Billy Ronson stared across the empty turf at Myers Pavilion one day recently and said: "Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one here."
Ronson just had watched a flock of new faces walk by him into the Baltimore Blast locker room, and suddenly he felt alone.
Gone were his longtime friend and teammate Tim Wittman, solid defender Bruce Savage and goalkeeper Scott Manning, whom Ronson often referred to as the best in the league.
Also, the death last summer of Blast defender Mike Reynolds has left a void unlikely to be filled.
Ronson, the Blast player with the longest continuous service, is starting his seventh season at 34. He even wondered out loud how long he would be playing for Baltimore.
But right now, Ronson, a gritty midfielder, is in the middle of coach Kenny Cooper's plans to unleash a defensive attack on Major Soccer League opponents this season.
That attack begins tonight at the Baltimore Arena at 7:35 against the Dallas Sidekicks.
And most of the attack will be composed of newcomers.
Iain Fraser, Waad Hirmez, Emil Dragicevic, Doug Neely, David Eise, Rod Castro, Joe Koziol and Cris Vaccaro played for other MSL teams last season.
And there are rookies Kevin Sloan, Doug Miller and Kris $l Kelderman.
Only Ronson, Domenic Mobilio, Rusty Troy, Mark Mettrick and player/coach Mike Stankovic return from last season's team that went 21-31 and missed the playoffs for the first time in the Blast's 11 seasons.
Owner Ed Hale and Cooper decided to dismantle that squad, even though 20 of the 31 losses were by one goal.
Cooper said that team was too soft on defense and got pushed around. He said it lacked character at times and had a difficult time focusing on the team's goals for the season.
The Blast coach even has said there might have been a little dissension on the 1990-91 team. He said some players -- though he wouldn't name them -- weren't team-oriented, and "things never fell into place last year."
"We're going forward with a bunch of guys who like to play together and are anxious to make a name for themselves," said Cooper. "Obviously, I would like to believe it's my kind of team. But I can't give any guarantees on how many games we're going to win."
Cooper did say this season's Blast players are in better condition than last season's and will be strong on depth and durability.
"I want teams to pay the price to beat us," said Cooper. "We're going to emphasize defense. Defenders like Fraser, Neely, Eise and Dragicevic aren't going to be pushed around. Other teams came into our small arena last year and loved playing here with vTC the larger goals. The bigger goals [7 feet 6 high by 14 feet wide instead of 6-6 by 12] hurt us because we emphasize defense. Guys were a threat to score from almost anywhere."
A lot of the Blast offense might have to be created by the defense, because only Mobilio, Ronson and Hirmez are proven scorers. Mobilio is the only player on the team to have scored 40 goals or more in two seasons.
NOTES: Arbitrator George Nicolau heard 1 hour, 45 minutes of testimony from Paul Wright and the MSL Players Association yesterday in the midfielder's grievance hearing against the Blast. Wright claims the Blast did not uphold his contract from the San Diego Sockers, after the Blast had placed him on the suspended list without pay. The suspension began when he did not report to training camp and did not come to town to make personal appearances when his contract began with Baltimore July 1.