Doug Neely doesn't look like a rough and tumble Blast defender. He has shoulder-length blond hair, and until he decided to shave it off yesterday, a goatee. He looks like a sun-loving surfer. In fact, that's exactly what he is when he's not playing indoor soccer.
"He's very different from the rest of the guys who have been on the Blast," assistant coach Mike Stankovic said before the team headed to Cleveland for tonight's game with the Crunch (8:05, WCAO-AM 600). "He is always so happy."
Nothing seems to get to Neely. Not even his teammates, who find his easygoing ways a perfect target for their needles.
"Mark [Mettrick] and I were telling him the other day that he is going to have to get a haircut before we go to England for the tournament next month," said Blast midfielder Billy Ronson. "We told him, if he kept his hair that long, soccer people wouldn't believe he played soccer, that they'd think he was a woman. He was totally unaffected. He just kept smiling. I think he'll think about a new hairband before he thinks about getting a new haircut."
Recently, Neely has developed an interest in bodybuilding, opening himself to more than one wisecrack about his slim, 5-foot-11, 160-pound physique. And when he fell at practice this week, suffering painful carpet burns on both knees, he exploded with only a three-letter word, "Wow!" Everyone broke up laughing.
"In most cases like that," said Mettrick, "guys are much more explicit with their vocabularies."
Neely is like the California sun, always shining. Shortly after he arrived here, his car was towed because of expired California tags. It didn't bother him. The impound lot charged $10 a day and it took Neely 10 days to get the necessary papers for the car sent from his California home.
Most people would be worried about the car's safety, the cost or how they'd get around town, but Neely never broke a sweat. "He reminds me of the guy from Crocodile Dundee," said Blast vice president Drew Forrester. "I think Doug could live in the Australian wilderness and have no problem."
Certainly he'd be happy along the Australian coast. When the Blast got Neely, they got a surfer in the bargain. Forrester left 30 messages on Neely's answering machine last summer before one of them finally reached him -- in Perth, Australia.
"I was in Bali surfing," said Neely, who started riding waves in 10th grade when he was disenchanted with the soccer program at his high school in Garden Grove, Calif. "The phones in Bali, well, they're nearly impossible. I didn't even know Kansas City had folded -- and at the time, I really didn't care."
In Bali he had met Australians Anthony Mylonas and Sue Vass, and while visiting them for a couple of weeks, he called home. "My mom told me I had a bunch of messages from Drew and that's when I called him back," Neely said.
Ronson, who has a healthy skepticism about most people, marvels at Neely. "Nobody could keep that disposition up every day if he wasn't genuinely happy," he said. "He comes to the games smiling and we hear him playing his music, in his own world. What kind of music? I have no idea. He has headphones on. We just hear a loud noise radiating from around his head."
When Neely heard Blast coach Kenny Cooper was trying to build a hard-nosed defense and wanted him to be part of it, he was flattered. "My first thought was, 'He wants me?' " said Neely. "Maybe he sees something I don't."
While Neely describes himself as a "pesky defender who tries to throw off the games of opposing forwards," Cooper sees him as an accomplished all-around defender. In fact, Cooper said Neely goes forward so well, he may use him at midfield on the smaller Baltimore Arena field.
Stankovic describes Neely as "very physical and aggressive" on the field.
"He might seem to have a laid-back California attitude," Ronson said. "But I don't think he has. He's a no-holds barred defender who goes at it with everything he's got. When we played against him, I think we didn't give him enough credit -- probably because of the hair. But seeing him every game, you find yourself saying, 'Cracky, he's a really good player.' And he's great to be around."
Neely is almost always happy, so when he erupted Saturday in a game against Dallas, his teammates were shocked. After being slammed into the boards by Beto and left in a heap on the carpet, Neely couldn't believe no foul had been called. He got up and stormed toward the ref, but was grabbed by teammate Iain Fraser and wrestled away.
"I try to just enjoy playing," Neely said. "But one of the goals is to win. I got upset and wanted to know what the ref was thinking when he didn't make a call -- and I wanted to know right then."
On the surface, it doesn't sound very laid back, but Neely said with a shrug, "I just lost it," he said, speculating it is something he has done a time or two while riding a wave in Bali.