Seeking elite status, Blast opens training; Stability, key additions make coach optimistic


The Blast opened training camp yesterday with the same owner, same coach, same team name and most of the same players as last year's squad.

It is the second year together for all of the above, which is why coach Kevin Healey says the Blast will become one of the elite teams in the National Professional Soccer League.

"We sat down last year and looked at what it takes to be successful," said Healey, who coached the Blast to a 19-21 record last season. "One thing we looked at was Cleveland and St. Louis, who made the finals again. What helps make them successful is the continuity of the team and how many years those guys have played together. So what we did was sign key players to multi-year contracts. And we believe that continuity will help us."

Two new players should also help. Forward Erik Rasmussen scored 184 points and 72 goals last season with Wichita of the NPSL, and midfielder Paul Wright returns to the indoor game after three years with Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards.

Wright played in Baltimore in 1993-94, scoring a career-high 146 points and 64 goals. Healey said Wright could be the league's fastest player.

"I'm excited to get the season started," Wright said. "There is a lot of hype surrounding it. Everyone is looking forward to it. I know I'm personally excited to get back to the indoor game."

Wright and Rasmussen will be joining a team that was already strong offensively. Late last season, the Blast picked up Mark Thomas, a 100-point scorer, from Florida. He will work with forward Tarik Walker and midfielder Denison Cabral, who both also broke the 100-point mark last season.

Healey points to the offensive threats as the team's strength.

"We should score goals. There is no doubt about it," Healey said. "We believed Tarik Walker could be a 100-point producer, and he did that. We put him in an environment where he could do that, and he did. Denison Cabral -- the same thing.

"We have a lot of players who can put the ball in the back of the net. People are concerned about whether we have enough soccer balls on the field. I don't see that among the players so far. That was not a problem last year. We don't have bonuses based on who scores goals and who doesn't."

The question is the defense.

Goalkeeper Scott Hileman should help, also coming over late last season from Florida. He had a 12.75 points-against average in eight games with the Blast and was voted second-team All-NPSL.

But the bulk of the defensive responsibility rests with the position players.

"We need to improve overall discipline relating to tenacity," Healey said. "Also, how we react to referees and calls, and having a focus on just winning games. It has to come from them, but you can [coach it] a bit. I've talked to some of the key defenders on the team and said: 'Your job is to communicate to people, who has got who marked. Not only tell your teammates when you did it wrong but also when you did it right.' "

Twenty-three players practiced yesterday morning, with Thomas sitting out because of a minor ankle sprain and Rasmussen out until late next week because of a prior soccer commitment. Thomas will return to practice next week.

Midfielder Shane Dougherty will miss the preseason and maybe more because of ankle surgery two weeks ago.

Healey will start two-a-days Monday, and the Blast will open the preseason next Saturday in Trenton, N.J., against the Philadelphia Kixx.

The team will participate in an NPSL preseason tournament in Cleveland two weeks from today before opening night, Oct. 22 at the Baltimore Arena against the Kixx.

"We want to win the championship," Healey said. "That is the goal of our franchise. But first, we've got to make the playoffs."

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