Before last season, the Blast front office was scrambling to find a starting goalkeeper.
Veteran star Sagu decided to retire earlier than planned and backup Akira Fitzgerald left to pursue a career in outdoor soccer.
To the rescue came William Vanzela, a native of Brazil who was in Italy establishing himself as one of the top goalkeepers in futsal, another indoor game, played on a smaller field without the turf and sideboards.
After helping the Blast win the Major Indoor Soccer League title last year, he has emerged as the league's top goalie in his second season as the team is one win away from a repeat trip to the championship series. In Friday's semifinal opener at Syracuse, Vanzela turned back 14 shots as the Blast took a 1-0 lead with a 20-7 win.'
The Blast will look to close out the series when it returns to Baltimore Arena for Game 2 at 7:35 p.m. today. If the Silver Knights win, the teams will play a 15-minute game immediately following the game to determine which advances to the MISL championship series.
So how did Vanzela find his way to Baltimore?
Strange as it sounds, with help from the same team the Blast is trying to beat — the Silver Knights.
"My close friend Andre Berenzon [a fellow Brazilian] played two years ago for Syracuse and he introduced me to indoor soccer when I was playing in Italy. He said it's a nice game and I had the good footwork you need for indoor, good reaction. He said I could play this game," Vanzela said.
At the time, the Silver Knights were set in goal, so they recommended Vanzela to the Blast.
Making a smooth transition largely due to his futsal experience, Vanzela was by far the best goalie in the MISL this season, enjoying a 12-3 record with a 5.57 points-against average and .833 save percentage during the regular season. Milwaukee Wave goalie Marcel Feenstra ranked a distant second with a 10.06 points-against and .738 save percentage.
Two years back, Vanzela made the search for a goalkeeper an easy one. Blast coach Danny Kelly immediately noticed his ability playing the ball with his feet, the way he stayed under control and his quick reaction time on saves during the first tryout.
"It was a no-brainer, especially with the fact we had nobody," Kelly said. "As soon as we saw him — after the first day — it was like: 'He's going to be our goalie.'"
With two years' experience, Vanzela is that much better, having grown used to the heavy shots that crash off the boards as well as the other nuances that come with the indoor game.
"The guy is a great goalie, period," Kelly said. "He'll make some mistakes here and there just because of his newness to the game, but his positioning, his shot-stopping ability, his distribution — everything has gotten better. And it's remarkable in a sense that our season is now just 20 games and he's progressed in that short period of time. For me, he's undoubtedly the top goalkeeper in the league and he gives us a great opportunity to compete for another championship."
Vanzela praises his teammates for their support on and off the field. Veteran defenders Mike Lookingland and Pat Healey are there to help block shots and keep the team organized on the field. And with five teammates from Brazil, Vanzela has quickly picked up the English language.
"I was really glad to make the team and to have the teammates I have here," Vanzela said. "I like Baltimore — it's a good city, good people, good fans. And hopefully more people start to follow us and support us, especially right now in the playoffs."
Spoken like a true team ambassador, something Blast general manager Kevin Healey appreciates.
"While he knew some English, you can certainly see his growth in that and see the growth in his ability to communicate not only on the field, but in the community as well," Healey said. "William is a very likable guy, he shows his emotions on the field and he's a player that this town can get behind. We see that happening."
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