They've been struggling against each other for a decade now: the perennial champion San Diego Sockers and the Blast, the team that most often has tried to oust them from their throne.
They have hurled insults at one another and often worked as hard off the field as on to undermine each other's confidence. And, always, since their first meeting in the Major Soccer League championship series in the 1982-83 season, the Sockers have had their way.
"I figure I'm doing [them] a favor," Sockers coach Ron Newman said yesterday. "The longer we can hold out from them beating us, the better they'll feel when they finally do beat us."
Four times they've met for the title. Four times San Diego has won.
Tonight, they'll meet in the playoffs for the fifth time. But, this time, it is the best-of-seven semifinals. No one is sure what effect that change may have on the outcome.
"Getting ready for the playoffs has always meant thinking about San Diego," said San Diego midfielder and Baltimore native Tim Wittman, who played the previous nine seasons with Baltimore. "With the Blast, it was always: 'We've got to beat San Diego. We've got to beat San Diego.' It certainly isn't like that here.
"There is some urgency. We know we have to win, but it would be the same urgency no matter whom we played. In Baltimore, when we played San Diego, we always made it out to be bigger than it was. I don't know if they're doing that this time. I only know that here we haven't had any long talks or any long anything."
Blast coach Kenny Cooper said he is trying not to let this series get out of hand.
He would not be drawn into controversy. He agreed with Wittman, that in the past there was too much pressure to win. But said the emotions for this series are different.
"Everyone knows Ron Newman and his style," Cooper said. "The Sockers have always thrived on controversy, so we're not going to give them any and we're not going to listen to any. It's simply great to be here. They've got a good team, and they're all good-looking."
The Blast said that it is the underdog and that the pressure of being in this semifinal is no greater than the pressure it has withstood just to make it this far. As far as the Blast is concerned, it has been in playoff games for the past two weeks.
Certainly few thought the Blast would make it to postseason, though Wittman said, "I just had a feeling it was going to happen." And, certainly, no one can dispute the Blast's underdog status.
The Sockers (26-14) are the MSL regular-season champion. They have the No. 1 defense, the No. 1 goalkeeper in Victor Nogueira and the No. 2 offense in the league. They also have the second-best home record (15-5), have the best road record (11-9) and are 5-1 vs. the Blast.
Yet, Wittman said he and his teammates aren't sure of anything.
"I wouldn't say we're real confident," Wittman said. "We've got good backs, but Baltimore has a good team that works hard and runs a lot. We've got to match their work rate, and we've got to make sure we don't continue to do what we've been doing of late -- and that's playing just one half. To beat the Blast, we've got to play four complete quarters."
And the Blast isn't counting itself out, either.
"We counter with great optimism, perseverance and the undying belief the players on this team have in one another," Cooper said. "We all know we'll need some luck and some miracles, but it can happen. I think we've all just got to believe that somewhere down the line, the Sockers can be beat -- and we've got to hold on to that belief."
Blast playoff schedule
(Best of seven)
Tonight -- at San Diego, 10:35
Friday -- at San Diego, 10:35 p.m.
Tuesday -- at Baltimore, 7:05 p.m.
April 16 -- at Baltimore, 7:05 p.m.
April 18 -- at Baltimore, 7:35 p.m.*
April 19 or 20 -- at San Diego, TBA*
April 21 -- at San Diego, 10:35 p.m.*
-- if necessary
Opponent: San Diego Sockers
Site: San Diego Sports Arena, 10:30
Radio: WCAO (600 AM)
Outlook: The Blast (19-21) and Sockers (26-14) play in Game 1 of best-of-seven semifinals. It is the fifth playoff meeting between the teams, and the first in the semifinals. The key questions: Will the Blast find a way to defend Paul Wright (50 goals, 27 assists)? Will Blast F Domenic Mobilio continue his streak of eight goals and three assists in four games? Who will win the goalkeeper matchup between San Diego's Victor Nogueira, Goalkeeper of the Year by virtue of his league-leading 4.60 goals-against average, and the Blast's Cris Vaccaro, third in the league at 5.38. To win, the Blast has to avoid anxiety, play as a unit and score on its chances. The Sockers have to take advantage of their speed, counterattack opportunities and not be complacent. The Blast expects Billy Ronson to be ready to play, but David Eise (ankle) is questionable. Ali Kazemaini (foot) and Doug Miller (ankle) are out. The Sockers will be without defender Ben Collins (knee).