Just about everyone in the Major Soccer League -- including the game officials -- knows the Blast is trying to return to the good old days of the early 1980s. In those days, no one pushed Baltimore around. No team had any doubts about what it would face when it met the Blast.
It was rock 'em, sock 'em soccer. And it was a winner, producing three division titles and two second places in the first five years of the decade.
In those days, however, the defense wasn't always guilt-free. And in those days, the Blast knew when to take a penalty to make it count.
"I think, until the refs realize that we are playing fair and square soccer while playing very tough and physical defense, we are going to pay a penalty, a little bit," said Blast defender Mike Stankovic, who found himself in the penalty box twice Saturday night in the season-opening 7-3 loss to Dallas.
"Besides me, we have other big, strong guys like [Doug] Neely, [Iain] Fraser and Waad [Hirmez], who are not going to back off. And we shouldn't back off, just because we are afraid of getting a penalty."
Against Dallas Saturday, Stankovic was whistled for tripping and holding. Neely got two minutes for holding. Fraser got two minutes for charging. Midfielder Rod Castro was nailed for tripping.
The Blast's call for rugged defense seems to have sent a red flag signal to the refs. When it was over, the team was called for five penalties, while Dallas, recognized as having skillful forwards in Tatu, Jan Goossens and David Doyle, had none.
"Every team has someone it can go to when it wants a foul," said Blast coach Kenny Cooper. "And those guys know who to get close to to get the call. Mike, for instance, is a marked man. He is never given the benefit of the doubt. A player with the ball gets near him and the refs can't wait to get the whistle in their mouths."
To ease the situation, Cooper plans to move Stankovic from defense to midfield in Friday's game in Wichita.
"It will take him out of the defensive area, and put him in another area where he will be less likely to get in a foul situation," Cooper said.
In the old days, the Blast was synonymous with bone-crunching defense. It led the league in penalties in 1981-82, rolling up 121 for 245 penalty minutes. In 1982-83 there were 137 penalties, just three calls short of leading the league, for 277 minutes. For five years straight the Blast was never lower than fourth on the bad-boy list. And Stankovic was leader of the pack.
He is the MSL's penalty king with 365 minutes in his 11-year career.
At the beginning of the 1985-86 season the league imposed what then Cleveland owner Bart Wolstein referred to as "The Blast Rule," otherwise known as the Sixth Foul Rule, which assessed a two-minute penalty to any team rolling up six personal fouls in one quarter.
These days, the foul rule has been modified: If a player picks up four fouls in a half, he sits out for two minutes. If a player gets three penalties in a game, he is out for the rest of the game.
Stankovic is the only player on this team who played then and now. But many of the officials in the league are the same, such as Herb Silva and Gino D'Ippolito, who officiated Saturday's game. And those refs, like Stankovic and Cooper, have no trouble recalling the past.
"We've got to realize that while we have physically strong guys with great skill, we don't need to get into unnecessary roughhouse tactics that can be misinterpreted by the refs," said Cooper.
The Paul Wright grievance hearing over disputed salary terms ended yesterday. Arbitrator George Nicolau was to make a ruling today . . . Midfielder Rod Castro (knee) is doubtful for Friday's game in Wichita . . . Defender Emil Dragicevic (ankle, calf) probably will play.