It's only December, and there are 37 games to play.
But the Baltimore Blast players already are talking about a two-team race for the Major Soccer League Eastern Division championship.
"It's going to come down to one or two games between us and Kansas City again this year," said Blast forward Rusty Troy yesterday before the team left for tonight's 8:35 encounter with the Kansas City Comets at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.
"Kansas City is playing a rugged defensive-oriented game like we do, and that's what makes it tough to play against them. But Coops [Blast coach Kenny Cooper] isn't going to let us stay out of first place very long."
Troy and midfielder Billy Ronson already have started to do some scoreboard watching.
"What did Kansas City do tonight?" Troy and Ronson asked Saturday night after the Blast had beaten the Wichita Wings, 9-6, the Baltimore Arena.
The Comets had lost, 6-3, to the Dallas Sidekicks that night.
Kansas City (10-5) holds a two-game lead over the second-place Blast (8-7) entering tonight's game. That lead has come on the strength of two one-goal victories over Baltimore this season.
The scenario so far this season is just the opposite from last year, when Kansas City (30-22) spent the entire season chasing first-place Baltimore (32-20), before finishing two games back.
The third-place Wichita Wings (26-26) were six games off the pace, and the last-place Cleveland Crunch (20-32) were 12 games back.
Again this season, the Wings (6-10) and the Crunch (6-11) are struggling at the bottom of the standings, allowing Baltimore and Kansas City to engage in a war of their own at the top.
The Blast and Comets meet three times in the next 14 days and have six more games left this season.
But Baltimore players are calling tonight's game crucial.
"It's a very big game," said forward Domenic Mobilio. "They've beaten us twice and we can't go down, 3-0. We would be in a position of playing catch-up for a good while. Kansas City is strong and plays a disciplined style. We have to wear them down."
Said Blast midfielder David Vaudreuil: "There will be a playoff atmosphere for this game. I know there are a lot of games left but I can see this as the beginning of a run towards the playoffs for both teams. If Kansas City beats us for a third straight time, it will give them an important mind-set that they can handle us."
Six-time MSL All-Star defender Bruce Savage said: "It's a game we have to win. They're playing with a lot of confidence and they're at home."
For Blast forward Dale Mitchell, it will be his third game against Kansas City since being traded by the Comets to Baltimore Aug. 20 in a deal that sent Carl Valentine to K.C.
Mitchell said the emotions are over now.
"Carl's with the Comets now and I'm with the Blast," said Mitchell. "We have each played one game in front of our former fans. It's time to get on with playing soccer."
NOTES: Troy said the Blast attendance (average is 6,348 for nine games compared to last season's final average of 8,550 for 26 games) would be better this season "if we were in first place. The Blast fans are used to seeing us in first.
, Opponent: Kansas City Comets
Site: Kemper Arena, 8:35 p.m.
Radio: WCAO (600 AM)
Outlook: First-place Kansas City has lost four of its past five to allow the second-place Blast to climb back into the Major Soccer League Eastern Division race. The Comets are 2-0 against Baltimore this season, winning both games by one goal (7-6 in overtime at Kemper Arena and 6-5 in regulation at Baltimore Arena). K.C. will play without F David Doyle (broken tibia). D Kim Roentved (bruised right foot) and D Tom Kain (pulled right
hamstring) are probable. The Blast will play its fifth straight game without MF Mark Mettrick (groin strain). Baltimore is coming off a 5-3 loss Sunday to the Tacoma Stars.