Cooper has loosened more than tie to lighten load on discouraged Blast


When coach Kenny Cooper didn't wear a red tie at a Blast game for the first time in the franchise's 11-year existence, it was just the latest change of tradition Cooper has tried in an effort to reverse the Blast's fortunes.

"With the way things have been going [10 losses in the last 11 games], I've felt we have to loosen things up and find some way to make things more fun and enjoyable," said Cooper, who eschewed the red tie in the Blast's 5-4 loss at Kansas City Wednesday night. "What I'm doing is a change for me, absolutely. But there are many ways to skin a cat."

His team is 20-28 going into tonight's game in St. Louis, and has but a 1 1/2 -game lead on fourth-place Wichita, which is threatening to make the Blast miss the playoffs for the first time in its history. The good news is that while it has dropped three games in the last seven days, the Blast, overall, has played well enough to win. And that fact may be directly related to a change in Cooper's approach.

Over 11 years, Cooper has more victories (307) than any other coach in MSL history. When a coach has that much success, there is tendency to stay with the system.

Through the years, Cooper has heard critics complain he has worked his team too hard, that the pounding workouts have contributed to late-season injuries that have limited the Blast in postseason play.

But the Blast has gotten to the MSL championship series five times and no team, with the exception of the San Diego Sockers, has done that.

Yet during the last two weeks, Cooper has changed his methods. The strenuous workouts -- the relentless practicing of free kicks, power plays and penalty-killing situations -- have been deserted for the lighter side.

"He's making practice more enjoyable for us," said forward Domenic Mobilio. "Our problems aren't things that can be worked out in practice. They're things we have to do during games. Kenny knows how hard we're pressing and he's being a little more low key to help us relax.

"For Kenny to do what he's doing, it has to be very hard. He's so intense. Some people think he's too intense, but it's always a positive thing and it is always directed toward making us winners. I think what he's doing and his willingness to do it has made us look harder at ourselves and realize we have to change too."

It started with simple four-on-four games in practice, just little games for fun. Members of the winning team each got a dollar from Cooper as a prize.

"It's a game we used to play in England," said midfielder Billy Ronson. "But over there the winning side got chocolate candy bars. The coach always treated. It's just a fun thing.

"It's got to be really hard on Kenny," Ronson said. "He's been so successful with the way he's done things, to change like this, at his age [45], it takes a big man."

How it works in the long run, only time will tell, but Ronson said he believes the impact is being felt.

"The guys seem a little more relaxed and we've been playing well," Ronson said. "But I told Kenny on the plane coming here [St. Louis], 'We're playing well and losing. I'd rather play bad and win.' "

The Blast has lost 17 of its 25 one-goal games.

"The next victory we get is going to feel like we've won the lottery," said Ronson.

"It's the unluckiest team I've ever coached," Cooper said last night. "No one is going to give us anything. We've got to change our own luck."

The Blast talked tactics after Wednesday's 5-4 loss. But there was no workout yesterday. No team meeting was planned for today.

Last night in St. Louis, there was an optional team outing for pizza and a trip to the Bridgeton Soccer Club to watch the televised game between Dallas and Wichita. Everyone went.

"I know this team knows what it has to do," Cooper said. "And I appreciate that it has stuck together. That's the key to our survival. When we went through our only other losing season [25-31 in 1987-88] it wasn't like this. There was back-stabbing. No one liked anyone. But this team is really a team and that's why I can't imagine things not turning right for us. These guys are giving it everything they've got."

Cooper said Baltimore is still the best team to play for in the MSL, because of its tradition, because ownership has been stable and patient through a difficult season, and because the fans are loyal.

But being the Blast coach isn't as easy as it used to be. Once, Cooper could go home and escape the pressures of the game. Now, even that has changed.

"I've got four kids," he said. "Amanda is 11 and Kenny Jr. is 6 and they all ask questions. I wake up in the morning and all four of them are sitting on the foot of the bed: 'Dad, why did you do this? Dad, why did that guy score?' I used to go home and just hug them. Now it's People's Court."

And Cooper needs a winning verdict.

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