The No. 2-seeded Blast has been off for 13 days, practicing against each other, waiting for tonight's Major Indoor Soccer League semifinal against the Dallas Sidekicks.
As players left the field at 1st Mariner Arena yesterday after their final pre-game practice, their coach was taking nothing for granted.
"I've been over it, and I'll go over it again," said Blast coach Tim Wittman. "All I want them to do is play to their ability. The ability is here, and if we play to our ability, no one can beat us. But, if we don't, anyone can beat us."
And the Blast's opponent isn't just anyone.
The No. 4 Sidekicks have been a test for the Blast in each of their four games this season. Each team won its two home games, but every game was decided by one goal, and two games went to overtime. Each team scored a total of 19 goals.
"Milwaukee and Baltimore are clearly the best teams in the league," said Dallas coach Tatu. "But this is a one-shot deal. If they have a bad day, it could be a bad deal for them."
The No. 1 seed Milwaukee Wave, which also enjoyed a bye last week, faces No. 6 Kansas City tonight in the other semifinal in Milwaukee. Tonight's winners advance to the MISL's best-of-five final series.
"But Baltimore clearly showed last year, as the sixth seed, when they won all their games on the road, that they're a very good team," said Tatu. "And they've gotten better."
But Dallas has gotten better, too. With Tatu as coach, the Sidekicks won 12 more regular-season games than they did a year ago and made the playoffs. Last weekend, they came from behind to beat Cleveland, 7-4.
Dallas offers a blend of veteran and youthful players. They play a fast, end-to-end game, and they're difficult on free kicks. The Blast is a little more physical, likes to play with more control and is the league's strongest offensive team.
"Dallas is a good team that works hard, like we do," said Blast goalie Scott Hileman. "They've got five interchangeable guys. Their backs come forward a lot, and their forwards help on defense. It's a dangerous combination, when you're not playing teams with strict position players."
In net for Dallas will be D.J. Horvath, stepping in for the injured Sagu, who had compiled the second-best goals-against average in the league (4.34). Horvath, who had the league's worst goals-against average in the regular season (5.89) and second-worst won-lost record (11-14), is with his third team in two years. But since stepping into the starting lineup for Dallas in February, he has been much improved. Over the final 12 games, he went 7-5, allowing four or fewer goals in seven of those games.
"He's a good goalie," said Blast forward Chris Handsor. "He's very flamboyant and decent with his feet ... but we have a lot of weapons offensively. He has to be prepared for us too, and it's more difficult for him than it is for us."
Defender Danny Kelly said the Blast has to do all the little things right.
"We have to communicate and stay with Dallas' runners," said Kelly. "If you don't do it, you're not going to win. If you do, if you play solid defense and get five men behind the ball, you'll be in position to respond. If someone gets beat or makes a mistake, there will be another guy there to help out.
"If we play strong defensively, we'll be in the game with a strong chance to win in the fourth quarter."
Though there is no long-standing rivalry between the Blast and Dallas, Baltimore's offensive leader, Chile Farias (20 goals, 40 assists), said he is inspired.
"I want to get them out of the playoffs," he said. "So far, we have won nothing but our division. In this game, a one-game playoff, we have to put everything on the line. If we score first, then we will see what they can do. If they score first, we'll go at them. We have to leave everything on the field."
Matchup: Dallas Sidekicks (22-15) vs. Blast (25-11)
Site: 1st Mariner Arena
Radio: WCBM (680 AM)
Outlook: Tonight's Major Indoor Soccer League semifinal will be the first game for the Blast since earning the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye two weeks ago. Dallas, highly charged after coming from behind to beat Cleveland, a team it had lost to three times during the regular season, missed postseason play last year. Dallas hasn't won in Baltimore in two years but lost to the defending MISL champs by one goal twice this season. The Sidekicks are led by Martin Nash (27 goals, 16 assists). The Blast is led by Chile Farias (20, 40), Denison Cabral (32, 16) and Giuliano Celenza (33, 12).
Kansas City 8, Philadelphia 5 Dallas 7, Cleveland 4
Dallas at Blast, 7:35 p.m. K.C. at Milwaukee, 8:35 p.m.
(Best of five) April 23-May 9