Around 4 a.m. yesterday, Blast coach Kenny Cooper made a number of decisions in a Kansas City hotel room that turned into gold at the Arena last night, with a 6-4 victory over the Kansas City Comets.
Dawn was still several hours away yesterday, when Cooper looked at his roster with new awareness. Hours earlier his team had dropped an embarrassing 10-4 decision to the Comets in Kemper Arena. The Blast was 10-10, looking at another game with the Eastern Division leaders here last night and an equally trying encounter with Wichita tomorrow (8:35 p.m., WCA0-AM 600).
The last thing his team needed was a trip to Wichita, with a sub-par .500 record, and the Wings (9-10) poised to take over second place.
"We have the best goalkeeper in the league, the best defender in the league, but we aren't going to win because of it," he said. "We have to win as a team."
Last night, Cooper moved midfielders Mark Mettrick and Joe Barger to the back, to make goalkeeper Scott Manning more comfortable. He put longtime defenders Mike Stankovic and Richard Chinapoo in midfield, to relieve the pressure on them and to give the Comets something to think about in terms of long-range, heavy hitters.
And he decided to move Rusty Troy from midfield to target man, a change that meant he would have to use three lines to get Dale Mitchell and Domenic Mobilio -- his other two target men -- all into the action.
"We're 20 games into this season," said Cooper. "In 1983-84, with Stan Stamenkovic, it took us 22 games to play [well] with Stan. I told the guys before this game that we tried this line and that line, that we tried a defensive runner, but in the end he had to adjust to us.
"Now we have Dale and, while we've tried not to cater to him, we have tried everything we could to make it work by adapting to him. Well, no more. He'll have to adapt to us. We've got a proven system here, a successful system and he'll have to fit in. Besides, I owe it to Rusty to let him play his natural position, because he has worked hard and done everything I've asked."
Last night, Mitchell found himself playing on all three lines.
Cooper's three target men all scored: Troy got a hat trick, Mobilio scored the tying goal in the third quarter and Mitchell notched the winning goal, while demonstrating his skillful touch. With 8:56 to go, he got a ball from Bruce Savage and lofted it over falling Kansas City goalkeeper Mike Dowler and another defender, for perfect placement in the back of the net.
And Manning had a superlative night, with 23 saves on 36 shots, and he scored his fourth career goal with 50 seconds left to put the game out of Kansas City's reach.
"The Blast came out with a different attitude in this game," said former Blast and now Comets midfielder Carl Valentine, who scored K.C.'s first goal. "They were determined to win. And Rusty played great. He played everything simple. He held the ball up when he needed to to get position and that's how he scored all three times. He finished well."
Troy's performance on the third line helped to take some of the pressure off Mobilio and Mitchell, but the third-year player was somewhat self-effacing after the game.
"It was just something that needed to happen," Troy said of the team's performance. "I knew things would turn eventually. I just tried to put every shot on goal."
The Blast's performance was a complete turnaround from what it had shown in the previous two games, a 5-4 loss here to San Diego last Saturday and Wednesday's 10-4 loss at Kansas City.
Saturday, the Blast could have taken sole possession of first place in the East and gone three games over .500.
Wednesday, it could have tied K.C. for first, and been two games over.
Last night, with 2,098 braving the winter weather, the team finally rose to the occasion.
* BLAST BITS: Troy's hat trick was the third of his career and his first since Nov. 27, 1988 . . . K.C.'s Jan Goossens turned in a three-assist performance that gives him 400 career points with the Comets . . . Blast midfielder Joe Barger was tagged with a yellow card in the fourth quarter, following his second two-minute penalty . . . K.C.'s goals were scored by Valentine, Paul Peschisolido, Tom Kain and Doug McLagan . . . Blast rookies Chris Haywood and Chris Simon each contributed an assist.
* AROUND THE MSL: Paul Dougherty, Fim Gabarra and Waad Hirmez each scored two goals last night to lead San Diego to an 8-4 road victory over the Tacoma Stars.
Tacoma entered the game with the MSL's best record at 12-7, but left with a two-game losing streak as the Stars' Western Division lead was trimmed to one game over St. Louis, which beat Dallas, 6-5, last night. The Sockers are within 1 1/2 games of the Stars.