Kelly's in position to aid Blast

Switch from midfielder to defenseman helps team shore up its biggest need

Soccer

January 23, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Blast coach Tim Wittman needed another defenseman, and when he looked at his roster late last summer, it was apparent to him that midfielder Danny Kelly was the answer.

The Blast had lost three defensive stalwarts. Jason Dieter, who is now the team's assistant coach; Lance Johnson, who retired; and Sean Bowers, the Major Indoor Soccer League's Defender of the Year, who was traded to San Diego.

As outsiders assessed the team for the coming season, they came to the conclusion that the Blast's defense would be its weakest link. Wittman smiles at the memory.

"I really wasn't worried," said Wittman, who had served as assistant coach last season before taking the head coaching job during the summer. "I never doubted our defense. It's still early, but I was never afraid for our defense. All our defenders are good."

But there was a hole, someone had to move, and when Wittman looked at Kelly, a 12-year MISL veteran who was brilliant at his midfield position, he saw a player with good vision on the field, toughness, good natural instincts and the respect of his fellow players, making it possible for him to give direction to his teammates.

All those qualities that made Kelly so successful at midfield, Wittman reasoned, were the same assets that would make him invaluable in the back.

"A lot of people are vocal, but he can play," Wittman said. "I know people who can yell all day, and people just wish they'd shut up. But other players have great respect for Danny. I thought he was the best man for the position, and I think he has proven to be even better at the position than Sean Bowers."

And when Wittman was making his decision, he didn't even stop to think whether Kelly would agree. He simply reasoned Kelly was a player from the old school and would do whatever was best for his team.

"I'd played midfield all my life," Kelly, 34, said after a recent practice. "But I don't define myself by position. I'm a soccer player. I don't mind where I play as long as I play.

"Timmy asked me to make the move, and I said OK."

Now part of a three-man rotation at the back, with Billy Nelson and Wendell Regis, the move may even lengthen his career, as it cuts down on the wear and tear his body has to withstand. Depending on how the game plays out, Kelly is paired with Neil Gilbert, Dewan Bader or Richie Daughtridge.

"We've turned out to be one of the best defensive teams in the league," said Gilbert. "Moving Danny to the back means we have more skill back there than we had before. And when you're playing with a really good player like Danny, the game becomes almost easy. Even in those first couple of games we played with him in the back, I thought he was the best player on the team. He has become one of the keys to our solid play."

All of them are helped by Wittman's team defense philosophy that has seen forwards and other midfielders give up offensive scoring chances to drop back and help protect their own net.

"I was sorry to see our veteran defenders go," said Kelly of Johnson, Dieter and Bowers. "But there was still a job to do, and we have a good core of players who just want to win games - however we have to do it. All of us are in the back at some point. Even the forwards wind up at the back."

Using a blend of older and younger players, the Blast has been a defensive force at times. The Blast, 15-5, has allowed just 96 goals while charging to the top of its division.

"Everyone does his job pretty well, and that gives our team confidence," said Kelly. "And with our goalie [Scott Hileman] behind us to feed off of, we're doing fine."

Kelly has handled the position with ease. He has blocked 48 shots, sixth best on the team, and still managed to go forward for nine assists and seven goals, including his second game-winner of the season last Sunday in an 8-5 victory over Monterrey.

Bader, another of Kelly's teammates who has watched and played with and against him for eight years, said it was no surprise to him that Kelly has made a smooth transition.

"He's always been one of the best two-way players in the MISL," said Bader.

Blast tonight

Matchup: Monterrey Fury (4-13) vs. Blast (15-5)

Site: 1st Mariner Arena

Time: 7:35

Radio: WCBM (680 AM)

Outlook: The Blast has produced its second six-game winning streak of the season and will be looking to stretch it to seven against the Fury. The two teams met Sunday, with the Blast beating the home-standing Fury, 8-5. Against the Fury, the Blast is facing a team with the second-worst offense in the Major Indoor Soccer League, managing to score just 79 goals. The Blast, meanwhile, is the highest-scoring team with 132 goals, including a league-high 22 goals on the power play.

- Sandra McKee

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