Coming to wire, Blast shows limp

Injuries are worrisome in stretch run, but Healey sees players giving extra


March 03, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

The stretch run has arrived, with a mere four games separating the five teams in the American Conference of the National Professional Soccer League.

Coming along with the first-place Blast, which, at 18-12, is a half-game in front of Philadelphia and Harrisburg, is a continued string of injuries.

Midfielder Danny Kelly, who has missed the past five games and a total of eight with a groin injury, will be out again for tonight's game against Cleveland and tomorrow's against Buffalo. Leading scorer Denison Cabral (separated shoulder) also is out for the weekend and Jeff Clarke (toe) may be ready for tomorrow's game if needed.

The Blast did get some good news, as defender Jason Dieter's knee injury in Tuesday's win against Philadelphia turned out to be just a bruise.

"It's a tough time for it to happen because it's the playoff stretch run," Blast coach Kevin Healey said. "But we use all our players and have them prepared. Nobody's going to get on the field who hasn't been on before at critical times, and we'll be relying on everybody on our roster."

The recent additions of veteran David Vaudreuil and rookie Guiliano Celenza were just what the doctor ordered, and Healey said the Blast will be that much better when everyone returns.

The Crunch comes in as healthy as it has been all season, and hungry, sitting in fourth place with a 15-14 mark that has it just 1 1/2 games in front of Buffalo (14-16) for the final playoff spot.

No team was more responsible for the five-game slide Baltimore just worked itself out of than the Crunch, which came from behind for a 17-13 win to start the Blast's spell on Feb. 9 and won again the next week.

Forward Hector Marinaro, a six-time league Most Valuable Player, was named the Offensive Player of the Month for February after posting 37 points in seven games in which the Crunch went 5-2.

If the playoffs started today, the two teams would meet in the opening round.

"We respect them," Healey said. "They have a lot of talent and need to get wins at this point in time, but we'll certainly be ready to play against them. It's not a team we have a great deal of love for."

The Washington Freedom, a charter member of the new Women's United Soccer Association, will make its first public appearance at tomorrow's 3 p.m. game against Buffalo.

U.S. national team star Mia Hamm and her new teammates will be on hand to sign autographs throughout the first half.

Freedom coach Jim Gabarra, a former NPSL player who also coached a number of the Blast players with the Washington Warthogs of the old Continental Indoor Soccer League, also will be in for the visit.

"We see our market as being a little bigger than some teams," Gabarra said. "We realize that we're not just D.C.; we're D.C., Baltimore, Annapolis, Virginia and Maryland, so we're trying to expose ourselves to as many people as possible.

"We started early with the Blast and have a good working relationship with them. We're getting some things out of it, and they are as well. It's the kind of thing you should be doing within the soccer community."

The Freedom, which will open the inaugural WUSA season against the Bay Area CyberRays on April 14 at RFK Stadium, had its first practice on Thursday.

The team's 21-game regular season - including 10 home games at RFK - will run through the middle of August. Individual tickets - ranging from $12 to $22 - will go on sale March 18 when the team hosts a Fan Fest at RFK.

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