Dale Mitchell made the Cleveland Crunch look foolish at times last night and lived up to his preseason billing as the impact player the Baltimore Blast needs to win the Major Soccer League championship.
Mitchell ran circles around a retreating Crunch defense on the way to four goals and one assist, leading the Blast to a 10-6 victory before a crowd of 4,370 at the Baltimore Arena.
He began his show in the second quarter with two goals to give Baltimore a 7-2 lead at halftime and completed it with two goals in the fourth quarter to hold off the rallying Crunch (1-2).
His most spectacular goal of the evening came at 12 minutes, 53 seconds of the fourth quarter, when he drilled a shot off the crossbar and followed it up with a head shot into the net, giving the Blast (2-2) a 9-5 cushion.
But Mitchell's most exciting play didn't result in a goal.
It came seven minutes into the third quarter and probably sent chills through Crunch defender Gregg Willin.
Mitchell was 35 feet in front of the net and dribbled the ball through Willin's legs and sent it bounding off the crossbar, much to the relief of Cleveland goalkeeper Otto Orf, who had come into the game at the start of the third quarter.
Orf replaced starter P.J. Johns, who didn't have one of his better nights. Johns was blistered for seven goals and made only five saves.
When Mitchell was asked about the move on Willin, he smiled and refused to gloat.
He seemed happier about the Blast reaching the .500 mark than his four goals.
"I have nothing to prove personally," he said. "I'm satisfied with my career. I had a lot of good years in Tacoma and Kansas City, but I've never won a championship. Now I have a chance to do that with a team that knows how to win. Baltimore has won one title, so they know what it's all about."
Mitchell (six goals, two assists in four games) said he is beginning to feel more comfortable each time he takes the floor.
"The more I play with these guys, the more I know what they're going to do and what they want me to do," he said. "I think playing in a smaller arena [180 feet long instead of the usual 200] than what I'm used to is really going to help me, and, of course, the bigger goals are a big help."
Before Mitchell shifted into high gear, surprising Billy Ronson continued his early-season tear with two goals and one assist.
Ronson has three goals and 10 assists for 13 points to put him in a second-place tie with Wichita Wings forward Dale Ervine (nine goals, four assists) among the top scorers in the MSL.
Only St. Louis Storm forward Preki (nine goals, six assists) has more points than Ronson.
"It's nice to be getting all this recognition," Ronson said, "but you know I'm not one to put a lot of stock in statistics. All I know is that I have to go out every game and do my job for the Blast or someone else will have my job. That's been my philosophy from Day One and it's worked."
Blast coach Kenny Cooper said, "Billy's work-rate in the midfield was a big reason for our halftime lead. Ronson, Rusty Troy, Mark Mettrick and Tim Wittman all played good defense with a lot of forechecking."
Cooper said that Mitchell's heroics were "proof what he can do for us overall."
"Dale's an unselfish player and epitomizes the word 'we' that I keep talking about when I talk about this team," said Cooper. "This guy is a great scorer but he thinks in terms of 'we' not 'I.' "
Richard Chinapoo joined in the Blast's strong offensive effort, scoring two goals and getting one assist. He has four goals and three assists this season.
Defender Bruce Savage (one goal, one assist) had a productive night offensively and Mike Reynolds (one goal, one assist) completed the well-rounded Blast attack.
The strong Baltimore showing ruined a four-goal, one-assist night for Cleveland's Hector Marinaro.