also the head coach.

On Jan. 29, Haaskivi relinquished his coaching position, and soon the team started to mesh.

Some saw the turnaround as miraculous; others weren’t surprised.

“It didn’t surprise me at all,” said Kansas City Comets Coach Dave Clements. “Cleveland is a very talented squad.”

In one week, Feb. 17-24, Kansas City and Cleveland faced each other three times. Cleveland won all three matches, catapulted to the top of the Eastern Division and never was headed.

Kansas City also was the team that the Crunch beat in the Eastern Division finals.

“When Kai went back on the field,” Clements said, “one of the first things that happened was they realized that, if they hang together, they could compete.”

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Haaskivi’s stepping down might have had more to do with the Crunch’s turnaround than did Dawkins’ promotion.

A dual relationship, one as a teammate and one as a coach, simply didn’t work.

“That’s the biggest mistake anyone can make, especially in soccer,” said Don Popovic, coach of the St. Louis Storm. “A coach is on management’s side, but a player/coach is also on the players’ side. But it just doesn’t work. You can’t as a coach tell your teammate, ‘Hey, you’re not running, you’re not putting in a good effort,’ because that player can turn around and say, ‘You’re not running, either.’ ”

Popovic has been in Dawkins’ place. In 1984-85, he took over a struggling Las Vegas Americans franchise from player/coach Alan Mayer and guided it to a second-place finish.

“Alan Mayer was a great guy,” Popovic said. “He had experience, knowledge and everything, but if the team had a bad game, he couldn’t go back to the locker room and say ‘Jesus, why didn’t we play better?’ because he was one of them.”

Still, Dawkins is receiving credit for the Crunch.

“If you take a team that’s at the bottom of the standings and bring them to the playoffs, you’ve got to give credit to the coach,” Popovic said.

Being overlooked, however, was Newman’s rebuilding project with the Sockers.

Gone from last year’s championship team were goalie Zoltan Toth and defenders George Fernandez, Ralph Black and Cacho.

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So Newman built a new defense around goalie Victor Nogueira and veteran Kevin Crow, who last week was named Defender of the Year.

Newman never found a goalie to platoon with Nogueira; he didn’t have to. Nogueira turned in an iron-man performance and earned the league’s MVP award.

Still, Newman needed three quality defenders to play in front of Nogueira. He found them in David Banks, the Sockers’ third pick in the 1990 draft and this season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Collins, whom Newman moved from midfielder on the advice of assistant Eric Geyer, and Alex Golovnia.

“It’s quite incredible what we accomplished,” Newman said. “Remember, we didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year.”

The Sockers finished two games under .500 a year ago before turning it on in the playoffs. This season, they had the league’s best record, 34-18.

“I thought that maybe this year would be a good year for me to get (Coach of the Year),” Newman said. “We weren’t really expected to do much at the beginning of the season with all new defenders.”

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But Newman and others concede Dawkins will win the award.

“I think he deserves it,” Newman said.

Said Popovic, “Ron Newman is definitely the most outstanding coach in the league, but one thing is for sure, when you win a championship every year, people start to think that’s nothing new.”

MSL Notes

With the Tacoma Stars announcing today that they will be back next year, the next MSL team to fall into place should be the Sockers. . . . If the Sockers do fall into place as expected, the only question marks are Dallas, still without an owner but considered “in” for next year by MSL officials, and Wichita, the ownership of which has said it will come back if the other seven teams do. A decision is expected by May 15.

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