Blast boasts home advantage

Players from UMBC make up a quarter of the team's roster

Pro soccer

February 21, 2007|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Reporter

No school has contributed more to the Blast's playing personnel lately than UMBC.

Five former Retrievers -- or 25 percent of the team's 20-man active roster -- are included, and if Machel Millwood (who starred at Towson) were made an honorary member of the group, the team could field a strong starting six composed entirely of former Baltimore-area collegiate players.

With Millwood and Giuliano Celenza at the forwards, young Matt Watson in the midfield, P.J. Wakefield and Billy Nelson on defense and Brian Rowland in goal, the Blast would have a unit that would be a local soccer fan's delight and certainly could hold its own and even thrive in the MISL.

"It's kind of weird," said Wakefield, the Blast's captain. "Five of us. A lot of good players come out of there."

Simple happenstance is the most common explanation offered for the oddity, but the reasons go deeper than that.

Celenza, 28, Wakefield, 26, and Nelson, 27, are Baltimore born and bred, and all wanted to play at a local school. This was important to Celenza, whom UMBC coach Pete Caringi called "one of the most natural goal scorers this area has ever had."

Coming out of Archbishop Curley, Celenza turned down a full scholarship from Clemson and attended Essex Community College for two years before transferring to UMBC.

Since the three had played their entire lives in the Baltimore area, Blast management was familiar with their abilities. In 2001, Celenza was taken in the territorial phase of the league draft and Nelson was the team's first-round pick. Wakefield was a first-rounder in the 2002 amateur draft.

"If they either grew up or went to school in the area, we have the rights," Blast president-general manager Kevin Healey said, explaining the territorial system. "We've known them since they were very young and knew they were capable of playing in our league. It's more of an indication of players who grew up here. At one time, we had a lot of players from Towson."

Rowland, 26, who was reacquired in a trade with Milwaukee in September, was another matter. A native of Toronto, he captured the Blast's attention on some powerhouse UMBC squads, starting in 1999. He played two years with Celenza and Nelson and three with Wakefield as a collegian.

They were all on the team that won the Northeast Conference in 1999 and became the only UMBC team to make the NCAA Division I tournament. The Retrievers gave powerful Duke a first-round scare before losing in overtime, 4-3, in what Nelson labeled "an unbelievable game to be a part of."

Watson, 22, is the baby of the group and the only one of the five who was not a part of that historic UMBC team. He left the campus after two seasons, was taken by the Blast as a territorial choice last year and earned a spot on the roster in preseason training.

He was recruited in England by Caringi's assistant, Anthony Adams, but decided "I wanted to get out [of UMBC] as soon as I can. Trying indoor and outdoor [pro soccer] was a challenge I needed."

So, far-flung recruiting played a role in getting two UMBC players to the Blast, two who had to make a greater adjustment to the indoor game than the locally born stars, who had spent many winters as youths in indoor facilities such as Du Burns Arena, where the team often practices.

"We just had a run of really good players," said Caringi, who had Wakefield attend his camp as a youngster. "They've [the locals] all been winners throughout. I've known them for a long time. Billy is one of the most underrated players, a guy who'd run through a wall for you. Brian is very quick and determined and loves to play. Watson was great the two years he was here. He just had aspirations to go pro and I support him."

Caringi pointed out that Wakefield, Celenza and Nelson "saw the advantage of staying here" by going to Blast games. "I'm proud of all five of them."

Celenza (sociology major), Wakefield (health administration and policy) and Rowland (economics) have their degrees from UMBC. Nelson plans to finish his degree in psychology, and Watson hopes to attend Essex to continue his education.

"It's all good," Celenza said. "Getting the opportunity to get my degree and joining the Blast to resume my career. I'm pretty happy with how it worked out."

Said Wakefield: "It was nice and convenient to go from youth teams to high school to college all the way to the pro team in town. You don't see that in a lot of pro sports, which have a lot of players from different countries or different states."

kent.baker@baltsun.com

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