Blast in good hands with solid goalies

The Baltimore Sun

At times earlier this season, the Blast allowed too many opponents to run free and get into good scoring positions from the box. At other times, the offense faltered, failing to finish on numerous chances.

But one segment of the team's play has been generally consistent and successful - the last line of defense.

Starter Sagu and backup Brian Rowland have been an effective duo in goal, a strong signal that the defending Major Indoor Soccer League champions will be a force again if they qualify for the playoffs.

Each might draw an assignment this weekend when the team plays home games against the league-leading Philadelphia KiXX tonight and the last-place California Cougars tomorrow.

Sagu, a native of Brazil, is enjoying his second straight outstanding season, leading the MISL with a .752 save percentage and 9.94 points-against average while starting 17 of 21 games. Rowland, a native of Toronto who prepped for the pros at UMBC, is 2-2 in his four starts with a 10.38 points-against average.

"They have kept us in a lot of games," coach Danny Kelly said. "We didn't play well in front of them a lot of times and they saved our butts."

Sagu said: "I think now I am playing very well. I've always tried to do my best. I'm going to be 34 [later this month] and I have more confidence. The first year I was here I didn't know the people, but now I'm very comfortable. They're like my family now. I see these guys more than I see my wife during the season."

General manager Kevin Healey said the rest of the league wasn't too enamored when the Cleveland Force (now defunct) was preparing to trade Sagu to Baltimore before the 2004-05 season. Several teams tried to dissuade the Force from making the deal but we told them "you have to think of your team. They needed a target forward [Chris Handsor] and we figured Sagu was the missing piece of our team. It worked out both ways."

That season, Sagu and Rowland shared the goalkeeping duties, but the team struggled with injuries and did not make the postseason. California took Rowland in an expansion draft after that season; he was then traded to the Milwaukee Wave, which sent him back to the Blast on dispersal day last September.

Sanaldo, a playoff hero last season, had been taken by the Detroit Ignition in another expansion draft, leaving the Blast in need of a veteran backup.

"The first time [here], I was playing every other game and that's what I'm trying to get back to," Rowland said. "It's a different position now, but I'm happy to be playing a little more than at the start. You have to be patient and your time will come."

Kelly said Sagu earned the top spot last season - the Blast was 15-9 in games he started and he topped the league with a .718 save percentage - and has improved in even more areas this season.

"He's great at stopping shots, distributing and he's been able to keep his composure better," Kelly said. "Brian has done a fine job of competing and is very capable."

Sagu said: "In the past, I got three or four red cards and some yellow cards. I used to get very frustrated when somebody made a mistake. Now, I understand nobody's perfect."

Four times this season, Sagu has been named Goalkeeper of the Week, and he gives a lot of the credit to veteran teammate Lee Tschantret, who has been forced to play virtually every position on the field, and goalie coach Karim Moumban.

"When Lee comes in the back, he is helping me a lot," Sagu said. "He knows everybody in the league and every single ball that comes in, he's going to be there."

So, too, is Sagu.

Tonight's game

Matchup -- Philadelphia KiXX (13-8) at Blast (12-9)

Site -- 1st Mariner Arena

Time -- 7:30

Radio -- 680 AM

Season series -- Blast leads 2-1

Outlook -- The Blast is the hottest team in the league with five straight victories and seven in the past eight games and can tie the KiXX in the standings with a win, possibly for first place. Philadelphia has been the best road team in the MISL (7-3), but lost back-to-back games (home and away) the last time these two met. Blast forward Adauto Neto, the MISL's Most Valuable Player last season, will miss the rest of the season because of a stress fracture in his shin. Machel Millwood continues to lead the Blast with 58 points and KiXX player-coach Don D'Ambra is right behind him with 56

Kent Baker

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