The Chosen One 

Hector Marinaro is the greatest athlete in Cleveland. You may even have heard of him.

It's 7:30 p.m., the night after Thanksgiving, and the lights are dimming inside the Convocation Center. The steady boom, boom, boom of arena-friendly techno music pulses through the building as a cloud of fog rolls across the floor.

It is five minutes before game time for the Cleveland Crunch, which lays claim to a unique distinction in Northeast Ohio: The region's most successful pro franchise of the last decade, it is also the least cherished -- a team that would even be glad to be considered among the heap of such second-tier community distractions as the Rockers.

There are many explanations for this, chief among them being the glaringly obvious: The Crunch plays soccer, a sport that ranks slightly north of jai alai and curling in the nation's jock consciousness.

Actually, as far as 95 percent of the world's population is concerned, even that description might not be accurate. For the Crunch doesn't play soccer -- not in the way those pony-tailed male models in Europe or South America do, anyway. No, the Crunch plays indoor soccer, an Americanized, bastard cousin to the flight of passion known as "the beautiful game" to the rest of the globe.

Still, whatever the sport's pedigree, no indoor team was better or more exciting than the Cleveland Crunch for much of the '90s. From 1993 through 1999, it won 160 games. It played for the National Professional Soccer League's championship five times, winning three trophies.

Those days, however, have since taken on the air of nostalgia. Last year the Crunch went 18-22 and finished last in the conference. It missed the playoffs for the first time since 1990, its first year in the league. In April, the Crunch's ownership group fired the most successful coach in team history.

The bad juju only continued this year. The team still has the ability to excite; it can put plenty of goals on the board. But it is also very young. The defense is inconsistent, and the team has the unfortunate habit of squandering leads.

By mid-December, the Crunch had won only four games and was in last place.

The Crunch's record is not the only dispiriting development. The Convocation Center can hold more than 12,000 people for soccer. But at this post-Thanksgiving game against the Harrisburg Heat, concession workers seem to outnumber paying customers, and the place has all the charm of an airplane hangar.

There are still loyal fans, of course, even some rabid, diehard souls who follow the team with ascetic devotion. They are fewer than in years past, but they still come each week, too faithful or too optimistic to give up.

As the music pumps and the fog rolls, the announcer introduces each player. The applause makes it easy to discern crowd affections. There's Otto Orf, a veteran goalkeeper and custodian of one of the world's more exceptional mullets. There's John Ball, a speedy forward. There are promising young players like Kiley Couch and Brian Hinkey, a midfielder who could pass himself off as Justin Timberlake's older brother. But most of all, the crowd has come to see a short, stocky forward in the twilight of his career.

He has been playing professionally for 16 years, but these days he looks like he should be wielding his five-iron rather than chasing a ball around a carpeted hockey rink. His hair is thinning. His body is thickening. His nose looks like it's been whacked with a canoe paddle one too many times. He is neither the strongest nor the fastest player, yet he plays with a quiet intensity that produces something rarer than gold in this game: the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, again and again and again.

He is, quite simply, the greatest goal scorer in indoor soccer history.

Hector Marinaro has scored 1,025 goals in 461 games with the Cleveland Crunch, more than any other person who has ever played his sport. It is a figure made all the more remarkable because it doesn't even include the four years he played for other teams. And because goals are scored so much more frequently in indoor than outdoor soccer, it's safe to say he's the most prolific scorer in all of professional soccer -- anywhere in the world.

"There were unbelievable goals, goals you never dreamed possible," says Bruce Miller, who coached the Crunch for five years before he was fired last season.

Marinaro once did a bicycle kick -- maybe the coolest-looking thing you can do with a soccer ball without involving nudity or midgets -- to win a playoff game in overtime. He did another one to score in an all-star game.

In 1997, he scored 12 goals. In a single game.

Perhaps what's most impressive is Marinaro's consistency. Goal scorers in soccer, like shooters in basketball, tend to wade through hot and cold streaks, subject to the whims of emotion, confidence, and the abilities of opposing defenders. Yet over an eight-year period, from 1992 to 2000, Marinaro didn't once score fewer than 80 goals a season. In three of those years, he scored over 100. During his career with the Crunch, Marino has averaged more than 2 goals per game. Steve Zungul, one of the best forwards ever to play the indoor game, averaged a comparatively paltry 1.5 goals a game during his career.

