Thanks to bank holiday, Johnson rejoins Blast

'03 retiree puts office job on hold for rest of season

Pro Soccer

March 14, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

In Blast coach Tim Wittman's mind, defender Lance Johnson, who will turn 34 later this month, retired too soon. So every time the coach saw Johnson at his desk in the 1st Mariner Bank offices in Canton this season, he'd ask, "When are you coming back to play?"

He did it so often that when Wittman seriously asked Johnson to return for the rest of this season, the man who has comfortably settled into being a commercial loan officer thought it was a joke.

But it was no joke. With just six games left in the regular season, Wittman found his team short-handed, with defensive injuries, delayed paperwork and suspensions piling up as it headed toward last Thursday's roster-freeze deadline.

He went after Johnson.

"It's crunch time, and I know exactly what I'm getting with Lance," Wittman said.

Once Johnson realized the offer was for real, the former team captain, who retired after helping the Blast win the Major Indoor Soccer League championship last spring, still needed time to think.

He finally said yes and signed for the rest of the season just before rosters were locked in.

To make roster room, general manager Kevin Healey suspended backup goalie Karim Moumban with pay. Moumban left the team in early February to be with his 6-year-old son, who was critically injured when he was hit by a car while chasing a soccer ball into the street at his home in Cameroon.

At the time, the boy was given a 10 percent chance of recovery. Details are slim, but Moumban has communicated with Healey that his son has been moved to a Paris hospital and that the player's return is unlikely this season.

The team is also unsure of when defenders Danny Kelly (foot) and Neil Gilbert (hamstring) will return and when Ibrahim Kante, who is awaiting a U.S. work visa, will be cleared to play. The team also will be without P.J. Wakefield (red-card suspension) today in Milwaukee against the Wave.

Johnson, who needs at least another week to get into playing shape, will not play today, either. But once he suits up, Wittman expects to have a strong, experienced defenseman with speed who will work to his limit and beyond every day.

Wittman sees the veteran playing whether or not others return.

"In two weeks, Lance could be starting," said Wittman. "There are no set jobs for anybody. If people can't get up and down the field, they'll sit. I've said that all year, but there has been a little give. Now, it's crunch time. The last thing I'm going to do is get beat with people who aren't in shape and don't work hard."

Asked if he had such players, he shrugged, "So far, so good."

Though his role has not been defined, Johnson sees himself, as "a Band-Aid," someone who can come in, do the job and give the injured the time they need for a full recovery. Though he said he's missed the game, he was not too eager to return.

"One reason I retired was I wanted to spend more time with my wife and daughter," said Johnson, who this weekend celebrated his daughter Brianna's eighth birthday. "And, things were going well at the bank. It was time to move on.

"But this came up. After clearing it with my wife, Janine, and with [bank officials] and finding all the pieces fit, I'm back for about six weeks. It's a chance to give back to a team that has given me so much."

Johnson, a 10-year Blast veteran, holds the team record for games played (367), blocked shots (484) and penalty minutes (194). He also is tied for ninth with Kelly with 285 points.

Blast assistant coach Jason Dieter, who also retired after last season, said Johnson is "going to fit in like he never left" and current team captain Tarik Walker is eager to see it happen.

"With guys limping and being injured, we're losing a little bit of speed in the back," said Walker. "Lance will give us a lot of speed. ... Coming into the season, no one knew how our defense would be. ... But now, heading into the playoffs, we'll be very strong."

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