Baltimore Blast coach Danny Kelly talks about the challenges of defending the team's championship. (Baltimore Sun video by Glenn Graham)
When he played for the Rochester Lancers, Andrew Hoxie didn't completely understand how the Blast consistently enjoyed so much success.
Sure, they had good players, good coaching and a front office that did what was necessary to win. But there was something special about how, when things couldn't be going any worse, they always found their way.
In his second year playing forward for the Blast, Hoxie understands it now.
And as the Blast prepare to defend their Major Arena Soccer League championship against Soles de Sonora — making their seventh straight finals appearance seeking their ninth professional indoor crown — he is now part of the answer.
Game 1 of the MASL Ron Newman Cup starts at 8:05 p.m. Friday at Royal Farms Arena before the best-of-three series moves to Centro de Usos Multiples in Hermosillo, Mexico at 9:05 p.m. Sunday for Game 2. If the series is tied, a 15-minute mini game will immediately follow to decide the league champion.
For Hoxie and the Blast, it's the most important time to do what they do best: Find a way.
"There's something special about the Blast…it's the brotherhood we are," Hoxie said. "The core is always there. As a brother, you bleed together and you fight together and when the game comes on Friday, we got each other's back, win or lose."
The Blast go into every game expecting to win because they know they have so many capable players unafraid of the moment. In the back, there's goalie William Vanzela, defender Pat Healey (Towson University, Calvert Hall) and midfielder Adriano Dos Santos. When they need a big goal, Tony Donatelli, Vini Dantas, Lucas Roque, Jonatas Melo, Juan Pereira and Hoxie have all taken their turns.
Hoxie's came in the Eastern Division final against the Harrisburg Heat. After losing the first game in Baltimore, the Blast fell behind 3-0 in the second game in Harrisburg, but there was no panic. Hoxie went on to score the game-winning goals in that game and deciding mini-game that followed.
"When our backs are against the wall, we're not going to lose. We have that mentality," he said. "We don't even have to say anything — we just look into each others' eyes and it's there. It's something spectacular."
In last year's playoff run, Roque came up with many of the timely goals before Donatelli clinched the championship with a Game 2 overtime goal in Mexico for a 14-13 win and series sweep over Sonora.
The Blast expect the same grind this time around against the offensive-minded Soles, who had 45 goals in two-game sweeps against Atletico Baja and the San Diego Sockers to make another appearance in the championship.
"They're very talented offensively, they attack the ball, want the ball as much as possible, so they pressure high," Donatelli said. "So we have to move the ball quickly and expose them when they do pressure. If we break their first line of pressure, we want to attack and try to create chances quick. We still want to play our game, possess the ball when we can and stay behind the ball and make them break us down. If we can do those things, we give ourselves the best chance to win."
Dantas, who was out of last year's playoffs because of an injury, is the league's leading scorer this postseason with six goals and seven assists. Vanzela has a playoff-low 4.82 goals against average.
Much like last year's championship, playing well in Friday's Game 1 is vital for the home team. The Blast claimed a 7-4 win last season to set the tone for the series.
But should the Blast fall behind or if the game is close in the fourth quarter, the team has confidence in those situations.
"We're going to work very hard to be in a better situation in the fourth quarter," Vanzela said. "But if that situation presents itself, we know what to do and we're not afraid. The reality is we know how capable we are, we know our team and our strengths and weaknesses. I've been here for the last five seasons and we know what it takes to be a champion and we're going to do everything we know to be a champion again."
Two Blast players honored: The MASL announced its 2016-17 season awards and the addition of two expansion franchises expected to join the league in the coming years.
Vanzela, who has a league low 3.34 goals-against in the regular season, was named to the All-MASL second team and defender Elton de Oliveira was selected to the All-Rookie Team. Former Blast star and first-year Harrisburg Heat coach Denison Cabral was named the league's Coach of the Year.
The MASL will welcome the Texas-based Rio Grande Valley Barracudas next season with the first franchise from Canada set to play in Toronto in 2018.