Local flavor key to Blast's winning recipe

Success in territorial draft has drawn league's praise

Pro Soccer

February 21, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Milwaukee Wave coach Keith Tozer sat in his office one day this month reflecting on the ability of the Blast to pick needles out of haystacks.

It seems almost every year the Blast makes the most of its territorial draft picks.

"There are several teams that really take the draft seriously and [have] been able to draft local players who stick in the game," said Tozer. "But I think Kevin Healey is a wonderful judge of talent. The way they've handled the draft each year is a blueprint for other teams."

In MISL, where salaries are minimal and much of a club's revenue is generated by ticket sales, drafting local players who are already popular with fans is done out of necessity.

Every year before the regular draft begins, the league holds a one-round territorial draft. A team has territorial rights to a player either if he is a current state resident and played high school or youth soccer in the state, or if he played for a college in the state for two years.

It is no accident that Healey, the Blast's general manager, has made uncovering and tracking local talent a priority.

Tozer doesn't even have to take the time to pull out a Blast roster. He can recite the names of the Blast's local picks almost as quickly as Healey - Billy Nelson, Jason Dieter, Barry Stitz, Giuliano Celenza, P.J. Wakefield.

"Just look at them," Tozer said. "P.J. Wakefield has been an all-star [Celenza is this year], and [Wakefield] had a big championship series against us last year. They've accumulated a great amount of talent through the territorial draft, and they're a team that has put a lot of work into it."

In Baltimore, finding local talent has always been a priority. In the original edition of the MISL, then-coach Kenny Cooper signed Nick Mangione and a young player named Tim Wittman, now the team's head coach, right out of high school.

When the current team came along, Cooper continued the tradition, plucking Dieter and Stitz from the local scene in 1992 and Lance Johnson in 1993. Now Healey, a Baltimore native whose familiarity with the local scene dates to his own playing career at Calvert Hall and Loyola College, has turned it into something of an art form.

With the 2004 draft coming Friday in St. Louis as part of the All-Star weekend, he is at it again, assessing players - and keeping the possibilities close to his chest.

There are players known around the country, including college stars who were overlooked in the Major League Soccer draft and are highly regarded throughout the MISL. But local talent is harder to uncover if you're not in the arena. And Healey is happy to keep it that way.

"We're very happy with what we've been able to do," said Healey. "Take a couple years ago. People said we were heading toward being an old team, but through the draft we've been able to rejuvenate ourselves."

MISL commissioner Steve Ryan said there is a growing trend around the league to recognize the "incredible value" of acquiring a local star through the territorial draft.

"Just recently, we've been talking to an expansion team," Ryan said, "and I've used Baltimore as an example of the benefits of the draft."

Other teams, who sometimes find their local picks have little interest in the indoor game, must wonder how the Blast does it.

"You're looking for talent and ability, but you also want a player who wants to play indoor soccer," Healey said. "We do a complete evaluation."

Healey and his staff talk to the player, the player's coach, opposing coaches, youth coaches, family and friends. It helps that Healey has known some of these players, like Wakefield, Nelson and Celenza, since they were 9 years old.

"When you can draft a local player, it is easier for the player," Healey said. "He can, perhaps, live with his parents or have a connection for a job. And part of our success is the ability to have players here all year-round. We're able to do that more than most teams."

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