The Blast embarks on a brand-new venture tonight, hoping it culminates in a second straight indoor soccer championship, when the Rockford (Ill.) Rampage visits the 1st Mariner Arena at 7:35.
With the introduction of the National Indoor Soccer League and its abbreviated 18-game-per-team schedule, a higher premium will be placed on the outcome of each individual contest and no team will be able to afford to get off to a sluggish start and hope to qualify for postseason play.
"If you start off slow, you could cut yourself out of the playoffs right off the bat," said Blast defender Mike Lookingland, one of 13 players returning from last season's Major Indoor Soccer League titlists. "I expect a very competitive season. With only five teams, everybody has a chance because they play each other a lot."
Joining the Blast and Rockford (about an hour's drive from Chicago) are two MISL holdovers, the Philadelphia KiXX and Monterrey La Raza, and the recently added Massachusetts Twisters, who joined the group last week after the Orlando Sharks suspended operations for the season.
Baltimore looks strong again, with only two key players not returning, forward Adauto Neto and midfielder Lucio Gonzaga, who signed with the New Jersey Ironmen in the rival Xtreme Soccer League. Also absent will be Michael Todd, who is pursuing other business opportunities.
"That's two good offensive players [Neto and Gonzaga] we don't have, so other guys will have to step up their game," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "The new guys [Pat Healey, Adrian Bumbut and Richard Lesmes] are all good players and have a chance to make an impact, but they're learning more about the indoor game every day, and [MISL veteran] Jonathan Greenfield has to adjust to a new team."
Also added is Matt Tirschman, a former MISL forward who has come out of retirement at age 33. He is expected to add firepower once he shakes off rust and re-acquaints himself with the game's speed.
"Obviously, Neto and Lucio brought us natural creativity," forward Matt Watson said. "So, it's going to take a team effort to replace those goals. But the game is going to be exactly the same. It's going to be interesting to see what the new teams are like."
The Blast thrived with the MISL's best defense during the second half of last season, allowing the fewest shots and points per game, and that will be the focal point of this season's squad.
"We've added one of the top defenders in the league [Greenfield], and we have a lot of experience back there," Lookingland said. "With the kind of defense we play, it should take some of the pressure off the scorers."
Another key defender, Billy Nelson, said anything short of a title "will be a disappointment. That's the way it's been since I've been here. And I know we can defend with the best of them. That is our best chance to win the championship."
Kelly said he would prefer a "30- or 40-game schedule" but that this season "is a matter of the league getting on its feet and preparing to move forward. As a team, we're not sitting back. It's a lot harder to repeat as champion than to win the first one."
Opponent: Rockford Rampage
Site: 1st Mariner Arena
Radio: 680 AM
Outlook: The National Indoor Soccer League begins its first season with the 2007-08 Major Indoor Soccer League champion Blast hosting a new team. Rockford, coached by native Baltimorean Jeff Kraft, will come in equipped with a slew of former MISL notables, including Jamar Beasley, the 2007 scoring champion and Most Valuable Player. The roster also includes G Sanaldo, who was in the cage when the Blast clinched the 2006 MISL title, and Dino Delevski, who was second in the league scoring race while playing for Monterrey La Raza last season. Baltimore counters with 13 veterans of the championship team, including Goalkeeper of the Year Sagu and All-MISL second-team picks P.J. Wakefield and Denison Cabral.