Finishing step back only fitting for Blast

April 08, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

They had never seen so many injuries during a regular season. It started with Tim Wittman and Scott Manning and six months later it ended with Wittman and Angelo Panzetta. In between almost everyone missed a game or two because of injury.

They had never seen so many one-goal losses, 20 of them, a number worthy of the Guinness Book of Records, the last one coming Saturday, in a 6-5 loss at Cleveland.

They had never not started a season fast, never not gone on the roll that provides a little cushion for the dip in the road that invariably comes.

But yesterday, shortly after attending a picnic for season-ticket holders, the Blast experienced one, final unfamiliar indignity.

While sitting around television sets around the city, all the Blast could do was watch as Wichita beat St. Louis, 6-2, to make sure Baltimore would miss postseason play in the Major Soccer League for the first time in its 11-year history.

"It was a nightmare watching that game," said Blast midfielder Billy Ronson. "It was like watching fate. It shouldn't have gotten to this stage. We should have wrapped up our spot in the playoffs weeks ago."

"We've been playing our best ball of the season lately and I think if we had gotten in the playoffs, we could have done something," said forward Dale Mitchell, who shared team Most Valuable Player honors with Ronson. "But we had 52 games to prove we belonged in the playoffs and we didn't get it done. It's very disappointing for all of us in this franchise."

The Blast (21-31) has never been so disappointed. But Blast coach Kenny Cooper said there would be no over-reaction.

"At this point, I had planned to be getting us ready for a new season," Cooper said of his playoffs goal, which he refused to relinquish until all hope was gone. "There were signs that we were going to make it. But we didn't. And right now I think a handful of patience is worth a bushel of brains."

The Blast will have a team meeting tomorrow and then ownership and management will begin reviewing the season and the players, game by game.

"I'm sure players are concerned about their future," Cooper said. "We'll have to look real closely at our team and what we do will have to be done in a positive way."

When Cooper assesses his roster, however, there are obvious needs.

The Blast must find another first-class defender, a midfielder who can handle the ball and act as a playmaker in the style of Carl Valentine, and the perennial elusive need -- speed.

With Wittman and Panzetta sidelined much of this season, the Blast was once again an also-ran when it came to sprinting to cut off a counter attack and in transition going the other way.

"It's not going to be easy," said Cooper. "It's not like the old days. The salary cap forces limitations and, as we found out when we tried to make a couple trades this season, teams aren't interested."

No one, it seems, was interested in helping the Blast into the playoffs.

Cleveland held out its leading scorers Karic and Hector Marinaro, in its last two games -- one a 7-6 overtime loss at Wichita, which would have put the Blast in if the Crunch had won.

And St. Louis, yesterday, did not play its offensive weapons Preki and Thompson Usyian when the game was on the line.

The Blast had no problem with those coaching decisions, saying no one can expect another team to do for the Blast what the Blast couldn't do for itself.

But Cooper admitted there probably are a number of MSL clubs taking some pleasure in the Blast's absence from the postseason party.

"We've always been there," Cooper said. "For us not to make it, it's like the Lakers or Celtics not making it. For us not to be there, it's a surprise and a shock, but there will be some people around the league who get a little thrill from it."

It was left to the Blast to help itself, but what started so gloriously, turned out to be just another lost weekend.

Last Friday, the Blast held a one-game lead over Wichita, as it trusted the net to Hank Henry for 10 saves and a 9-4 victory over Dallas, in front of 11,445 fans at the Arena.

It was an amazing performance by both team and fans. For the Blast it meant the end of a seven-game losing streak. For the fans, it represented the largest crowd of the season.

"We went into Cleveland with a chance to control our destiny," said Cooper. "I thought we were going to win. The fans sent us off with great momentum and it was a must-win situation."

But half the season was filled with must wins unattained. In the end, the Blast's 20th one-goal loss was a fitting conclusion for a team that almost always seemed a step away from victory.

"For the last two years we had the best record, but all people remembered was how we didn't win the championship," said Cooper. "Maybe now some people will appreciate the fact that we got to the championship series. It's a funny thing. When you're up, there are people who will try to pull you down, and when you're down and had as much bad luck as we have, people tend to rally round. That happened for us this season. The crowds we've had have been tremendous."

Only the won-lost record wasn't.

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