Blast set for final test

Team has handled injuries, coach suspension to make title series

Pro Soccer


When starting goalie Sagu pulled a calf muscle before practice Wednesday, an injury that could sideline him for tonight's opener of the Major Indoor Soccer League championship series, Blast officials just shrugged and kept on going.

After all, it has been that kind of season.

The Blast needed to work through several strange twists and turns this season, but the team adjusted and advanced to the best-of-two series against the top-seeded St. Louis Steamers, which starts at 1st Mariner Arena at 7:35.

Game 2 will be Sunday in St. Louis at 1:05 p.m. (ESPN2), with the "golden-goal" tiebreaker taking place after that game if the teams split the two games.

The Sagu injury adds an exclamation point to an already unusual season. Team officials felt Sagu's leg was improved at yesterday's practice, but he didn't work out for a second straight day. Backup Sanaldo stepped in again, and the starting goalie will likely be a game-time decision.

The suspension of coach Tim Wittman for allegedly pushing an official and shoving a penalty box attendant drew national attention in recent weeks, and Danny Kelly took over as player-interim coach in what could be his final year as a player. Assistant coach Max Thompson left for personal reasons midway through the season, and former player Tarik Walker stepped in.

Longtime offensive threat Denison Cabral tore his anterior cruciate ligament for the second consecutive season and missed most of the season. The Wittman situation shook the team for several days after it happened March 18, but Kelly and Walker worked hard to straighten everything out by emphasizing good team defense.

"Toward the end of the season, we needed to get on a roll if we wanted to do anything in the playoffs, certainly if we wanted to beat Milwaukee," Kelly said. "As a unit, if you play good team defense, working together, communicating, you give yourself a chance to win games. I just thought that was one of our weaknesses during the season."

The Blast played better defensively after Kelly took over but then had to overcome another bad break - late-season injuries. Kelly, Wendell Regis, Jonny Steele and others were hurt in the final few games.

Kelly and general manager Kevin Healey decided to sit players for the final two games to rest for the playoffs instead of pushing for second place. The Blast tied Milwaukee for second place after losing its final two games. But a tiebreaker gave the Wave the No. 2 spot.

The Blast then advanced to the finals when Machel Millwood scored in overtime after Game 2 in Milwaukee. The team is playing better defense now.

"When Danny came in, he said he wasn't going to change much," forward Giuliano Celenza said. "I think we're starting to click now, and guys are ... all on the same page."

Kelly said the Blast must control a potent St. Louis attack that scored a league-high 199 goals. Former Blast players Chile Farias (49 points) and goalie Brett Phillips helped the Steamers sweep the Chicago Storm in two games in the semifinals. The Steamers also had the top-ranked defense.

The Blast must make an adjustment when playing in St. Louis because of a longer field that lets the Steamers use their good speed and ball-control skills. If the Blast doesn't get back on defense, St. Louis could create breakaways.

St. Louis scored 28 goals in winning all three home games against the Blast. But the Blast scored 31 goals in sweeping its three home games with the Steamers.

"We need to pressure them, don't give them space, every single chance we [have to] score a goal, we must score," Sagu said. "They have very good skill players. We have to play them tight and not give them space."

Blast tonight

Matchup -- St. Louis@Blast in Game 1 of MISL finals

Time -- 7:35

Radio -- 680 AM

Outlook -- Blast goalie Sagu, who pulled a calf muscle Wednesday, hasn't practiced since and is questionable, so backup Sanaldo will be ready. Sanaldo hasn't played since a strong performance in a 4-3 overtime loss at Chicago on April 2. The Blast and the Steamers split six regular-season games, with the home team winning all six. Adauto Neto and Giuliano Celenza have been two of the league's top offensive threats this season, but players like Machel Millwood, Carlos Garcia and others must help against the stingy St. Louis defense. The Blast must play good defense and not allow the Steamers to use their speed to create scoring chances for Chile Farias, Shaun David and others. Goalie Brett Phillips helped the Blast to the championship three years ago, but gave up only three goals as the Steamers swept Chicago in two games in the MISL semifinals.

Jeff Seidel

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