Fair or not, Blast likes having at Crunch here

Win tonight would put pressure on '99 titlist

April 14, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

For tonight's 7: 35 game against the defending champion Cleveland Crunch at Baltimore Arena, the Blast is on the other end of the obstacle it faced last week.

Now the Blast is the lower seed and, therefore, was awarded the opportunity to start the best-of-three series in the National Professional Soccer League's American Conference finals at home in front of thousands of its fans.

"It is like us last week, when we had to start out in Philly," Blast captain Lance Johnson. "I don't think it's fair for the higher seed to have to start out on the road, but we'll take it. I think it definitely gives the lower seed the advantage. I don't like it [in principle], but right now, I like it."

That was the basic sentiment from the Blast players and coaches as they prepared for the opener before traveling to Cleveland for Game 2 on Sunday and, if necessary, Game 3 on Tuesday.

A win for the Blast will pressure the Crunch to not only defend its home field but also beat the Blast back-to-back. The Blast has not lost back-to-back games since mid-December, the tail end of a four-game skid.

So starting at home could not have worked out better for the Blast, which struggled with Cleveland in the regular season, dropping four of five games.

"It is important for us to win this game," Blast coach Kevin Healey said. "If we win this game, then we put all the pressure on them. We go into that next game in Cleveland with everything to win and nothing to lose.

"But either way, we've won games on the road, too. There are three events, and we have to win two of them."

The overriding problem in those regular-season losses was a lack of execution for extended stretches.

One such stretch lasted virtually the entire fourth quarter the last time the teams met in Baltimore. The Crunch, led by forward Hector Marinaro, scored the last nine points in overcoming the Blast's final period-opening lead and winning, 17-13.

The Blast fell behind 13-2 in the first half of the next, and final, regular-season game in Cleveland before losing 13-8.

In the team's first meeting this season, the Blast fell behind 11-2 in the first half.

"You have to look back at the games we've lost," Johnson said. "When we've gone there, we've dug a hole for ourselves defensively, yelled at the refs, and got down on each other a little bit. If we stay away from that, we'll be fine.

"We know the things that made us self-destruct. That is basically what we did -- we self-destructed and beat ourselves. We know the adjustments we have to make."

One would be to limit the number of free kicks deep in the defensive zone from Marinaro and fellow star forward Zoran Karic. Karic leads all players with 17 playoff points, and Marinaro gave the Blast problems in the last couple of regular-season games.

"Free kicks are going to be a big thing," Blast goalkeeper Scott Hileman said. "We're just going to try [to] limit our fouls down there. You kind of keep that in mind when you play a team like Cleveland."

Both teams enter this game following first-round sweeps. Overall, the Crunch has won 10 of its last 12 games, and with its solid wins over Philadelphia, the Blast also seems to be peaking.

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