"He doesn't miss too many chances," says Kai Haaskivi, the former star of the Cleveland Force, who was the Crunch's first coach. "You give him two chances, and he'll make one . . . He's almost like a guy who can hit 70 percent of his three-point shooting."

Yet for all he's accomplished, Marinaro maintains an odd position in the pantheon of Cleveland sports. He is certainly recognized -- beloved even -- among the area's soccer cognoscenti. And he has gained esteem for the simple fact that he is still here, more than a decade after he arrived. Waiters recognize him in restaurants. Malley's named a chocolate bar after him.

Still, in a town where the departure of the aged and middling Bernie Kosar is still lamented, Marinaro is rarely given credit for the full measure of his success. He is more acknowledged than celebrated, a permanent fixture of page four inside the sports section. He is simply That Soccer Guy, background noise to far more pressing stories like "Why the Cavs got blown out by 57 last night."

Such is the currency of being an indoor soccer legend these days.

To most of the world, soccer isn't just a game. It's a cultural force that drives entire nations rat-in-a-tin-can crazy. Consider: In 1962, when the Congo national team defeated Gabon 3-1 in the African Nations Cup, the Gabonese government was so pissed off, it expelled 3,000 Congolese living in the country.

Then there's the story of Andres Escobar. In 1994, when Colombia played the U.S. in the World Cup, Escobar was a defender for the highly touted Colombians. While trying to clear the ball, he accidentally scored on his own team. The U.S. won 2-1, effectively eliminating Colombia from the tournament. A week after the game, Escobar got in an argument with a rabid fan outside a bar in Bogotá. He was shot 12 times.

In 1998, when the month-long final round of the World Cup was held in France, the cumulative television audience exceeded 40 billion. The richest, most profitable sports franchise in the world is not the New York Yankees. It's Manchester United, a team worth well over $1 billion.

Yet in the United States, soccer has always been a second-class oddity, shelved with the likes of short-track speed skating and tandem luge in the netherworld of Stuff the Rest of the World Does While We're at Wal-Mart.

There are many theories for why this is so. In Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, author Andrei S. Markovits argues that American disdain for all things British during the 19th century, when the game was developed, led to the rise of uniquely American endeavors: football, baseball, and basketball. By the time soccer's presence was felt here, it was too late.

A similar but less sophisticated theory goes like this: Each nation has only enough passion to care about one really boring sport at a time. Americans already have baseball.

The indoor game was supposed to change all that. An amalgam of soccer, hockey, and, later, basketball, it was everything the outdoor game wasn't: fast, frenetic, high-scoring.

It was, no surprise, a child of television. The contemporary version was born in 1974. That fall, in two exhibition games, a team of North American Soccer League all-stars played the Soviet Red Army. It was six-on-six, just like hockey, played on an Astroturf-covered rink. In the first game, at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, almost 12,000 people came out to watch. More important, the contest was broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Inspired by the success, a pair of soccer-loving entrepreneurs formed an indoor league in 1978. It was to be known as the Major Indoor Soccer League, and charter members came from six cities: Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

The new venture started slowly at first, but by the early '80s, indoor soccer was booming. "The outdoor game was not functioning in any major-league way," says Alan Merrick, former coach of the Minnesota Strikers, an MISL power during the mid-'80s. "All of the good players were playing indoor. All of the national team players were playing indoor. It had a much higher visibility. There were games on ABC and ESPN."

In Baltimore, the Blast played to near-sellout crowds. In St. Louis, the Steamers averaged almost 14,000 fans a game. Times were just as good in Cleveland. During the 1983-'84 season, the Force averaged more than 13,000 fans at the Richfield Coliseum. During playoff games, 21,000 people would show up. But what was most remarkable for an American soccer team: The Force actually made money.

"The Force was, on and off the field, the most successful, the most professional, the class of the MISL," says Haaskivi, the star of those teams. "I think we were the flagship of the MISL."

Marinaro's timing couldn't have been worse. Born too late for indoor's glory days, he also came too early for the renaissance of the outdoor game in this country.

