At 6:30 a.m. yesterday, a group of professional soccer players began convening at Druid Hill Park for a 4.6-mile run through the frosty air.
So began the Blast's quest to bring another title to Baltimore - this time in the newly formed National Indoor Soccer League - and the follow-up for the week will be two-a-day practice sessions to prepare the team for the regular season beginning Nov. 15.
"This is double-duty, hell week," said defender P.J. Wakefield (UMBC), one of 13 players back from last season's Major Indoor Soccer League champions.
Four franchises from the MISL are returning: the Blast; the Philadelphia KiXX, who combined with the Blast for six of the past seven titles in the old league; Monterrey La Raza, which lost to the Blast in the championship game last season; and the Orlando Sharks, who have been fortified by personnel pickups from other former MISL teams.
The only newcomer is the Rockford (Ill.) Rampage in what amounts to a transition season for the ex-MISL members.
"We have a group that is working well together," Blast general manager Kevin Healey said of the five teams. "We're looking to grow the league."
"It would be great to have 12 teams now, but it is what it is," said Denison Cabral, the all-time leading Blast scorer. "You can't pick and choose. We'll do what we have to do."
The most notable absences from the roster are Adauto Neto, a one-time Most Valuable Player in the MISL, and Lucio Gonzaga, a Brazilian who came on strong last season. Both signed with the New Jersey Ironmen to play in a rival league. Also missing are Michael Todd and Rey Martinez. Otherwise, the veterans are intact.
The Blast will miss those players but move on. "Neto helped us win a couple championships," Wakefield said, "and Lucio had a lot of promise. By the end of the year, he had the game figured out."
Cabral added: "Every time we lose players we're used to, it's hard for me. You feel bad you're not going to play with them anymore."
Sixteen players are signed or about to sign contracts, among them defender Jonathan Greenfield, a key member of the Detroit Ignition last season, and defender Matt Tirschman, 33, whose return to the team was announced yesterday.
"He [Tirschman] stopped playing, but we think he's still got a lot of game left in him," coach Danny Kelly said.
The Blast yesterday also announced the signing of midfielders Scott Buete and Pat Healey. Buete, from Bowie High and the University of Maryland, was a member of the Blast's title team last season. Healey, son of the general manager, played at Towson and was selected by the Blast in the territorial round of the 2008 MISL draft.
The Blast also has players who performed well in an invitational tryout format and is shopping for free agents to fill out a 20-man roster.
More spacing between games - there are 18 in the regular season compared with 30 last season - means more recovery time from injury, and fewer teams means that there will be few surprises when teams play.
"That's the biggest difference. We're not used to having that long of a break that we're going to get," Cabral said. "You've got enough time to recover."
Said Wakefield: "The more you see a team, the better you have a feel for them. You know which way guys are going to go and what they'll do. What we need to do is get one of the top three places and the one seed doesn't have to play in."
Under the playoff schedule, the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers will play a home-and-home, golden-goal series with No. 1 receiving a bye.