Blast shooting for return to the top

`Reloaded' team ready to kick off new season

October 19, 2007|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Special to The Sun

A funny thing happened to the Blast en route to the playoffs last season - it didn't make them.

Now, the team has refueled and is aiming to return to its customary position atop the Major Indoor Soccer League, beginning tonight when the defending champion Philadelphia KiXX visit 1st Mariner Arena for the kickoff of the league's season.

"As an organization, we take it personally that we didn't make it," general manager Kevin Healey said. "We've reloaded a bit, and we're ready to make our mark."

"Of course it was tough," captain P.J. Wakefield said. "We came up a game short [finishing 15-15 and fifth in a six-team league], and we try to take that as motivation. Your long-term goal is always to win the championship."

The Blast, which has won three of the past five MISL titles, is staring into an enlarged field this season with the addition of three expansion teams, which means playoff qualification has been modified. Six of the nine entries will make postseason play, with the top two regular-season finishers receiving first-round byes.

Joining the league for the 30-game schedule are the New Jersey Ironmen, the Orlando Sharks and the Monterrey (Mexico) La Raza. Because of the additions, teams will play each other no more than four times, down from six meetings with each.

"Whenever you expand, it's a good thing," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "There are new markets, quality organizations, a TV deal [with Fox Soccer Channel]. More people are getting turned on to soccer."

But the swelling has no effect on Blast game preparations, which will center on defense, goaltending and more offense after a season in which two of its primary scorers, Adauto Neto and Giuliano Celenza, were sidelined for long stretches with injuries. The team ranked last in the league in average goals but first in fewest goals allowed.

Celenza is back among the healthy to join veteran forwards Denison Cabral and Machel Millwood, both of whom accounted for 65 points to lead the team. But misfortune continues to track former league Most Valuable Player Neto, who broke his foot during the first training session this fall.

"It was frustrating and disappointing," Neto said of the incident. "I think I'll have to miss about four more weeks and the first five games."

"The one thing is we're used to him not being there," Kelly said. "We were pretty much without him all of last year. And I think we have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the back of the net."

The expansion draft was not particularly damaging to the Blast, claiming reserve goaltender Brian Rowland, Gordon Chin and Jonathan Steele. Among the other missing cast members from 2006-07 are veteran Lee Tschantret, who is coaching at Loyola High; Wendell Regis, who was released; and Tarik Walker, who did not make the team.

Tschantret's experience will be missed, especially by goaltender Sagu, who relied heavily on the veteran's help while leading the MISL in save percentage and fewest goals allowed.

Among the prominent new faces are goalie Dave Kern, who replaces Rowland after working out with the team last season; former University of Maryland midfielder Scott Buete; and forward Michael Todd, a Hofstra product who is expected to add offense.

"We have the caliber of players who have been All-Stars and want to win," Wakefield said. "Most of our team is back, and we should be more competitive."

On defense, Wakefield and Billy Nelson are former all-league players, and Mike Lookingland made the all-rookie team last season. Sagu was a game-saver on more than one occasion.

Kelly spent some of the offseason in Brazil and tabbed four players to join the team for training. But visa problems have delayed their arrival, so the Blast will begin the season without them. When they arrive, they will have the chance to make the team.

Player/coach David Bascome, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December that cost him the remainder of the season, returns to an experienced midfield lineup (Carlos Garcia, Robbie Aristodemo and Matt Watson), so, barring injuries, the Blast is well equipped to resume its prominence.

"The slippage in the standings certainly didn't affect the team's popularity. The Blast again paced the league in attendance, drawing 111,732 for 15 home games, a franchise record. The average per game was 7,448.

"We just didn't get it done at the end," Healey said, alluding to a six-game losing streak in the stretch that followed an eight-game winning string. "We had to live with that all summer, and we don't want to do it again."

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