Nine games will decide Blast's fate

Team tries to shake off injuries, other problems, make push for playoffs

Pro Soccer

March 26, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

With nine games to go, maybe the additions of forward Mike Apple and defender Nate Houser will help the Blast throw off the weight of injuries, traded players and defeat to regroup for a final run to the Major Indoor Soccer League playoffs.

"I believe the road is long, but it's in our hands," said Houser, who arrived last week with Apple from St. Louis when the Blast traded its leading scorer, Chile Farias, for disciplinary reasons. "We're not playing the Yankees every day. We've got a chance. Why not be confident?"

That is, perhaps, the best thing the Blast has going for it as it heads down the stretch. Soccer players are nothing if not positive thinkers.

The Blast is 13-17, three games behind fourth-place St. Louis in the fight for the final playoff spot. Tonight's opponent, Chicago (15-17), is fifth, two games behind the 17-15 Steamers.

Between now and the end of the season, the Blast will play Chicago twice, third-place Cleveland three times, and Kansas City, the only team with a worse league record than the Blast, twice. At the same time, Cleveland has to play league-leading Milwaukee three times.

The Blast, whose longest winning streak this season has been three games, is hoping to win at least seven of its last nine games.

It's apparent anything can still happen, but this season has been unlike any other coach Tim Wittman has been associated with. The reasons are many and obvious.

Before the season was a month old, three regular players were out for the year with major knee injuries, including then-leading scorer Denison Cabral. Then came more injuries that sidelined other top players for indefinite periods and, when they came back, others went out.

All of that has prevented the Blast from building continuity. The roster got so thin that general manager Kevin Healey began signing practice players and even Wittman, 41, just to have enough bodies.

Adding to the woe, the Blast has lost leading scorer Farias and defender Neil Gilbert, who remains on the trading block this weekend, because they broke team rules.

"It was kind of a shock the first day of practice to see how thin the team is," said Apple, who was the Steamers' leading scorer. "In St. Louis, we always had 20, 22 players; the Blast doesn't. But all it means is a little more running in practice.

"This is a team that won two championships. We're still very much in this and just as good as any other team."

While Wittman and Healey ponder how to keep injuries to a minimum next season and begin looking for other ways to strengthen the team in the offseason, Blast captain Tarik Walker said the only thing to do now is move forward.

"Most of the players on this team went from being a 5-12 team to winning a championship [two years ago]," he said. "We all know it's possible. It's just going to take an effort."

To this point, it seems, every effort has been short-circuited. At the start of the season, the Blast's expectations of a third straight championship did not seem a big stretch.

"It has been frustrating, when you look at the direction we've gone," Walker said. "But injuries can happen at any time and losing Chile and Neil, well, anytime you lose impact players on your team, others will be unhappy. But it's the business side and, as a player, you have to respect an organization that treats everyone the same."

Now the Blast must blend Apple's and Houser's games into its own. Apple has been given his familiar role as a target man, receiving and distributing the ball, but with the added directive to be creative. Houser, meanwhile, on the defensive side, is determined to run and play as hard as he can, to let his teammates know he can be counted on.

"I think the gods are trying to even things up," Houser said. "I think they've said, `The Blast has won two championships while being pretty healthy. Let's hit 'em with some injuries and see what they can do.' Frankly, with the injuries this team has had, it's a credit to them that they've done this well."

Blast tonight

Matchup: Chicago Storm (15-17) vs. Blast (13-17)

Site: 1st Mariner Arena

Time: 7:35

Radio: WCBM (680 AM)

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