The Blast has been a power in professional indoor soccer with a steady stream of rivals to fend off for more than a decade.
In the early 2000s, the now-defunct Philadelphia KiXX had a pestering quality with player-coach Omid Namazi playing the ideal villain and legendary goalie Peter Pappas always difficult to beat.
Next came the Milwaukee Wave, which played with a robotic efficiency that produced maddening success — and frustration for the Blast — under longtime coach Keith Tozer.
Four years ago, when the Missouri Comets nudged past the Wave, the Blast found itself a worthy new foe.
Going into the 2015-16 Major Arena Soccer League season, it was almost a given that the Blast and Comets would meet for a fourth straight year in the postseason.
Tonight, the anticipated Eastern Conference championship series moves to Baltimore. The Blast leads the series 1-0 after a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win in Missouri on Thursday. If the Comets take Game 2, a 15-minute mini-game would immediately follow to determine which team advances to the league championship series.
The Blast will look to ride Thursday's emotional win. It trailed 3-1 with 3:44 left to play before winning on Juan Pereira's goal six seconds into extra time. The Blast's stunning victory adds another layer to the growing rivalry.
"We want to continue to be a championship contender every single year, and Missouri has the same goals. So any time two teams like that meet, it's a battle for supremacy and we don't want to give up our seat," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "On Thursday, we kept our composure, we showed a lot of resiliency and didn't panic. … At the end of the day, it was a great win for us."
What has made the rivalry develop quickly has been the fierce back-and-forth. The Blast beat the Comets to win the Major Indoor Soccer League championship at the end of the 2012-13 season. The Comets returned the favor when they upended the Blast for the championship in 2013-14. Last season, the first in the MASL, the Comets went into the conference finals with a perfect record only to see the Blast sweep them in a series that took the rivalry's intensity to a higher level.
With the Blast in control of the clinching second game late in the fourth quarter, the Comets saw their season slipping away and lost their composure in front of the home crowd. Brian Harris was thrown out after a dangerous tackle on Levi Houapeu in the closing minutes. While the players were shaking hands after the game, Blast captain Pat Healey (Towson University, Calvert Hall) was head-butted by Andre Braithwaite, leaving a nasty gash that required stitches. The Comets quickly released Braithwaite.
Healey downplayed any bitterness between the teams.
"It's just two teams that really want to win," he said. "We're a good team and they're a good team. We've considered our two franchises to be the best two and we know we're going to end up against each other. Everything just ramps up. Every loose ball is more meaningful. Every tackle is more meaningful. Every shot has to be on frame. So the little things make everything more intense."
The Comets, winners of the Central Division, came into the regular season with nearly every player back, while the Eastern Division champion Blast had some turnover with new players to bring into the system.
It showed in the regular season when the Comets pulled out close wins in all three meetings — by a combined four goals. The Blast players blamed themselves, with costly turnovers at critical times late in the games resulting in deciding goals.
Having reached the championship round 10 times since 2002-03, the Blast is confident it can do what it takes to reach another one behind Healey and goalie William Vanzela on defense and Lucas Roque and Tony Donatelli up front. Baltimore has won six titles during the stretch, but the championship win against the Comets in the 2012-13 season is sandwiched between four title series losses.
The home team desperately wants to end the championship drought but knows another win against Missouri comes first.
"We know it's going to be a really tough battle," Vanzela said. "But that's what we've talked about all season — getting to the championship. I think we're very focused and it won't be easy, but I think we can handle it."
What: Game 2 MASL Eastern Conference finals (Blast leads best-of-3 series, 1-0)
(If series is tied after Game 2, a 15-minute mini-game will immediately follow)
When: Tonight, 7:05
Where: Royal Farms Arena
Tickets: 410-73-BLAST, ticketmaster.com or baltimoreblast.com
Outlook: The Blast emphatically moved into the driver's seat with a dramatic 4-3 overtime win in Missouri in Thursday's series opener — tying the game with two goals in the final 3:44 of regulation and then getting the game-winner from Juan Pereira six seconds into extra time to stun the Comets. With the series moving to Baltimore, the Blast would like nothing more than to jump out fast against the deflated Comets to wrap up the series and move on the championship round.
"I think it was a big confidence booster getting the win [on Thursday] because we know we didn't play our best game and still found a way to win," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "We know we can play better on Tuesday. If we can put Missouri under pressure and get an early goal, I think it can cause them some problems, because to lose in the fashion they did — giving up three goals consecutively — you could tell they were a bit stunned after the game."
The teams have met in four straight postseasons — the Blast swept last year's conference final — and both have grown accustomed to the intense competitiveness each game brings. Thursday was the first time the Blast defeated the Comets this season after the latter won the three regular-season games by a combined four goals. Soles de Sonora advanced to the championship series, capturing the Western Conference with a 2-1 series win over Las Vegas.