He grew up playing soccer and hockey in the suburbs of Toronto. As a teenager, he was short and slight, and it was clear his future wasn't in hockey. Soccer was a different matter. His dad had a long professional career in North and South America, and Hector was blessed with his father's genes.

When Hector was 18, his club team, Toronto Italia, won the Canadian National Championship. Not long after, Cleveland Force coach Timo Liekoski was scouting a tournament in Toronto. Liekoski liked what he saw in Marinaro, who at the time was playing sweeper -- the defender who is the last line of defense before the goalie. He invited Marinaro to try out for the Force.

He made the team, if not a huge impression. He would end up playing in only five games during the 1985-'86 season. "He came in very early after high school," says Haaskivi. "Hector was strictly a defender. He really wasn't used anyplace else. In those days, we were pretty loaded with guys."

The Force had offered him a contract to play a second year, but the offer was less than he'd made the first. Insulted, Marinaro turned it down and went back to Toronto, hoping to hook up with another team. "I stood by what I thought was right," he says.

But others weren't particularly interested in a young player with a season and a contract dispute under his belt. College wasn't an option, either. Since he had signed a professional contract, he wasn't eligible for a scholarship. "Personally, thinking back now, I think he was absolutely screwed by the Force," says Hector's brother Rob, who coaches Kent State's women's team.

It would be more than a year before he got another shot at playing professionally. In the meantime, he got a job in a furniture store, which served to remind him how little he liked having a regular job.

"When he came back, it was not a good year for him. He was pretty miserable about it," says Rob. "He knew he wanted to make his livelihood playing soccer . . . You spend a year as a professional athlete at 18 years of age, and you think, 'This is how it's going to be the rest of my life.' And all of a sudden, it's taken away from you."

The dispute with the Force was hardly the worst of it. That summer, Marinaro was a member of the Canadian national team for the Merlion Cup in Singapore. After the tournament, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police alleged that Marinaro and three others on the team had accepted money to throw a game. Though the criminal charges against Marinaro were eventually thrown out, the Canadian Soccer Association banned him from the national team for life. After fighting the ban, Marinaro and the CSA agreed in 1992 on a five-year suspension.

More than 15 years later, the incident remains the one dark spot in Marinaro's past. Over the years, his comments have ranged from conciliatory to defiant. ("We all make mistakes when we're young," he told The Toronto Star in 1993. "I feel I've paid quite handsomely for mine.")

Today, he maintains he did nothing wrong. "I know the person that I am," he says. "My family and friends know that. That's what counts."

His second chance came in Minnesota. In the fall of 1986, the Minnesota Strikers invited Marinaro to a tryout. He made the team as a defender, but it soon became clear that his real gifts lay elsewhere. "He was OK," says Miller, who was an assistant coach in Minnesota when Marinaro arrived. "He wasn't great. He had some great speed, some unbelievable quickness. But you could tell, even in practice, that he had the ability to score."

This was no small thing. Scorers hold a special place in the food chain -- the glamour boys of the professional game. They get the most attention. They command the highest salaries.

It's a unique phenomenon. In soccer, the best players don't necessarily score the most goals. Often as not, scorers are defined more by personality and instinct than technical ability. "They're determined to have an influence on the game," explains Miller. "They're 'give me the ball' kind of guys, extremely, extremely competitive."

In many ways, Marinaro was an unlikely candidate. Conventional soccer wisdom says strikers are a notoriously vain, arrogant lot. The thinking is that they need to be: They score because of some psychological need to be the center of attention. (An old soccer joke: What's the difference between a striker and a puppy? A puppy will eventually stop whining for the ball.)

Marinaro, though, is almost absurdly down-to-earth, a shy man who often seems embarrassed by the small amount of attention he receives. "He's somewhat of an exception, because some of the characteristics you do see -- a selfishness, self-centeredness, that everything revolves around them -- I never witnessed that with Hector," says Merrick. "He was always humble to the game."

What Marinaro does have is uncanny instincts. Like great chess players, he is able to think several moves ahead, a skill that is partly the product of genetic hardwiring, partly from his exposure to both soccer and hockey at a young age.

