Playing it safe pays off for Blast

Pro soccer


Blast player-interim coach Danny Kelly and general manager Kevin Healey faced a difficult decision in the final days of the regular season.

The Blast had a shot at the No. 2 seed, which would have given it home-field advantage against the Milwaukee Wave in the Major Indoor Soccer League semifinals. But nagging injuries bothered several players, including Kelly, so he and Healey decided to rest them and worry more about getting a healthy postseason roster than the higher seed.

Kelly and Healey agreed to hold several players out of the last two games and lost both, falling to third. But the Blast players healed up and beat Milwaukee in the "golden goal" format on the road after splitting two games. The Blast did the same thing this past weekend, beating the top-seeded St. Louis Steamers in Baltimore on Friday and losing on the road Sunday before winning its third MISL championship in four years when Machel Millwood scored the "golden goal" in overtime.

"To me it wasn't that big of a gamble," Kelly said. "Could it have backfired? Sure. But one of the strengths this year was the depth of the team. I didn't think I was weakening the squad by holding guys out."

Kelly, Millwood, Wendell Regis and Jonathan Steele were the players bothered by late-season injuries. The Blast knew it would have a two-week break between its final regular-season game and the Milwaukee playoff series, ample time for players to heal.

Hamstring problems hampered Kelly and he sat out the final two games. Millwood did the same thing to rest his painful turf toe, along with Steele (ankle). Regis sat out one game with groin problems and played some in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia.

But all four players had big roles in the championship series with St. Louis. Kelly and Regis were solid on defense. Steele got the key insurance goal in the Blast's 4-2 victory in Game 1. Millwood scored the "golden goal" to beat St. Louis and win the championship - after he did the same thing to vanquish Milwaukee.

"If you win the home-field advantage, and you don't have Millwood in the playoffs, could we still have won?" Healey said. "Yes, but you'd rather be at full strength."

Both rounds of the playoffs were the best-of-two format with the "golden goal" serving as the tiebreaker. Teams usually want to host Game 2 so the decisive overtime would be in their arena, but Kelly felt that hosting Game 1 wasn't bad at all, since the Blast went 12-3 at home in the regular season.

"All the pressure's on the other team if you win that first one," said longtime forward Lee Tschantret.

More injuries kept popping up. Tschantret strained his groin a few days before the Milwaukee series began, so Healey said they advised the forward to shut it down until the game. He did that and was able to play in the next series.

Starting goalie Sagu then got hurt in practice before the St. Louis series, and Sanaldo stepped in to play two strong games and help win the championship. Everything just fell into place.

"You've got to be smart about what you're doing," Healey said. "If you have an injury that could develop into something much more serious, something you can't play with, [but] you have to be ready to go when the whistle blows."

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