Almost exactly one year ago, Blast veteran forward Denison Cabral's season ended after it had barely started. Seven months ago, the Blast limped home, battered by injuries, chastened by a last-place finish in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Talk about a team eager to start over. After missing the MISL playoffs for the first time since 1999, after failing to win its third straight league championship with a thud, the Blast is aiming to show the expansion California Cougars and a possible sellout crowd tonight at 1st Mariner Arena that championship-caliber soccer is back.
The 26th season of indoor soccer in Baltimore will commence with a team that has healed and gotten younger and quicker, while retaining a core of older talent.
The Blast will look to such aging, proven players as Cabral, midfielder David Bascome and defender Danny Kelly, while blending the promise of such young, emerging stars as forwards Machel Millwood and Adauto Neto, midfielder Robbie Aristodemo and defender Steve Fell.
The MISL figures to be lean, with less separation between teams, since it has shrunk to six with the loss of Cleveland and Kansas City and the addition of California. And the Blast expects to assume the position of title contender once again.
"With only six teams, there are a lot of good players out there. It's going to be tight all around. It should make for good competition," Blast coach Tim Wittman said. "I'm happy with where we are. Everybody came [into a 17-day preseason camp] in great shape, and I think everybody came in strong mentally. I can't wait to play, and I know these players can't wait to play."
For a variety of reasons, the Blast will not be at full strength tonight, starting with Cabral. The leading point scorer in franchise history (709), Cabral successfully rehabilitated a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last Nov. 12, got off to a great start in camp last month, then strained his lower back while working out Sunday. His status will be determined at game time.
"Friday is a big day for everybody, especially after last year. We have a lot to show here, not just to the crowd. For ourselves, too," Cabral said. "We want to prove that's not going to happen to us again here in Baltimore. We want to set the pace in the very first game. I've been dreaming about this. I can't see myself missing this."
The Blast definitely will not play second-year midfielder Jonathan Steele - taken from Kansas City in the dispersal draft - and third-year forward Joel Bailey. They were en route to Baltimore this week after obtaining visas in Ireland and Canada, respectively, and will arrive upon completion of the paperwork that will allow them to re-enter the United States.
In addition, Kelly, starting his 14th season, is listed as doubtful with a sore knee, although he practiced this past week.
The Blast, which could play before its first sellout crowd tonight since March 24, 1990, feels good about the way it has reloaded.
By adding Neto and Aristodemo, each of whom came from Cleveland through the dispersal draft, Wittman envisions having the league's most dynamic young scorer and one of its quickest, savviest midfielders.
By adding Sanaldo, the former goalkeeper in Kansas City with some of the slickest footwork in the league, the team has someone who will push returning starter Sagu in the net.
The Blast also will welcome back forwards Millwood and Carlos Garcia, second-year players with bright futures who missed much of last year with injuries. They will join proven scorers Guiliano Celenza (second-team all-MISL last year) and Lee Tschantret, about to begin his 15th season.
"Nobody wants to use injuries as an excuse for what happened last year, but we had more devastating injuries than on any team I've ever been associated with," Kelly said. "We know there is a lot of talent here. We still have to go out every game and prove we're a good team."