"He knows the game," says Miller. "He knows when to go left, when to go right, when to sneak into a spot. He's got great vision. His overall comprehension of what's going on on the field is up there in the elite group of players."

It wasn't until he arrived in Minnesota that anyone noticed, though. When a teammate went down with an injury, Marinaro stepped in. Eventually paired on a line with one of the team's most flamboyant players, David Byrne, Marinaro was quickly transformed. "Hector and [Byrne] just linked," says Miller. "It was amazing."

But it was more than just finding the right position, says Rob Marinaro: "When he knew the Force wasn't coming through, it was almost like he wanted more than anything to prove them wrong. And that was the big turning point. It was the motivation that 'I am going to prove to you guys I am good enough to play.'"

Soon, it didn't matter who he played with. He seemed able to score anytime, a change that was reflected in his stats. In his first year with the Strikers, Marinaro scored 17 goals. In his second year, 58.

When the Strikers folded at the end of the 1988 season, Marinaro went to Los Angeles, where he scored 47 goals in one season with the L.A. Lazers.

He came to Cleveland the next year. It was not a difficult choice: The Lazers had folded, and Marinaro was looking for a home. It was close to his family in Toronto. He remembered how supportive fans had been when he made his debut with the Force, which -- like its counterparts in Minnesota and L.A. -- had folded in 1988. In its place, Haaskivi and former Force General Manager Al Miller had established a new franchise, the Crunch.

During his first three years in Cleveland, Marinaro scored more than 150 goals. Equally impressive was the Crunch's success. In 1990, the team finished last in its division. The next year, the team finished first. In its first playoff appearance, the Crunch went to the league finals, eventually losing to the San Diego Sockers in six games.

Marinaro and Zoran Karic became only the second pair of teammates to score more than 100 points in a season. Karic was named a first-team all-star; Marinaro was honorable mention.

It was the beginning of the most productive scoring tandem in indoor soccer history. Over the next nine years, the pair would set new marks for almost every offensive category: points, goals, assists. "They made the franchise," says George Hoffman, who owned the Crunch from 1989 to 2000. "The other players were always important, but it gave the community the dynamic duo."

In 1994, the Crunch was loaded with both talent and attitude. Marinaro scored 113 goals; Karic collected 104 assists. The team went 23-17, strutting through the playoffs. That March, the Crunch gave Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964, downing the St. Louis Ambush in a best-of-five series. Marinaro still considers it the best moment of his career. "It was something for the whole city to be proud of."

Over the next few years, the team seemed to get only better. The Crunch played with delightful arrogance -- blowing teams out and scoring an ungodly number of points. In a 1997 game against Columbus, the Crunch scored 53 points. A second championship came in 1996, a third in 1999.

Winning became a given, a routine so steady that even coaches feared disrupting it. "When I came in, the team went like 22-2 to start off," says Miller of the 1995-'96 season. "I didn't even know what I was doing, to be honest with you. It was just an amazing team."

It was also extremely volatile. There were fistfights in practice, scuffles in the locker room. Much of the tumult surrounded Karic, a fiery competitor who was probably the game's best passer. He was brusque and emotional, subject to tirades and tantrums. During one game, when Cleveland was getting beaten badly by Detroit, he became so angry, he chased the referee around the arena, for which he was promptly booted.

Karic once got so mad at team captain Tim Tyma after the Crunch gave up a goal that he told Miller he wasn't playing anymore. Instead of sitting Karic, Miller told Tyma he was done for the game. "He said, 'What do you mean, I'm done?'" recalls Miller. "I said, 'Tyma, I need him more than I need you.' Then, I'm telling you, Zoran scored 13 points in the last seven minutes of the game. We ended up winning 21-14."

Marinaro was the counterweight to Karic's feisty exuberance. Quiet and modest, he was the personification of understated influence. "I've always been willing to help out if somebody asks, but I don't try and push myself on people," he says.

Instead, Marinaro let his play make his point. "Hector didn't go crazy [like Karic]," says Miller. "But it was similar for him. Those two had so much pride in their play. They dragged you, kicking and screaming, to a higher level. Anything lower than the best was unacceptable."

