3-1 Blast has look of old

Health, defense, tenacity helping sting of last season fade


As the Blast began its preseason workouts, general manager Kevin Healey and coach Tim Wittman said the path to the team's recovery was simple:

Stop using injuries as the sole excuse for a collapse that led to the team's first Major Indoor Soccer League playoff miss in six years, and correct the problems on defense that fueled the slide to last place.

Four games into the season, the Blast (3-1) is stuffing opponents in ways that recall its back-to-back title runs in 2003 and 2004.

Granted, health is one reason the Blast has surrendered an average of just four goals per game so far, second only to first-place Milwaukee (3.2), which comes to 1st Mariner Arena tonight.

Forwards Denison Cabral and Carlos Garcia are back after missing nearly all of last season with knee injuries, and are able to hustle back on defense again. Then there is defender Danny Kelly, limited by a sore knee for much of last year. He is playing top-notch soccer again in his eighth season with the team.

But the rebound is also about young legs and commitment. Emerging stars such as forward Adauto Neto and midfielder Robbie Aristodemo, both newly acquired, have brought more speed and tenacity to the Blast at both ends of the field. And the Blast has rededicated itself to good positioning and marking people aggressively, making it tough for opponents to create good shots, especially in fast-break situations.

"It's a mind-set. If we get behind the ball and we're set defensively, it's going to be tough to get through all five of us," defender Billy Nelson said. "The injuries took their toll, but we didn't get up and down the floor together [as a defense] last year. We got caught in a lot of 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 [fast-break] opportunities. We want teams to have to earn their goals."

In other words, forwards can't just focus on finishing at the offensive end, then leave the defense hanging. This is where Neto has surprised Healey. The league's leading scorer with 13 points, Neto has been a tireless pest on defense.

"It's much easier to do your job when you're covering one guy," defender Wendell Regis said. "It's not just that guys are healthy. I think we have better athletes all the way around this year. We're not getting caught out of position."

"The mentality of the team has changed," said goalie Sagu, who is averaging 10.5 saves and ranks second in the league with a .724 save percentage. "I don't see a lot of shots on goal."

That wasn't the case last season, when the Blast allowed a league-worst 238 goals, or 6.1 a game. In its recent, 1-1 split with Chicago, the Blast gave up seven goals combined.

In last week's 6-3 victory over the Storm, the Blast did permit one easy goal due to a breakdown in its transition defense. But it otherwise countered Chicago's wide-open, helter-skelter approach with a steady defense that shut out the Storm for nearly the game's final 28 minutes, and ignited the Blast's offense in transition.

The Blast's ability to force turnovers is one reason its offense leads the league with 7.5 goals a game.

"First of all, we're better because we've got people on the floor. I'm not working with players with half of their capabilities [due to injury]," Wittman said. "You can have all the finishers in the world, but if you don't have people willing to play defense, it's not going to make much of a difference. We're not a team that's going to win 13-12."

"We're getting five men behind the ball and pressuring very well," Healey said. "The schedule is going to test our endurance later, but if we continue to play defense the way we have, we have an outstanding shot at winning this league."

Note -- Forward Machel Millwood, who has missed the past two games, had surgery Thursday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Millwood could return to play against Philadelphia on Dec. 30.


Blast tonight

Matchup -- Milwaukee Wave (6-0) @ Blast (3-1)

Time, radio -- 7:35 on 680AM

Outlook -- The second-place Blast seeks to extend its home record to 4-0, and must do it against the league's defending champion and its only unbeaten squad. Milwaukee is led by two-time league MVP Greg Howes and goalie Nick Vorberg. Howes is second in the MISL with 11 points, trailing only Blast forward Adauto Neto. Vorberg is tops in the league in save percentage (.803) and is averaging 12 stops. The Wave is outscoring its opponents by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Without Machel Millwood, the Blast will be missing some valuable speed against an excellent defense, but the team is playing with a lot of confidence. The Blast has outscored its opponents at home by a combined 27-12.

Gary Lambrecht

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