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For a moment in the artificial half-light of Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium it is quiet. The evening air is heavy. An approaching storm, presaged by jagged streaks of lightning on the horizon, brings not sound but only the promise of it. Then there's a fat, dull thunk! as a soccer ball meets the instep of Tulsa Midfielder Adam Krupa's left foot. The ball rockets toward its target. An instant more and it will be home, hissing into the twine at the back of the goal.
A few yards away in the goalmouth, a figure flickers toward the ball, as fast as a snake's tongue. Krupa's ball is nearly into the goal when Jan van Beveren begins his leap to the right to cut it off. He hangs for a moment, his body parallel to the ground, and at the last instant his outstretched fingertips deflect the shot to the outside of the goalpost. Afterward he would recall the shot as a sort of "white bullet" and the sensation of trying to catch it in his hand.
Van Beveren will make a total of six saves the night of July 4 against the Tulsa Roughnecks, some of them equally stirring but none more important than this one, coming as it does with the score tied 2-2 and less than 10 minutes left in regulation time. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the team for which van Beveren toils in goal, finally will win 3-2 in the first overtime period, thereby extending their lead in the NASL's Southern Division race to 34 points. At week's end the Strikers were still 23 points ahead of second-place Tulsa. That margin was in no small part a consequence of van Beveren's extraordinary play.
There are a number of ways to take the measure of a goalkeeper, but listing his statistics isn't one of them. Last season, for instance, van Beveren finished with the NASL's second-best goals-against average (1.29), led the league in shutouts with nine, and finished second in saves with 195. He never denied that he'd had a good year, but he did repeatedly insist that his goals-against average wasn't a true indication of how well he had played. "When they go only by averages, it makes me sad," van Beveren said. "But what can you do about it? I tell people in this country that averages have nothing to do with how well a goalie is playing, and they look at me like I'm crazy."
While a goalkeeper's stats certainly aren't definitive proof of his skill, the numbers, taken together, can be revealing. That van Beveren's goals-against average, including a dreadful 7-1 loss last Saturday, had risen to 2.19, for instance, and that he led the NASL in saves, with 146, indicate, among other things, that he has been kept busier this season by the Strikers' inexperienced back line. Despite Fort Lauderdale's often porous defense, he has had three shutouts and is 11-4 in games decided by a single goal. Rather than citing statistics, however, it would be simpler in van Beveren's case to say that he has attained a level of the game at which his grasp has somehow exceeded his reach, instead of the other way around. After years as the top goalie in Holland, van Beveren is now one of the dominant players in the American game. Many of the NASL's top forwards have learned—as Krupa did—that when the Flying Dutchman is in goal, they can no longer shoot into any old port in a storm.
When van Beveren's goals-against average dropped him to ninth in the league rankings last month, the stat watchers began to mumble that perhaps at 34 he was slipping, that his reflexes were no longer what they once had been. "It amuses me to hear soccer aficionados around the league talk about van Beveren in the same breath as other goalies," says Ray Hudson, Fort Lauderdale's veteran English midfielder. "He's on a totally different planet. Forget about the statistics. The real sages around this league know that van Beveren is as far removed from the rest as Péle was when he played in the NASL. The man's phenomenal."
"You can't even compare him with the other keepers in this league," says Midfielder Vladislav Bogicevic of the Cosmos. "He's head and shoulders above everybody else."
The Cosmos got a rude reminder of just how far above when van Beveren shut off a Cosmos rally the first time the two teams met this season to preserve a 2-1 Fort Lauderdale victory. In that game the Cosmos' Giorgio Chinaglia, the most prolific goal scorer in NASL history, drilled a shot toward the Strikers' net from nearly point-blank range, only to have van Beveren kick the ball away at the last instant. For a split second, Chinaglia couldn't believe what he had seen. Then he took van Beveren's hand in his and shook it. "Great play," Giorgio said, and turned and trotted away.
"Van Beveren is a defense within himself," said Cosmos Coach Julio Mazzei later. "He proved again he's the best goalkeeper in our league."
By the sheer force of his presence, van Beveren is often able to change the shape and texture of a game. "When you have the best goalie in the league it gives you a great psychological advantage before the game even starts," says Fort Lauderdale Assistant Coach Bill Nuttall, himself a former NASL goalkeeper. "The players on the other team are already thinking that they have to hit a perfect shot to score because they know that Jan is going to routine any shot that's just good. You have to remember that the players may run up and down that field five or six times without even getting off a shot. So when they finally do take a good one and he makes a great save, it's bound to get them talking to themselves."