Trailing 3-1 with less than three minutes left in the seventh and deciding game of the MISL championship series, the Dallas Sidekicks seemed as dead as the franchise itself did just a year ago. You could almost hear the sound of champagne corks popping in the Tacoma locker room as the Stars and their home crowd began celebrating what seemed a sure victory. However, just as they had throughout this series, just as the franchise had done in 1986, the Sidekicks returned from the dead.
The first flicker of new life came when Dallas midfielder Mark Karpun took a beautiful feed from Kevin Smith and banged the ball home to bring the Sidekicks to within one with 2:25 remaining. Then, a mere 27 seconds later, league MVP and teen heartthrob Tatu, who had been held in check all night, picked up a loose ball at the top of the box and blasted it into the upper left corner of the net to tie the game at 3-3. The Tacoma Dome sellout crowd of 21,728—an alltime MISL high—stood in stunned silence.
Could there be any doubt who would win in overtime? After all, hadn't the Sidekicks stormed back from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the series? Hadn't they, just two nights before in Dallas, beaten Tacoma in double overtime in Game 6? And hadn't they roared through the first two rounds of the playoffs, knocking off two heavily favored opponents? How do you stop that kind of momentum? Simple. You don't.
With 9:23 gone in overtime, the Sidekicks' improbable season came to its inevitable conclusion as Karpun scored the game-and series-winner. "Tatu got a rare one-on-one on the right side," Karpun said afterward. "I knew he would get a shot off, so I headed for the net. I just redirected the ball up into the net. I really can't believe it."
One person who could believe it was Jan Rogers, a self-described "soccer mom" and wealthy Sidekick fan who came out of the stands to save the franchise last year after former owner Donald Carter (who also owns the NBA Dallas Mavericks) decided he had bathed in too much red ink. At first Rogers tried without success to put together an investment group to buy the team. While heading to the airport one day in May 1986 for a trip with her son to a high school soccer tournament, she was certain that the club would go down the drain while she was away. Suddenly she remembered her old friend, petroleum executive Jim Graham.
"I called him from the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport," says Rogers. "If Jim hadn't been home, I don't know what would've happened. Jim said, 'Jan, we've been friends for a long time. I'll do it for you.' I told him, 'Just pretend that you're interested, and I'll tell you all about it when I get back.' " The rest of the story is now Dallas lore: Graham and Rogers, together with investment banker Stan Finney, recruited some 40 investors and saved the team.
At the start of last week, with the series tied at two games apiece and with two of the three remaining games to be played in Tacoma, the Sidekicks faced yet another uphill battle. A crowd of 20,284 hysterical fans turned out for Game 5 in the Tacoma Dome, where they were treated to entertainment a la MISL. That included not only a fine game but also a communal balloon popping at the end of the third quarter and a halftime tots-on-trikes-for-tacos competition in which youngsters raced around the field on tricycles in an attempt to win tacos for their entire section of the stands. As they did for everything else that night, the fans cheered wildly.
The game itself was a showcase for Tacoma's power play as the Stars scored three times in man-advantage situations to defeat the penalty-prone Sidekicks 5-3. Tacoma defender Neil Megson smothered the flamboyant Tatu and robbed him of his most effective move—indoor soccer's equivalent of the Kevin McHale low-post turnaround jumper—in which Tatu, in his favorite spot at the right side of the penalty box, backs his man up, then spins and kicks in one sweeping motion, usually sending the ball with deadly accuracy toward one of the goal's low corners. After the game, the usually extroverted Tatu was downcast. "I was very tired tonight," he said. "I was trying to do my part. We just couldn't do it."
However, a rejuvenated Tatu and mates showed up for Game 6, which was played amid another flurry of MISL whoop-de-do, this time in Dallas's Reunion Arena before another sellout crowd. Here the halftime entertainment was somewhat more elemental: A local radio station spread 5,000 one-dollar bills on the floor of the arena and allowed four contestants to stuff as many of them into their clothing as they could in 100 seconds. It wasn't pretty, but fortunately for Dallas, Tatu was. His stocky legs churning, Tatu battled relentlessly for position in front of the net and muscled past defenders along the boards. Just as important, the Sidekicks avoided costly mistakes.
"We had a meeting after the game in Tacoma," said Dallas coach Gordon Jago, who bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. Senator from New Jersey and former New York Knick star Bill Bradley. "I told them in no uncertain terms that I was upset and that I wasn't going to allow them to continue giving silly fouls."
The Sidekicks took heed, allowing Tacoma one power play all night and turning it into a shorthanded goal on a superb give-and-go between Smith and Mike Uremovich. When Tatu slammed home two goals to give Dallas a 4-3 lead in the fourth quarter—and twice performed his postgoal ritual of tossing his jersey into the crowd to the squealing delight of his fans in the pimples-and-braces set—the game looked all but over. But no one told that to the Stars' incomparable Steve Zungul, six times the league's MVP, who was vying for his sixth championship in eight seasons. Taking a pass from Preki with just 40 seconds to play, Zungul calmly deposited the ball in the upper left corner of the Dallas net to tie the game.
After a scoreless first overtime period and 5:30 of the second, the longest game in MTSL playoff history suddenly ended when Karpun took a pass from Uremovich, broke around defender Ralph Black and beat goalkeeper Mike Dowler with a rocket inside the far post. Pandemonium broke out. Jan Rogers and Karpun ran off the field arm in arm.
So the series came down to Game 7—and one last resurrection. In the end, both coaches agreed that Dallas was the team of destiny. "That was meant to be their trophy; it just must have been meant to be," said Stars coach Alan Hinton. Said Jago, "It's been a fairy tale all season long, and as you know, all fairy tales have a happy ending."