Here they go again.
More often than not, the road to the Major Indoor Soccer League championship is traveled by the sport's two titans, the Blast and the Milwaukee Wave, and Friday night at 1st Mariner Arena they collide again in the first of two meetings to determine the 2012 titlist.
These two franchises have long sported the teams that competitors hope to emulate, but what makes them so special?
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1st Mariner Arena, University of Maryland-Baltimore, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA
"They're just two quality organizations from top to bottom," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "Each has a storied history and a strong desire to win championships that starts right at the top and filters down through the coaches and players. They both demand excellence."
"These are what every team hopes to be like, the Blast and Milwaukee," added veteran Blast midfielder Carlos Garcia. "They have a lot of history and tradition, and they're stable."
Garcia's defensive teammate, Mike Lookingland, said the two front offices' ability to construct teams with the right type of players and produce continuity is vital to their respective success.
"A lot of teams come in and out, and we've constantly been around, the same core of guys every season," Lookingland said. "Guys put their families in the area, and other teams just down have that type of establishment in the towns. And we can find younger players who fit in quickly. When they get here, they learn quickly that we have a no-nonsense attitude. The stats, who scores, don't matter. From Day One, they see we just want a championship."
So, the look-alikes return for a rematch of last season's championship, which the Wave whisked out of Baltimore with a 16-7 victory. This time, though, the format is no longer one game for the trophy.
The teams will play a second game Sunday at 4:10 p.m. U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee, and if the series is split, they'll then play a full a 15-minute mini game for the title. If tied after that 15 minutes, they would go to a sudden-death overtime.
"We're happy that it's a series," Lookingland said. "Last year, we sat out two weeks while they were staying sharp. They came in with momentum, and I thought that was a disadvantage to us. This way, if you have a little slip-up, it doesn't cost you the whole thing. There is definitely a lot of motivation for us."
Garcia, a native of Cali, Colombia, has extra motivation.
"This is huge for me, being my last year of soccer in Baltimore. I'm retiring and I don't want to leave with that same feeling I had after last season," said Garcia, who has spent nine years with the team. "When it comes against Milwaukee, it's even a worse feeling because they're our biggest rival."
The Blast will accent team defense, always a staple of a Kelly squad, against an explosive Wave lineup that can score in multiple fashions.
"They're a very dangerous team with a ton of experience and depth," Kelly said. "They've got a lot of guys who can score on any shift, and if you're not on your game, you're in deep trouble. We have to be able to defend. Against Rochester [in the semifinals], we gave up some bad plays at times, and you can't afford them against Milwaukee. [Goalkeeper] Sagu is excellent at cleaning up mistakes. but we've got to be fundamentally sound."
Lookingland said the Blast normally plays a more conservative defense against Milwaukee because of the Wave's offensive threats.
The Blast could use a favorable lift from its wounded list, particularly if Aduato Neto, one of the most prolific scorers in the MISL, can play after sitting out much of the last several weeks with a hamstring injury.
"Neto is our best player," Garcia said. "We need him out on the field. I'm confident he'll be there."
Neto, Scott Buete (ankle) and Stephen DeRoux (knee) have all been training this week and will probably be game-day decisions.
Overall, the Blast has won six straight starting with a 17-13 win over the Wave in their only meeting in Baltimore this season.
But the Wave recovered nicely in the playoffs, demolishing the Missouri Comets in the Central Division finals.
As usual, the two best teams have gained center stage.
Milwaukee Wave (20-6) vs. Blast (20-6)
Game 1: Friday at 7:45 p.m. at 1st Mariner Arena
Game 2: Sunday at 4:10 p.m. at U.S. Cellular Arena
Outlook: The teams meet for the fourth time in the championship with the Blast holding a 2-1 edge. But the Wave prevailed in the most recent title matchup, winning a one-game final, 16-7, last season. The Blast was 2-1 against Milwaukee during the regular season, winning the last meeting at home, 17-13 on Feb. 18 with Machel Millwood (Towson) notching a hat trick. Millwood had four goals in the series and Max Ferdinand added two goals and four assists. Veteran Greg Howes topped the Wave scorers with two goals and five assists and Giuliano Oliviero scored four times.