In many past summers, Blast owner and Major Indoor Soccer League chairman Ed Hale was confronted with two frustrating questions as a new season approached: Which franchises are coming and which are going?
Before last year, three teams left the league — including then-defending league champion La RaZa de Monterrey and the Blast's longtime rival Philadelphia KiXX. Added to the fold were franchises in Missouri, Omaha and Chicago to form a five-team league which also included the mainstay Milwaukee Wave.
But after a seemingly a constant scramble to get franchises up and running for the league to survive, Hale has rested easier this summer.
The 2011-12 MISL season — the 32nd season of professional indoor soccer in Baltimore — will feature eight teams playing in two divisions
The Blast — whose schedule was released Tuesday — will open play on Nov. 12, hosting the expansion Syracuse Silver Knights at 1st Mariner Arena.
Those two teams will be joined in the Eastern Division by two more expansion teams — the Norfolk SharX and the Rochester Lancers. The Western Division features two returning teams — the Milwaukee Wave and Missouri Comets — while the Wichita Wings return to the league and a new franchise opens in Chicago.
Still, the most vital new addition to the MISL may be the United Soccer Leagues, a well-established organizer of several outdoor soccer leagues throughout the country that has been in operation since 1986.
In May, USL reached an agreement with the MISL to operate North America's most storied professional indoor soccer league. Based in Tampa, the USL runs a number of professional and youth outdoor soccer leagues, including the men's Pro League and Premier Development League, and the women's W-League. It's responsible for bringing in the franchises in Norfolk, Rochester and Syracuse.
Hale sees the merger as a win-win. The USL brings 25 years of experience in successfully running leagues, which brings improved structure and stability to the MISL.
"Just to have the USL with us is big," Hale said. "They have the staff that can do a lot of things and the expertise needed to help carry us through."
For the USL, which has wanted to explore the indoor game for quite some time, connecting with the country's most recognized league provides a viable jumpstart. The original MISL was founded in 1978.
"If you look at the history of soccer in this country, the MISL was the flag bearer," said Chris Economides, senior director of USL's professional leagues. "The MISL was the founding father of a number of niches, marketing ideas you now see in the NBA and the NHL. Things like music during play, in-game promotions and dasher board advertising. So the MISL, from my perspective, is a great brand and we're going to try to enhance it and take it to a whole different level."
In Norfolk, Rochester and Syracuse, Economides believes the league has three solid ownership groups in strong markets. All three have rich soccer traditions in the outdoor game, so the key will be getting the fan base acclimated to the indoor game.
"Indoor soccer is a whole different game," he said. "It caters to the American appeal of the sport — scoring and constant action. So if they can get people out to the games — which I think they can because they have quality front office people and good marketing skills — it will succeed."
From the Blast's standpoint, the franchises in Norfolk, Rochester and Syracuse are a welcome sight. Last year, the Blast was the only team from the East Coast. With the new teams aboard, closer rivalries can be formed and travel expenses will be cut significantly.
"If our fans want to get to away games through bus trips or whatever, they can do that in Syracuse, Rochester and Norfolk," Blast general manager Kevin Healey said. "I think that can create a special kind of rivalry."
While new rivalries are being formed on the field, it's the exact opposite off it. The Blast and Wave are sharing their blueprint and off-the-field ideas with the new teams.
In 10 home dates last season, the Blast's average attendance was 6,933 — easily the most in a league that averages 3,982 fans per game. Milwaukee was second with an average attendance of 4,531 per home game.
"It's not just, 'Lets get a franchise and lets put a good team on the field,'" Healey said. "I like to say you have to earn the right for people to come ot the games and claim some of the entertainment dollars. And it's something you've got to work on 12 months a year and put a lot of hours into."
"We're taking what Baltimore and Milwaukee have brought to the table and will try to make [eight] Baltimores and Milwaukees," Economides said.
Since the announcement of the merger, Economides said a number of cities have also shown interest in starting new franchises, and further expansion is planned for upcoming years. Hale sees the league eventually growing to 15 teams or more.