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Friday, October 17, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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El Oso Is Grizzly In Goal But A Teddy Otherwise

Seattle Times Sports Staff

JUAN DE LA O, the best goalkeeper in the CISL the past two years, leads the Seattle SeaDogs against the Houston Hotshots in the league finals.

"El Oso" is in his natural habitat.

A step left, then two steps right. Hands low. Eyes focused. He waits, then pounces. Diving to his left, he slaps the ball harmlessly to the turf.

"Next time, maybe!" yells a teammate.

El Oso - Spanish for the Bear - is the nickname of SeaDog goalkeeper Juan De La O, a native of Mexico.

He is the best at his position in the Continental Indoor Soccer League, leading in goals-against average the past two seasons, including 4.45 this season. In this marathon season, De La O has been the opponents' finish line.

"Two more (victories), that's all we want," De La O said. "That's the whole season, only two games."

Two victories over the Houston Hotshots, and the SeaDogs are CISL champions. They have won all four of their playoff games and host Game 1 of the best-of-three CISL finals tomorrow at 7:05 p.m. Game 2 is Sunday in Houston. A third game, if necessary, would be Sunday, Oct. 26, at KeyArena.

De La O was nicknamed El Oso because of his dark complexion and "the hair," he said, pointing to his chest.

He is a grizzly to foes, and a teddy to those who know him.

"He's a professional and takes care of himself," SeaDog captain and defender John Purtteman said. "Really, he's the kind of guy you'd want your daughter to meet. He's quiet and laid back. And pretty serious."

Especially when it comes to his natural habitat - keeping the goal clear.

"Oh, yes, it is my job and I love this position," De La O said.

De La O played in the indoor Mexican League, and for the CISL's Mexico Toros in 1995, recording the second-best goals-against average. When the Toros disbanded, he was drafted by the SeaDogs in 1996. He said the CISL differs vastly from the Mexican League because of its larger fields and arenas.

While setting nine team records and twice leading the league in goals-against average please him, his most cherished moment was shutting out Sacramento 6-0 on Aug. 17. It was only the second shutout in the CISL's five-year history.

"To get that was always a dream, and I thank God," he said, throwing his arms skyward. "We had looked for a shutout since last year, and to get it was incredible."

The indoor game is much more difficult for a goalie than outdoor, De La O said.

"You have shots at different angles and different distances," he said. "You have the walls; there's always people shooting. Each ball is different, it seems."

De La O might play for the Philadelphia Kixx of the National Professional Soccer League this winter. He also looks forward to rejoining his family in Mexico City. But first there is unfinished business in Seattle.

Despite crushing the Hotshots 9-2, Seattle's most lopsided victory this season, De La O and Purtteman expect a difficult series against last year's league runner-up.

"That plus us beating them so easy, they've got to use that for motivation," Purtteman said.

Houston midfielder Paul Dougherty, the league MVP, led the CISL with 92 points.

But Purtteman said the SeaDogs, who finished with the best record in the CISL (21-7), are confident, and their last line of defense is the best in the league.

"He's playing at the top of his game," Purtteman said of De La O. "He's got great tools.

"In the indoor game, you know there are going to be goals. You let a soft one in, you have to forget about it. He's hard as nails when it comes to that. . . . But I've never seen him angry. If he is a bear, it's the nicer, cuddly side."

Don't tell that to the opposition.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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