Midway in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Major Indoor Soccer League championship series on Sunday night, the sport may have witnessed the passing of the mantle to a new king. In one frozen moment, there was the Tacoma Stars' Steve Zungul, for so long the incomparable Zungul, the 32-year-old Yugoslav six times honored as the league's most valuable player, lunging in desperation at the fast-vanishing heels of the Brazilian kid called Tatu, who shows every sign of becoming Zungul's successor.
The date of the formal coronation is still in doubt, of course, but it came a little nearer at Reunion Arena in Dallas when the Sidekicks, led by Tatu, beat the Stars 6-5 and clawed back to two-all in the series, a scenario that had seemed unlikely a few days earlier in Tacoma.
The key man in Game 1 on Tuesday in the Tacoma Dome was neither Tatu nor Zungul but another Yugoslav, a frail-looking kid who calls himself, in the one-name style of the Brazilian stars, Preki (which is fortunate for the citizens of Tacoma, who would otherwise have to learn how to pronounce Predrag Radosavljevic). Picking up the ball out on the wings, wriggling past defenders tight up against the boards, Preki scored four times in a 10-4 victory.
In Game 2 on Thursday, Dallas stayed close until the fourth quarter when, with theatrical timing, Zungul, his hair flowing at shoulder length from his balding pate, scored his 100th career playoff goal to clear the way to a 7-4 win for the Stars. Afterward, the old maestro said, "I don't know how many records I have. I don't count them."
In the nine-year history of the MISL playoffs, no team has come back to win from an 0-2 deficit, and Gordon Jago, the Sidekicks coach, made no attempt to conceal his anger at his players the next morning. "Their set pieces were sloppy," he said coldly. "They've lost their discipline. I can forgive them a mis-trap, a mis-tackle. But I cannot forgive a breakdown in mental attitude. If Steve Zungul had been wearing a Dallas shirt last night, he would have cursed them."
On Friday evening at a dinner in Dallas the league honored the 25-year-old Tatu as the season's MVP, and Tatu's speech was more an elegy for his team than an occasion for pride. He had cause for concern. After accounting for a league-leading 73 regular-season goals, he had scored just once in the championship series, having been forced into the corners by two-and three-man marking. Now Tatu talked as if the series were over.
But that notion clearly had not occurred to the sellout crowd of 16,824 that showed up in Dallas and packed Reunion Arena on Saturday night for Game 3. The fans were rewarded with a tight, tense game that turned, with the score at 3-3, when a Zungul shot hit the inside of the post and caromed back into play. "God bless me, God bless me," Zungul said in the locker room after the game. "That shot could not have been more than a quarter-inch out." After the miss it was the revived Tatu, fittingly enough, who scored the game-winner with his second goal of the night, and the Sidekicks won 5-3. "We are back to discipline now," said Jago.
Dallas started Game 4 with a bang on a goal by Kevin Smith 53 seconds into the first quarter. The lead didn't last long, though, as the Stars' Ricky Davis equalized. For a while it looked as if Dallas might get buried again, this time in its own backyard, as Tacoma opened a 4-2 lead in the second period. But then came Tatu to the rescue, shaking off two defenders and slamming a left-foot shot into the top of the net. He got two more before the night was over, one to tie the score at 5-5 and, naturally, the game-winner.
In the locker room afterward he said, "My body is sore. I hurt everywhere, even in areas I must not mention. But for me, tonight, everything went right." Down the corridor, meanwhile, Zungul was close to sulking. "Tatu," he said moodily. "Does he think he is in a circus or a soccer game?" Zungul had in mind the Brazilian's engaging habit of tossing his shirt to the crowd whenever he scores. "He has to understand, though, that he must come back to Tacoma," said the Stars' star, smiling at the thought. The old king clearly had no intention of abdicating yet.