During the long, hot summer months, Kenny Cooper studied game films, training routines, game strategy and players' work habits in an attempt "to find that little bit of an edge," he said, that could help the Baltimore Blast win a second Major Soccer League championship.
The 11th-year Blast coach said that this season he will substitute more freely -- using a three-line rotation that he hopes will keep his players fresher and prevent injuries.
A three-line rotation has forwards and midfielders playing two minutes and sitting four, instead of playing two minutes and sitting two. Most MSL teams use a two-line rotation.
But the key to the Blast's chances of supplanting the six-time champion San Diego Sockers at the top seems to be how much of an impact Dale Mitchell can make.
Mitchell, who is sixth on the all-time MSL scoring list, comes to Baltimore from the Kansas City Comets with a reputation for getting goals in bunches and in crucial situations.
A striker, he beat Baltimore with sudden-death goals four times last season, twice in the regular season and twice in the playoffs.
"I cringed every time Dale got the ball," said Cooper. "That's why I'm glad to see him in a Blast uniform. I'll be able to sleep better at night. The moment he walked into training camp, he made an impact on our team. His presence and character are a tremendous boost to our team."
But will it be enough to put the Blast, which has lost the championship series the past two years to the Sockers, over the top?
"We didn't bring Dale Mitchell in to be the savior," Cooper said. "You win as a team and lose as a team. We just want to get off to a fast start, then develop some consistency and figure out a way to win the playoffs."
Cooper admits, however, that having Mitchell around could make winning easier.
"Dale Mitchell has been one of the league's tremendous goal scorers. He has quick feet and, like Dom [Domenic Mobilio], he needs only half a chance to score goals," he said.
Cooper says Mitchell, 32, is "at the peak of his career. It's a perfect time for him to be here."
Mitchell would make no predictions about Baltimore's title chances.
"I'll just go out and play like I always have and hope that will be good enough," he said. "I've always scored goals everywhere I've played, and I hope to do it here. It seems like a good group of players here, and everyone gets along OK."
When it was mentioned that the Blast needed to win only three more games overall to beat San Diego for the championship in 1989 (the Sockers won Game 7) and 1990 (the Sockers won Game 6), Mitchell smiled.
"Maybe I'll just wait and show up for those games," he said.
Veteran Blast defender Bruce Savage said: "I'm just glad to have Dale here. He's going to help us score goals, and that's the bottom line."
Mitchell, Mobilio and Tim Wittman combined to score 112 goals last season. None of them played in a preseason game, and the Blast went 0-4. Mitchell and Mobilio arrived in training camp Monday after finishing outdoor play with the Vancouver 86ers, and Wittman has missed preseason training with a degenerative disk problem.
"When you have Mitchell, Mobilio and Wittman and add Richard Chinapoo, Billy Ronson and Mike Stankovic to them, you have a well-rounded offense," said Cooper. "People always talk about our defense, but it's a little-known fact that we led the league last year in goals scored ."
Cooper has brought in three draft choices who have speed and scoring ability.
First-round choice Chris Haywood from Old Dominion, second-round pick Dominic Feltham from Maryland and fourth-round selection Chris Simon from James Madison have been impressive in preseason practice and games.