The prospect of winning an all-expenses paid trip anywhere in the world if it captures the title inspired the Atlanta Ruckus to a shooutout win in Game 1 of the championship series.
Of all the debts Atlanta Ruckus owner Johnny Imerman faced this season -- and there were some doozies -- one of the biggest bills has yet to come due.
So why was Imerman smiling?
"Call it incentive," he said with a laugh. "The important thing is we're going to do this the way we've done everything this year: first class."
Imerman promised his players an all-expenses paid vacation anywhere in the world if they won the A-League championship, and the Ruckus players began reaching for their passports after defeating the Seattle Sounders, 2-1, in a shootout Oct. 1 in the opening match of the A-League finals at Adams Stadium.
Atlanta can close out the best-of-three series by winning one of the next two games in Seattle Oct. 8 or Oct. 10.
"This is a very big step for us," said Ruckus forward Lenin Steenkamp, whose goal in the 58th minute briefly put Atlanta on top. "Half of the job is done."
Added Ruckus coach Lothar Osiander: "All I know is I'm going to church this week for sure."
An expansion franchise that nearly folded before playing a single game, Atlanta was rescued from bankruptcy by Imerman just before the start of the season and run on a bone-dry budget. But the Ruckus somehow prevailed, shrugging aside injuries and inexperience to move to within one win of becoming the first Atlanta soccer team to win a championship since the NASL's Chiefs in 1968.
A franchise-record crowd of 4,312 saw the Ruckus notch its 11th shootout win of the year, and Atlanta clinched the victory when defender John Doyle slipped a shot to the lower right past goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. Overall, Atlanta is 11-1 in the tiebreaker.
"At the moment, they don't believe they can be beaten in the shootout," said Seattle defender Neil Megson. "They're playing with a lot of confidence."
But Seattle, which racked up a league-high 18 victories in 1995, wasn't exactly in unfamiliar territory. The Sounders entered the finals with a 5-2 record in shootouts, including one in the deciding match against Vancouver in the semifinals.
"Lothar must have some power over us," said Seattle coach Alan Hinton, sighing. "I don't know, maybe his name is already written on the cup."
Although hardly scrapping the defensive shell it employed to get past Montreal in the semis, Atlanta did counterattack against Seattle, keeping the Sounders honest with several near misses. A shot by Steenkamp ricocheted straight down off the crossbar in the 33rd minute, and Staale Soebye's lunging follow-up was smothered by Hahnemann.
Steenkamp did not miss the next time around, however. Leaping up to meet a picture-perfect corner kick from Mo Suri, Steenkamp drove a sharp header past Hahnemann in the 58th minute for a 1-0 lead.
"We've been having trouble with set plays lately, so that was something we worked on this week," Steenkamp said. "All I had to do was hit it with my head."
But with Atlanta midfielder Bruce Murray hobbling on a bum knee (and refusing to be substituted) and Doyle nursing a bloody, broken nose, the Ruckus found itself increasingly on the defensive. And Seattle stepped up the pressure as Jason Dunn, who entered the match as a substitute for his brother, James, in the 70th minute, notched the equalizer seven minutes later on a 15-yard blast to make it 1-1.
Thus it remained for the shootout to settle matters. Atlanta's only two wins against Seattle during the regular season came that way, and the Ruckus quickly picked up scores from Soebye and Michael Araujo, while goalkeeper Mun Yung Yi made a pair of leg saves.
Leading 2-1, Mun then came out to thwart Jason Farrell, leaping high to tip his shot off the crossbar. Doyle followed that up with the deciding goal, then celebrated by running straight into the crowd with his arms upraised.
Afterward, Doyle, his nose clearly crooked and face covered with dried blood, defended the shootouts that have been so good to his team.
"Even if we can't always score goals [in regulation], at least we're exciting," he said. "Hey, when I was a kid watching the [NASL's San Jose] Earthquakes play, all I wanted was for the games to go into shootouts. To me, that was exciting. I guess it still is."
by Soccer America correspondent Doug Cress