Optimism gets a quick test; Four of first six against tough KiXX will provide clues; Blast preview


More than anything else, the scheduling -- four out of the first six matches are against last year's division-winner Philadelphia KiXX -- will let coach Kevin Healey know if the Blast has, as hoped, gained a spot among the NPSL elite.

The Blast has a home-and-home series with the KiXX starting tonight at 7: 30 at Baltimore Arena.

The opener marks the debut of key free-agent signee Erik Rasmussen, along with the return of former Baltimore star Paul Wright.

Those signings, along with the return of most of last season's team that got better as the season progressed, have Healey confident about the Blast's chance of dethroning Philadelphia.

"We have to play them eight times this year," Healey said. "It's a little unique to have a home-and-away right away. It usually creates a little bit of an emotional game, especially that second night.

"Right now, we have to look forward to the first night and focus on it.

"We want to dominate our home facility, win our first game and then the pressure is on them that second game."

The Blast won the season series with the KiXX, 3-2, last year, including a 13-6 victory after starting the year 0-4.

Defender Doug Neely said if the Blast is to improve on last season's 19-21 record, which barely missed the playoffs, it cannot start slowly this year, especially with so many games against the KiXX early.

"We were just battling the whole time just to try and get to .500 last year," Neely said.

"We want to make a statement in our own conference and throughout the league that we're ready to play this year.

"These games are worth so much more because they're in the conference. That's the way the schedule was made, and we're excited."

The Blast has a few players who heighten expectations for this season, most notably Rasmussen and Wright.

Rasmussen finished third in the league in scoring with 184 points last season and was a first-team All-NPSL selection.

After having only two days of practice because of a prior soccer commitment, Rasmussen, 38, is in good shape and should see substantial playing time tonight, Healey said.

Wright, 30, comes back to Baltimore after spending three seasons with the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer. He scored 146 points in the 1993-94 season, his last with Baltimore.

Also, goalkeeper Scott Hileman and forward Mark Thomas were not with the Blast at the start of last season, coming over late in a trade with Florida.

"This year, our expectations are a lot higher," team captain Lance Johnson said.

"We're not looking to just get in the playoffs. We're looking to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs and win it all.

"From the owner down to the 16th player on the team, we all want to win it all. The time is now. The pieces of the puzzle are in place. Last year, we weren't as strong as we are from the beginning this year."

Beginning the season with Hileman in goal should help. Hileman was second-team All-NPSL in the 1997-98 season with Edmonton. He had a 12.75 points-against average in eight games with the Blast last season.

"It's good to finally get a chance to see some other guys and play against a real team when it means something," Hileman said. "I'm sick of getting shots from my own guys."

Healey said the Blast has looked good during the preseason, especially on the defensive side. The team finished 4-4 in last week's tournament featuring all 12 teams, and beat Philadelphia in its preseason opener.

The Blast lost defender Todd Hicks, who hurt his back in the first preseason game and has not been able to play since.

Outside of that injury and midfielder Shane Dougherty's rehabilitation from off-season ankle surgery, the Blast is essentially healthy.

"Going into the game, everyone is excited," Neely said.

"Opening night is always the big night. To play it against your biggest rival, I love it. You can tell in the locker room, guys are excited."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad