Blast's Millwood more than filling injury gap

He's new to indoor game, but team likes what it sees

Pro Soccer

December 17, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

There was 3:02 left in the second period last Friday when P.J. Wakefield saw rookie Machel Millwood running free out of the Blast's defensive zone and lofted the ball over the heads of the Milwaukee Wave's defenders to the Blast's streaking forward.

Millwood barely missed a step as he took control of the ball and sprinted toward the Milwaukee goal, arms and legs flying. He saw Wave goalie Dan Green, but kept his concentration on the ball, lifting it perfectly beyond the keeper and into the net for what at the time was a 3-0 Blast lead.

It was Millwood's third point in an eventual, 5-4 Blast victory. He celebrated the goal by cupping his ear in one hand while, with the other hand, encouraging the crowd at 1st Mariner Arena to roar.

It was a bold play by a young player with raw talent whom the team signed to help it through a rough patch of injury.

Coaches and general managers are often heard trying to make the best of bad situations. When, like the Blast, a team is overrun with injuries, they say how much stronger it will be later because of the experience young players are getting now.

In the case of Millwood, that approach looks to make perfect sense.

"I just signed him to another 15-day, five-game contract," said Blast general manager Kevin Healey. "We like what we see. He's producing while he's learning. That's an indication of what he'll be able to do when he knows the game, and I offered him a contract for the remainder of this season and next season, but he asked for a little more time."

Until this fall, Millwood had never played organized indoor soccer. He is an outdoor man, having grown up in Jamaica before moving to Maryland six years ago. He attended Parkdale High School in Riverdale and then Towson University, where he earned a degree in business and economics. Along the way, he played the outdoor game.

But the San Diego Sockers drafted him last spring, and the Blast acquired his rights and invited him to work out with it this fall.

"I was still in the area and it was something else to do," Millwood, 25, said about his decision to work with the team. "They said just come out and see how you like it. No pressure. I came just to play."

But then the Blast started having injury problems. Right now, four of its top-caliber players are sidelined with knee injuries. The team needed bodies.

Coach Tim Wittman, currently sidelined with what is thought to be kidney stone problems, was signed to play. So was forward Marcos Chantel, another outdoor player who has had a positive impact in the last three games, producing four goals and one assist.

And so was Millwood, who has four goals and two assists in his first five games.

"Millwood and Chantel give them speed up top," said Milwaukee coach Keith Tozer, whose Wave will face the Blast again tonight in Milwaukee. "That's something they haven't had this season and it frees up Wakefield and [David] Bascome and makes them a harder team to defense."

Healey doesn't disagree, adding that Millwood, with his speed, gives the team a breakaway threat and will become even more useful as he becomes more familiar with the indoor game.

"It's a lot more challenging game than I thought it would be," said Millwood. "And whenever I'm challenged, I try to conquer it. It's a lot different than I expected.

"The speed of the game is faster and the whole time you're on the field you're sprinting, 85 percent of the time."

He said his biggest problem at the moment is learning the rules and making sure it is a game he wants to play in the long term.

"I think I'll sign for a full season sometime in January," he said. "But I'm working on something in the outdoor game. I want to see how that works out and I want to make sure indoor is something I want to do because, while I don't know what destiny holds, I'd say it's a career decision."

Blast tonight

Matchup: Blast (4-7) vs. Milwaukee Wave (8-3)

Site: U.S. Cellular Arena, Milwaukee

Time: 8:05

Radio: WCBM (680 AM)

Outlook: A lot can happen in a week. These two teams met last Friday, with the Blast producing a 5-4 victory that looked to set up a big weekend. But the next night, it lost to the expansion Chicago Storm, 10-6, and again put itself in a deep hole. Milwaukee, on the other hand, was feeling the sting of a loss for only the third time this season, and it responded with a strong defensive effort the next night to beat St. Louis, 3-2. That victory propelled the Wave into not just the top spot in the Central Division, but also to the top of the Major Indoor Soccer League, where an 8-3 record and a .727 winning percentage is unmatched. To start making a move, the Blast has to play with more consistency and improve its special-teams play. The Blast is last in the league in power-play success, scoring on just six of 19 opportunities, and next to last in penalty killing, allowing opponents to score eight goals on 15 chances.

- Sandra McKee

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