Long, hard fall may drop Blast from playoff picture


There was silence around the Baltimore Blast players yesterday as they prepared to leave for tonight's game against the Wichita Wings at the Kansas Coliseum.

With seven games left, they are unexpectedly fighting for their playoff lives.

Three of four teams in the Major Soccer League Eastern Division make the playoffs, and Baltimore entered the season favored to win a third straight division championship.

Even if the team faded a little below expectations, it certainly would finish in the top three easily. Right?

Not exactly.

A late-season slide (seven losses in eight games and three straight at home) has sent the third-place Blast (20-25) plummeting toward the bottom of the East standings.

The Baltimore skid has allowed even the last-place Wings (18-28) to think playoffs entering tonight's 8:35 game, which is the final regular-season meeting between the two teams.

Wichita, 3-0 against Baltimore at the Kansas Coliseum this season, could slice the Baltimore lead to 1 1/2 games tonight. Six days ago, the Wings beat the Blast, 9-2, at the Baltimore Arena.

All this has happened even though forward Dale Mitchell (38 goals, 34 assists) has caught fire and is leading the team in scoring.

Mitchell is the first Blast player to surpass 70 points in a season since Stan Stamenkovic did it in the 1985-86 season.

Finally, Mitchell is being mentioned in the same breath as Stamenkovic and doing the job he was brought from the Kansas City Comets to do.

But Mitchell said yesterday: "I don't want to say I'm doing my job because we're still losing. This is a team game, and winning is what counts. I would have never expected we would be five games under .500 this late in the season."

No one else did either, especially coach Kenny Cooper, who surely wouldn't have predicted that Baltimore would wind up even as low as .500 this year.

However, a season-ending knee injury Jan. 20 to speedy defender Angelo Panzetta when the team was 16-13 and repeated injuries to star midfielder Tim Wittman have forced Cooper to readjust his thinking.

"All our regular-season goals are gone," said Cooper. "All we can do is make the playoffs and hope we can put it all together."

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