Blast coach Kevin Healey had his team working on defending restarts in the defensive zone for the first half of Media Day at the Baltimore Arena yesterday.
It was the proper setting to unveil his team's rededication to playing solid defense, something that hampered the Blast last season.
"Early in the year, it was definitely a problem," Healey said. "I can remember our second home game against St. Louis; it was an ugly game and a very disappointing game. We gave up too many easy goals. As we went along, it definitely got better. To become a champion, you need to continue to improve upon certain things. Defending is one of the things we've set out to improve upon."
In the St. Louis game, the Blast gave up 24 points. That is 12 more than defender Doug Neely said the team would like to give up per game this season.
If the Blast is to hit that mark, it will need better communication among the defenders, midfielders and forwards than last season.
Healey said that has been the focus for the first two weeks of camp.
"Everyone knows we need to make some improvements," Healey said. "They seem to be very focused when we go over some things leading to better performance.
"We have a solid group of defenders, all with different strengths. The key with defense is not just the defenders. It is getting the total defense involved. That is why communication from the back is very important, making sure everyone understands his assignment. There are two sides to communication. I'll be talking to the midfielders and forwards making sure they are listening."
Team captain Lance Johnson will have a major role in leading a group of defenders that basically returns intact from last season. Johnson finished the season with 42 blocks, despite missing two months because of a broken right fibula.
Johnson acknowledges the pressure is on the defense, specifically the defenders, to hold up its end because of what should be one of the league's most explosive offenses.
"It is basically talking all the time and calling out all the marks," Johnson said. "We have to get people to stop sweeping and hanging out watching the game. If you are the first person in the back calling out your guy, you can help by calling out other guys.
"Mentally, we are going to have to commit ourselves to keeping the ball out of the back of the net."
Johnson and Neely are the speed guys in a diverse group of defenders.
Derrick Marcano, 5 feet 10, 200 pounds, and Ronnie Simmons, 6-0, 195 pounds, are the power guys. Jason Dieter is a combination of the two.
Todd Hicks, first-round pick Pete Medd, Chris Brown and Erik Washington round out the group.
"I'd pit our defensive core against anybody in the league," said Neely, who led the group in points last season with 53. "For me, it will be different from a Derrick or Ronnie. They are bigger, stronger guys. I have to be more tactical. Just try and get a poke in here and there. Each defender is going to go in there differently. We have to adjust to how each person plays."
Marcano says the Blast has the best defenders in the league. They will get a chance to prove it in the preseason this weekend in Cleveland. The Blast will play in a 12-team, round-robin tournament, the first league-wide preseason event since 1992. All 12 teams will play in a series of 30-minute mini-games today and tomorrow, with the championship match on Sunday.
It will be the last preseason action before the home opener Oct. 22 against the Philadelphia Kixx.
"We want to get some time in, some games in a situation where a lot of games are being played," Healey said. "So we will be looking to get some of our young guys in there, too. It is set up as a playoff format. If it happens that we win that tournament, that is great. It's so many games that we just want to play good soccer and make sure we do the things we've been working on defensively."
Pub Date: 10/15/99