The Boy Scouts blow. It's the middle of November, and the Crunch is playing the first-place Philadelphia Kixx. It is Boy Scout Night, and there are more than 2,500 blue shirts and bandannas running around the Convocation Center. Many have somehow gotten their hands on long, red plastic horns, the kind usually sold out of shopping carts along parade routes.

A low, guttural drone emanates from clumps of Scouts gathered throughout the upper deck, making it seem as though the game is being played amid mating caribou.

Welcome to the pageantry of professional indoor soccer.

The Crunch players don't appear to notice. Probably because they're comatose. That's how they start the game anyway, lost and lackadaisical. At the end of the first quarter, they're down, 2-0.

Then, less than two minutes into the second quarter, the Crunch awakens. Midfielder Brian Hinkey scores, tying the game. Two minutes later, John Ball scores on a tip-in. Another six minutes, and Philadelphia ties it up. And so it goes for the rest of the game, each side exchanging goals, neither dominating.

It will not be a great game for the Crunch or Marinaro. Cleveland loses 16-14. Marinaro ends up with two assists but no goals, numbers that are becoming increasingly common. For the first time in his career, he is putting up more assists than goals, setting up others rather than cashing in himself.

"It's something I'm actually enjoying," he says of his new role. "This team isn't as flashy; it's more workmanlike."

Yet there are still quiet moments of brilliance: a pass to a teammate, a shot that just misses. Tonight, like many nights, his skill isn't demonstrated during the few times he touches the ball; it's during the long stretches in between. Where he moves on the floor. How he seems to know where the ball is going before it gets there. How he doesn't seem to waste a run, a shot, a touch of the ball. All the stuff nobody notices.

"He does things every day in practice and in every game that very few if any of the guys on the team are ever going to do," says Crunch coach Mike Pilger.

The greatest goal scorer in the history of indoor soccer will have this year and maybe next to engorge his numbers, to leave his mark and get on with his life. Though his contract runs through 2004, it's unlikely he will last that long. "You never know, but I don't think so," he says. "I turn 37 in a couple of weeks. I just don't see it happening."

It will be a curious adjustment, for both the Crunch and Marinaro. He has played here for so long, with such success, it will be hard to imagine the team without him. Whatever attention the Crunch gets is almost always spurred by interest in Marinaro. In some ways, he is bigger than the franchise. "Even when I was a player, my fans from my team would talk to me about Hector," says Rob, who played for teams in Chicago and Buffalo, as well as Cleveland. "They would ask me more about him than they did about me."

In Cleveland, he is the only connection much of the city has with the team. "If the news ever shows anything with the Crunch, his name is always mentioned," says Rob. "The names are almost synonymous with each other. Crunch and Marinaro. It's like they won't show highlights without showing Hector Marinaro."

Marinaro, too, will be starting a new life. Though he has long been indoor soccer's highest-paid player, Marinaro is not getting rich. A decent player in the MISL may make $30,000 a year. Few will ever make more than $50,000. "When I first got involved, kids would come and try out, guys with college degrees," says Miller. "I'd say, 'Kid, I'm going to do you a favor. You're cut. Go get a job, so you don't have to start your life at 34 like the rest of us.'"

Marinaro is turning the corner toward 40, and he has more in common with members of the Rotary Club than with Tim Couch. Few people have ever seen one of his games on television. There are no shoe deals, no clothing endorsements. He owns a modest home in Brunswick. He shops at the mall. He eats Mexican food at Don Pablo's.

"As soon as I'm done playing, I'll have to get a real job," he says.

Still, he knows he is a lucky man. He has been able to make a living playing a game. "I think that's what some of these young guys don't understand," he says. "I go to work for two hours a day -- in sweats. Not many people get to do that."

It's allowed him to be home to raise his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. It's allowed him to play an absurd amount of golf. And it's allowed him to give something remarkable to the people in Cleveland, no matter how weird or irrelevant or minor-league they considered it to be -- the chance to see someone who is the best at what he does.

"In some ways, it's sad," says Miller. "If this was any other sport, this guy would be wealthy . . . I think that's sad, because if there is any guy in the sport that deserves to live off his accomplishments, it's this guy. He's paid his dues."


More by Andrew Putz


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