Blast fizzles at end, 19-18 Facing 18-9 deficit, Heat rallies, ruins hosts' season opener

October 25, 1998|By Lowell Sunderland | Lowell Sunderland,SUN STAFF

If the Blast exemplified the 1980s with rock 'n' roll soccer, it began a new era last night that might be best described as rap 'n' roll ball.

Unfortunately for local fans, 9,056 of them -- the largest Baltimore opening-night crowd in the National Professional Soccer League the Harrisburg Heat came from way back in the scoring column to edge the Blast, 19-18, at Baltimore Arena.

"I'm disappointed," said Blast coach Kevin Healey, making his NPSL debut after two national championships in the lower I-League with the Maryland Bays. "We've set high standards for the team, and we want to win. At times we looked good, but you just can't give up that kind of lead."

Healey's boss, owner Edwin Hale, also was down immediately after the game but said that "every ingredient was positive for us, except we didn't close it -- we didn't win it. If we had won this, I think the word would have proliferated around Baltimore dramatically."

At Healey's behest, the Blast declared its opening game to be CYO Night, parading out several hundred youth players from the extensive Catholic sports organization that, for decades, has cranked out good players for area high schools, colleges and, even, an occasional pro.

For months, Hale has been trumpeting the slogan, "The Blast is )) back," and, from an entertainment standpoint, the team hit some right chords with a crowd that even occupied parts of the Arena's upper deck, seats that the old Spirit rarely tried to sell.

The Arena's blaring music, which included the staples of soccer everywhere from Queen and the late Freddie Mercury, was updated to include he Beastie Boys and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Athletically, the Blast resembled in at least one way the Spirit team that fell hard into a losing season both on the field and at the gate a year ago. That is, the Blast got on top early but faded into a frustrating loss.

Harrisburg led only twice, after the opening goal and at the final whistle. Despite Baltimore's fast start, the Heat scored the game's last five goals -- all two-pointers.

Before that, however, though outshot 36-29, the home team dictated play for several long stretches and got some spectacular goalkeeping from former Moroccan World Cup player Khalil Azmi, a Spirit keeper last season who played this summer with the A-League's Hershey Wildcats.

Azmi, however, also yielded the ugly -- and winning -- two-point goal when Harrisburg's Jim Hesch stole the ball from him at the top of the penalty arc and chipped into the net above the desperately backpedaling keeper at 7: 57 of the final quarter.

"Give them credit for pressuring the ball," Healey said. "But we made a mistake. Maybe we got just a little too cute. It was just a mistake on our part."

With three minutes left, Azmi suffered what was initially diagnosed as a sprained right shoulder after teammate Ronnie Simmons inadvertently slid hard into him during a scramble to clear the ball.

After a 2-2 first quarter that both teams played rather tentatively, the Blast put together especially strong second and third periods, except for the last few minutes of each, ringing up 16 of its 18 points but not being strong enough defensively to put the game out of reach.

With three minutes to go in the third period, the home side had built an 18-9 lead, only to see the Heat nail two goals in 22 seconds to pull within 18-13 as the final quarter began.

"It seemed like a lot of weird shots," Healey said, "scrapping goals inside the box, head balls, little flares."

The Heat finished its Baltimore visit with six fourth-quarter points, holding the Blast scoreless for the game's last 18 minutes despite several near-misses.

The Blast was led in scoring by Simmons, who had two goals for five points, and Derrick Marcano, who had a pair of two-pointers. Other Blast scorers were Tarik Walker, Danny Kelly, Shane Dougherty, Brad Smith and Barry Stitz.

Harrisburg spread its scoring around, getting goals from eight players, with Mark Pulisic being the only to hit twice.

Baltimore's attack got a strong boost from newcomer Kelly, who left the Heat for Charm City after seven years in Harrisburg. He seemed to be everywhere, getting an assist to go with his goal, plus three shots and five blocks.

Doug Neely also played well on attack for the Blast, returning to his old team from surfing in California. His intelligent, experienced work along the left baseboard set up two Blast goals.

Pub date10/25/98

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