As the Baltimore Blast struggles to reach .500, coach Kenny Cooper resembles a mad scientist searching for the right formula.
His latest experiment -- a third line made up of second-year midfielders Joey Barger and David Vaudreuil and rookie forward Chris Haywood -- will continue tonight when the Blast (3-4) meets the San Diego Sockers (3-5) at the San Diego Sports Arena at 10:35.
Cooper put together the young third line at halftime of Sunday night's 7-4 victory over the Wichita Wings at the Baltimore Arena.
The move produced almost instant results when Barger scored just 27 seconds into the third quarter to give the Blast a 3-2 lead.
Barger, a graduate of Fallston High and Loyola College, ran past Wichita defender Danny Pena, took a perfect pass from Haywood and drilled the ball at goalkeeper Kris Peat from 45 feet.
Barger's shot was so hard that Peat couldn't stop it even though he got both hands on it. The ball trickled out of Peat's hands and went into the goal.
The assist was the first point of Haywood's Major Soccer League career.
Cooper said he went to the young third line to "get everybody in the game and preserve our first two lines for a long season."
However, from Day One of training camp, the mix hasn't been right for Cooper.
Before the regular season, the Blast coach released veteran midfielder Freddie Thompson. But the blend still wasn't right, so Cooper told third-year defender Glenn Carbonara he didn't fit into the team's plans, and Carbonara was gone before opening day.
Then the team got off to a 2-3 start, losing two one-goal decisions to the Kansas City Comets with backup goaltender Scoop Stanisic in the net in place of the injured Scott Manning (sprained left ankle).
Something still was wrong, said Cooper.
According to Cooper, Stanisic had become vulnerable from long range and the Comets had picked up on it.
Stanisic was released, even though he had been touted all last season as an excellent backup goalkeeper.
Cooper said Stanisic "wasn't focused and wasn't vocal enough" and it was making his teammates "uneasy and on edge" after four games during two weeks when the team went 2-2.
Cooper has moved Mark Mettrick, a third-year defender, to midfield, and midfielders Richard Chinapoo and Mike Stankovic to defender.
"We're making progress," Cooper said yesterday. "It's my job as a coach to evaluate personnel, and I have to do it without any regard to personal feelings. Also, I can't be swayed by what the fans think. I have to win games, not popularity contests."
Cooper also said: "I've made it clear I don't like being under .500. This franchise was built on outstanding goalkeeping [Hank Henry has been signed as a backup to Manning] and tough defense, and that's the way it's going to be."
Manning worked out with the Blast Monday and Tuesday, but remained at home when the team flew to San Diego on Tuesday afternoon. Cooper said: "I don't want to rush Scott. He looked pretty good in practice, but practice is one thing, the game's another when you've been out three weeks. Hank's done well [1-1 in two games] for us."
&Opponent: San Diego Sockers
Site: San Diego Sports Arena, 10:35 p.m.
Radio: WCAO (600 AM)
Outlook: This is the first of two road games in three days for the Blast, which is seeking its first victory away from Baltimore Arena. Backup G Hank Henry (1-1) will start both games, as starter Scott Manning remains out with a sprained left ankle. MF Billy Ronson (5 goals, 15 assists) leads the team in scoring. San Diego's leading scorer, former Blast MF Paul Dougherty (9 goals, 2 assists), has a bruised left toe and is questionable for tonight's game, as is former Blast D Glenn Carbonara (strained left groin muscle). MF Branko Segota (stress fracture of right fibula) is out.