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With new goalies, Blast prepares for season opener vs. Chicago Soul

Nervous, but ready.

That's how Troy Hernandez, one of the Blast's two new goalkeepers this season, described the first time he walked on a soccer field as a professional player.

He was playing outdoors for the Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL Pro League this summer when the team's starting goalie went down with an injury six minutes into the playoffs. Hernandez, who didn't see any playing time during the regular season, was pressed into action.

The 25-year-old native of Canada thought about the hard work he put in during training to be ready for the moment. As he headed toward the goal, he told himself to do the best he could and then cleared his mind. He knew if he could make the first save, he could settle into the game. Immediately having to defend against a corner kick, he confidently punched the ball out of danger. Hernandez went on to make five saves, and the Hammerheads won.

"You train because you never know when you're going to get that shot. So I was happy to get my shot. I got the job done and we got the win. It was a confidence booster for me and felt pretty good," he said.

The Blast opens its 2012-13 Major Indoor Soccer League season against the Chicago Soul on Saturday night at 1st Mariner Arena, and Hernandez will get another unexpected opportunity.

After standout Blast goalkeeper Sagu stepped down in the summer one year earlier than planned, and last season's backup, Akira Fitzgerald (Loyola), decided to fully pursue a career in the outdoor game, the team was suddenly left short-handed in the back. After an extensive search, the Blast brought in 10 goalkeepers for tryouts, with Hernandez and Brazilian native William Vanzela making the final cut.

The two goalkeepers, both brand new to the professional indoor game, are expected to share duties early in the season.

"We love challenges, love to win and this is a challenge for us," Blast general manager Kevin Healey said. "The key will be that the goalkeepers will continue to improve throughout the year and they'll be challenging each other for playing time. We need a goalkeeper that's ready to win a championship in March and not in November. We're confident that the goalkeepers we have will be ready to play in November, but will be much better indoor goalkeepers in March when it's time for us to go win a championship."

Blast coach Danny Kelly has been impressed with what he has seen from the two goalkeepers in the team's crash-course preseason camp. At 6 feet 2, Hernandez plays big in goal, and he has shown good composure and skill when playing the ball with his feet. Vanzela, who is a dual citizen in Brazil and Italy and played on Italy's World Cup national futsal team in 2011, has more experience playing in the tighter indoor quarters but never before played with side boards and artificial turf.

"Obviously, you can't see the future, but they're both quality goalkeepers and I think they're both guys [who] can do well in this league. It's just a matter of which one is going to rise to the occasion, step up and elevate their game and separate themselves as a true No. 1, or maybe it's where we rotate both guys. Both are good with different qualities and they can both help us win games. So we'll see," Kelly said.

Both goalies said the biggest adjustments to the indoor game is the faster pace, tighter quarters and, most of all, the difficult challenge of playing balls off the unfamiliar wall boards.

With Blast veteran forward Audeto Neto, also from Brazil, providing help with interpretation, Vanzela said he is pleased with his progress.

"I'm learning quick," he said. "I've got to get in some game experience to get used to it more, but I'm adjusting well and a lot of players are helping, teaching me the game."

Blast goalkeeper coach Karim Moumban also was new to the indoor game when he first came to the Blast as a goalkeeper in 2001, so he can relate to the circumstance.

Moumban's coaching responsibilities have changed dramatically this season.

Sagu played eight seasons with the team, regarded as one of the finest goalkeepers in the league, and Moumban's task was to help him maintain his high level of play. This season, he's teaching the basic nuances of the game with the unproven talent. Practices have been filled with repetition and close attention to detail.

"They have to understand they're going to make some mistakes and from them, they will learn. We have to explain to them that mistakes happened because of this and that, and that next time to do it differently," Moumban said.

The Blast expects opponents to test the inexperienced goalkeepers with high pressure and the team has prepared for the situation. A veteran group of defenders led by Mike Lookingland and Pat Healey will be leaned on heavily.

"Teams will probably throw some numbers up, so we can't easily feed the ball back to them," Healey said. "So we have to make plays ourselves, play to our forwards quicker and just limit our touches in the back because if we get stuck, we can't always lay it back. Both goalies have done a great job learning on the fly and we're making adjustments. But the first game is when we'll really feel it."

Hernandez, who was a standout goalkeeper at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University, gets the first chance Saturday.

"Yeah, it will definitely be the same feeling [as the playoff game in the summer] and there will be some nerves," Hernandez said. "But I'm going to give it my best, take each situation as it comes and hope we can pull off the win."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

Chicago Soul at Blast

Site: 1st Mariner Arena

Time: 7:35 p.m.

Video: mislnation.com

Outlook: The Blast kicks off the 33rd consecutive year of professional indoor soccer in Baltimore with Major Indoor Soccer League newcomer Chicago Soul visiting on opening night. With 11 players returning from last year's team, the Blast has a wealth of experienced talent, led by Mike Lookingland, last year's MISL Defender of the Year, and goal-scoring threats Machel Millwood, Audeto Neto and Max Ferdinand. The only big question came in the summer when standout goalkeeper Sagu retired after eight seasons in Baltimore to pursue a coaching career in Dallas, leaving the goalkeeping duty to two newcomers with no indoor experience (Troy Hernandez and William Vanzela). Hernandez, who played outdoors in the USL Pro League, will get the nod in the opener and how well he holds up will go a long way in the outcome. Don't be fooled by the 'expansion team' tag that comes with the Soul, which has a number of experienced players, led by former Blast forward Carlos "Chile" Farias. Just signed by the Soul on Thursday, the two-time league Most Valuable Player bolsters a formidable offense that also includes Alex Megson and Matthew Stewart. Veteran goalie Jeff Richey is the glue in back for the visitors. The Blast needs to keep possession and consistently get forward with the ball in order for the Blast to keep pressure off Hernandez. Finishing off scoring opportunities will be a must for the home team with a high-scoring game a strong possibility. Blast rookie Marco Mangione (Calvert Hall/Towson University) makes his professional debut wearing the same No. 19 his father, Nick, sported when he was a standout with the team in the 1980s.

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