Laughter filled 1st Mariner Arena yesterday as the Major Indoor Soccer League-champion Blast finished practice for tonight's home opener against the San Diego Sockers.
On the field, Sagu, the team's new goalie, whistled as Denison Cabral beat him cleanly with a huge shot to the far post.
"I love it here," said Sagu, who arrived via trade this fall, following the departure of the Dallas Sidekicks from league play. "Baltimore has the best forwards in the league and great defenders like [Danny] Kelly and [Adilson] De Lima from Brazil in the back to help me.
"I am looking forward to this game with San Diego."
It will be the Blast's second game of the season - and its second meeting with the Sockers - but the first at 1st Mariner Arena since the team clinched the 2003-04 championship last spring.
Tonight will be a celebration of that achievement, as well as the kickoff to the new season, in which the Blast will be trying to achieve a three-peat of league excellence.
Introductions will be at 7:15 p.m., about 15 minutes early so that the ring presentation ceremony will not delay the game unnecessarily. Kickoff is now scheduled for about 7:40.
"It's a distraction, to give out the rings," said Blast coach Tim Wittman, "but what am I going to do? Not have them given out? We just have to remember there is a game right after and settle down quickly. Last year, we got the rings and lost the game. I want them to remember that."
The Blast lost its season opener on the road in San Diego last week, 5-3, but Wittman said he was not worried about that.
"If we lost and didn't know why, then I'd be worried," he said. "But we gave up two power-play goals and one sixth-attacker. At even strength, we played well and we kept the ball in the back and had composure.
"I had [Scott] Schweitzer, De Lima, Billy Nelson and Danny Kelly in the back, and I was happy with that."
He was also happy with the play of goalie Brian Rowland, who started his first game for the Blast after spending last season on the bench behind the now-retired Scott Hileman.
Wittman said he hopes he can have a regular rotation between Rowland and Sagu throughout this season. And he hopes to have his team ready for tonight's rematch, with Sagu taking his turn in the net.
"We've been working on our special teams this week, and we need our top guys to hold the ball better," Wittman said. "But our conditioning was good and we matched their intensity."
In San Diego, the Sockers had much to play for - a new owner, 10,000 fans in the stands and a directive to win.
Tonight, the pressure will be on the other side of the ball. It's the Blast that is at home, expecting at least 8,000 fans, celebrating the achievements of last season and hoping to make a good impression on the home carpet.
Matchup: San Diego Sockers (1-0 overall, 0-0 Western Division) vs. Blast (0-1, 0-0 Eastern Divison)
Site: 1st Mariner Arena
Radio: WCBM (680 AM)
Outlook: The Blast will try to earn its first win tonight against the Sockers in its home opener. The Sockers beat Baltimore in San Diego last weekend to open the season. That 5-3 victory earned MISL weekly honors for Sockers goalie Victor Nogueira, who at age 45 earned his 452nd victory; defender Ryan Mack, who had two blocks and one assist, and forward Steve Butcher, who had two goals and one assist. The Blast is blending several new players into its familiar mix this season. Among them are D Scott Schweitzer, whom fans here loved to hate when he was with Cleveland; D Adilson De Lima, who is playing his first indoor season, and G Sagu, who arrived from Cleveland in a trade after having spent the last six years with Dallas. Sagu missed most of last season with a pelvic injury, but has passed his physical and is ready to go. He once earned Goalie of the Year honors while playing for the Sidekicks in the now-defunct World Indoor Soccer League and brings a career .779 save percentage into the net tonight. The Blast will be without MF David Bascome (knee), who is expected to return Oct. 29.
- Sandra McKee