In the opening home game of the season, less than five minutes had elapsed when Blast forward Giuliano Celenza had already staggered the Chicago Storm with a three-goal outburst that paved the way to an 18-12 victory.
The leading goal-scorer in the Major Indoor Soccer League last season had rapidly served notice via that hat trick that he had every intention of defending the coveted individual title.
But three weeks later, Celenza suffered a groin injury in a game against Milwaukee and hasn't played since. And the Blast has suffered in kind.
Tonight, when the Storm returns to 1st Mariner Arena, Celenza will be in the lineup for the first time in almost two months, and his presence will be a welcome sight for a team that has been straining to score goals.
"Hopefully, his return will mean some good things and he can give us some offense," coach Danny Kelly said. "He's a proven goal-scorer and the opposition definitely has to be aware of him when he's on the field. Somebody like Giuls can give us a much-needed boost."
Added president-general manager Kevin Healey: "It's big to get him back. We have a lack of goals right now and Giuls is a quality finisher. He draws a lot of respect from the other team and it can open up other opportunities for other people as well."
Aside from a 20-9 win at California on Jan. 11, the Blast has been thwarted on offense since the new year began. In the other four games, the team has scored 11 goals and gone 1-3. The problem was underscored in the latest outing, when the team had a 25-3 shot advantage in the third quarter against California but managed only a single score.
Celenza, an All-MISL first-team choice after the team's run to the 2005-06 championship, has been practicing full tilt this week. "It's crazy" to have missed so much time, he said. "Not being able to play is hard. It's frustrating. It [the injury] is still sore, but it's something I'll have to play through."
Watching from the stands, the Highlandtown native assessed the team's struggles as "a little bit of everything. We get our chances, but can't find the back of the net. We have to try to get us all on the same page."
Since his first full season, 2001-02, Celenza has scored at least 40 points annually, with a high of 77.
Celenza's absence has been magnified because another of the Blast's major offensive threats, Adauto Neto, underwent offseason leg surgery and has not yet played.
The return of Neto, the league's Most Valuable Player and the team's top scorer last season, has been pushed back several times. He is expected to return next month.
With Celenza and Neto around to join Machel Millwood and Denison Cabral, opposing defenses will have major offensive personnel to check and the Blast can apply constant pressure.
Meanwhile, workouts this week were shifted to the downtown arena from Du Burns Arena because 1st Mariner had no conflicting events scheduled.
"I think this will help us out a bit," Kelly said. "Just getting accustomed to your home floor can't hurt."
Matchup -- Chicago Storm (8-7) at Blast (6-8)
Site -- 1st Mariner Arena
Time -- 7:35
Radio -- 680 AM
Series -- Tied 1-1
Outlook -- The Storm played Wednesday in California and traveled yesterday, so the Blast may be catching a weary team. Both games between the two this season have been high scoring, with the Blast allowing 11 fourth-quarter points to lose, 21-19, in the most recent meeting. Ex-Blast F Chris Handsor is one of Chicago's top scorers.