Light amid darkness Mitchell's emergence can't be denied even in season of Blast disappointment


From the beginning, everyone wanted Dale Mitchell to be an instant success story and from the beginning, everyone around the Blast insisted it was going to take time.

When Stan Stamenkovic came to the Blast to deliver a championship at the end of the 1983-84 season, it took 24 games, half that season, for Stamenkovic and the Blast to adjust to each other. With Mitchell, it took 32 games. That's when he began the current point scoring streak in which he has produced points -- 14 goals and 15 assists -- in 13 games.

"I don't know if this is the right thing to say, given the team situation," said Mitchell, who has been playing with noticeable urgency. "But I'm enjoying my soccer. It's tough when you're losing, but the guys on this team are fighting hard to be better and I feel a part of the team. I'm enjoying playing and I think that says it all."

While everyone has been grumbling about the Blast's overall performance -- the seven losses in eight games, the 20-25 record, the fact the team is in a battle not for the Eastern Division crown but simply to make the playoffs -- Dale Mitchell has been quietly playing great soccer.

"But losing becomes very frustrating," said Mitchell. "Everyone begins questioning themselves."

Yesterday, Mitchell questioned Blast coach Kenny Cooper.

"He asked me what the difference is between this season and last season," said Cooper, who takes his team to Wichita tomorrow to play the Wings in Kansas Coliseum.

The answer didn't come easy.

The answer Cooper gave Mitchell: As a team, "application and execution" have not always been first rate and neither has team defense.

But later, for the first time, Cooper admitted how much this team misses midfielder Carl Valentine, who was traded to Kansas City for Mitchell last summer in one of the biggest deals in Major Soccer League history.

"It's no secret I'm a Carl Valentine fan," Cooper said. "For a while we thought we were going to be able to pull off a deal that would have allowed us to keep Carl and get Dale. We thought it would be the ultimate plan, to have Carl, Dale and Domenic [Mobilio], who all played together in Vancouver. It would be like having The Three Musketeers. We tried to pull it off to the very end, but in the end we had to give up Carl.

"The trade has been good for both sides, but you're always greedy. I don't think we'd be in the trouble we are now if we had been able to keep Carl, just in terms of what Carl does with the ball. He can hold it up under pressure. He did for us what a Brian Quinn does for San Diego."

Mitchell has done everything Cooper has asked. He has had big defensive efforts up and down the field. In fact, if he and defender Mark Mettrick had not been playing Saturday against San Diego, the Sockers may have had a lot more than nine goals in the 9-8 win at the Arena.

Offensively, Mitchell has taken over the point scoring lead, with 38 goals and 34 assists. His 72 points make him the first Blast player with more than 70 in a season since Stamenkovic's 81 in 1985-86.

And yet, the Blast is 20-25. It has no one who can do what Valentine does in midfield. It isn't simply his ballhandling skills, which are noteworthy. It is also his team leadership that is missed.

Yesterday, Cooper took steps toward addressing both problems. With defender Mike Reynolds back in action and defender Joe Barger coming off the injured reserve list, Cooper again moved Mike Stankovic into midfield.

He also told Stankovic, goalkeeper Scott Manning and forward Rusty Troy to show more leadership.

Cooper is not one to dwell on the past or on what might have been. He still believes, with seven games to go, the Blast can begin a turnaround that can peak with an MSL championship. And Mitchell could play a key role.

"Dale is playing super," Cooper said. "I believe he'll wind up being great for us. I believe we're going to find a way to put it all together."

As to the future, the Blast is likely to pick up its option on Mitchell's contract, given the way he is playing. And the door remains open to Valentine, who becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

* PLAYOFF TICKETS: Individual game tickets for upcoming Blast home playoff games go on sale today at the Baltimore Arena Box Office and all TicketCenter locations. In addition to individual game tickets, fans may also purchase "playoff strips" that will contain one ticket to each home playoff contest.

For the first time in eight years, prices will not be increased from those of the regular season, which range from $14 to $7.

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