Commitment first in return of Blast renamed franchise opens at home tonight

October 24, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

The Blast, to a man, cannot be accused of taking a conservative approach to its indoor soccer season, which opens tonight with the club playing host to the Harrisburg Heat at the Baltimore Arena (7: 35).

Successor to the Spirit, which exited the National Professional Soccer Leagueingloriously last season after much early success, the Blast, on paper, does not appear to have the numbers to be a serious contender in the improved league.

Almost half the 17-man squad consists of holdovers from the often woeful, cellar-dwelling, 12-28 Spirit. Several other players are moving up from the Baltimore Bays, who, although fabulously successful, competed in a lower classification of play, the part-time United States Indoor Soccer League. Two or three others played kickball only informally.

Meanwhile, as first-time NPSL coach Kevin Healey points out: "The league definitely will be stronger due to the breakup of the CISL. There's a lot of good players coming over. One thing I do know is we'll be stronger than the team that was here last year."

Brave words or fact?

For openers, a couple of the holdover players are not Bo Vuckovic and Sasa Zoric, who were 1-2 in scoring here last season. The former racked up a 148 points in 32 games, a flashy 4.6 points-per-game average before being sold to Kansas City while the sale of the franchise from Bill Stealey to Ed Hale was being negotiated.

It would have been sporting if the Blast had gotten a player in return, but the team isn't sweating it. Same thing with Zoric. He was on loan to play outdoors with Hershey in the "A" League during the summer, but fled the team for Yugoslavia after a couple of games and hasn't been heard from since.

From the outset, however, the Blast's approach has been, if you want to play with us, fine; if not, adios. "Putting a team together is tough enough," says Hale, "we can't waste our time chasing after guys who aren't committed."

"You're never sure how good you are until after going around the league once, but we plan on contending," says Healey. "By that I mean finishing as high as we can during the regular season, challenging Philadelphia and Harrisburg in our division, then doing a good job in the playoffs. You can't put all your eggs in one basket, meaning the regular season, because everyone knows so much depends on postseason play. That's pretty much how you're judged."

The coach continued: "Our keys, as far as offense is concerned, will probably be Danny Kelly and Tarik Walker. Signing Kelly was a heck of a move for us. And Walker [received in a trade from Milwaukee] gives us a very good target man up front."

Kelly is a bona fide star, having turned in three 100-point seasons while playing five seasons in Harrisburg. Walker formerly was a mainstay with the always-potent Milwaukee Wave and the CISL champion Las Vegas Dust Devils.

"Joining Walker down low because they hold [control] the ball so well will be Brad Smith and, when he's ready, Pato. Something that's going to make us less predictable than in the past is the midfielders and defenders we have.

"Jason Dieter was a forward and midfielder starting out before moving back and he and Lance Johnson are being encouraged to move up [from defense] when the opportunity presents itself. We've got guys in the midfield, Doug Neely and Barry Stitz among others, who can cover when a defenseman steps up on the play."

The Blast appears set in goal with Khalil Azmi, the Moroccan World Cupper who was often sensational as a rookie despite being new to the indoor game. "He's a great pro. No one works harder. The year's experience can only help him," says Healey.

Surprisingly, a poll of the league's 13 coaches finds them picking the Blast to finish second in the NPSL's East Division behind Philadelphia and ahead of the Heat. Surprising because although Harrisburg lost Kelly, it went out and grabbed Gino DiFlorio in the dispersal draft of the folded Cincinnati Silverbacks players. DiFlorio scored 177 points last season.

NOTES: A crowd in excess of 9,000 is expected tonight as the Blast returns after its six-year sabbatical. The NPSL coaches' poll has Milwaukee repeating as league champ. Four games open the NPSL's 15th season tonight, the most seasons ever for a pro indoor circuit.

Blast opener

Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: Baltimore Arena

When: Tonight, 7: 35

% Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)

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