It was a precisely-executed game plan that gave the Blast the upper hand against visiting Soles de Sonora in Sunday's first game of the best-of-three Major Arena Soccer League championship game.
Playing the Suns for the first time ever, Baltimore made the most of the home field advantage, playing its organized grinding style – opportunistic on offense, stingy on defense and patient with the ball throughout – to come away with a 7-4 win before an announced crowd of 7,243 at Royal Farms Arena.
Much of the offense came from unexpected sources. Midfielder Jonatas Melo, who scored two goals in the regular season and had one earlier in the playoffs, led the way with two poised finishes and Sofiane Tergou provided one goal and one assist. Goalie William Vanzela made timely saves –finishing with 13 in all – as the Blast blanked the visitors for the first 27-plus minutes of the decisive second half to take hold of the game.
The teams will next travel to Hermosillo, Mexico on Friday as the Blast has two chances to bring home Baltimore's eighth indoor professional soccer championship. The second game is set for 11:05 p.m., and if Sonora comes away with the win, a 15-minute mini game will immediately follow to determine the league champion.
"We were very focused and we knew what we had to do," Vanzela said. "We know our strengths and we know our weaknesses. They're a great team, but we know how we can beat teams. Today was an amazing game. I think it was our best game of the season, so far. I truly think we're ready to get the title back."
Baltimore, which is making its sixth straight championship appearance with its only title in the span coming in the 2012-13 season, knows hard work remains. The Suns were undefeated on their home turf and finished with a league-best 17-3 mark in the regular season. The Blast will have to play on a field significantly smaller than what it has played on all season. But it goes to Mexico filled with confidence, now 5-0 in the postseason after opening with two-game sweeps against Syracuse and Missouri.
"We're not going to change our game," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "Obviously, the field there is probably the smallest we've ever seen. I watched game tape there. There's not a whole lot of possession — it's just back and forth. So can we minimize our mistakes, can we possess the ball and again try to do the same thing we did here even on that small field. We know we have our work cut out for us. The job is not done, but we're confident we can go down there and get a win."
The Suns averaged just under 11 goals a game this season and boasted the league's top scorer, Franck Tayou, who scored 47 times.
Tayou opened the scoring five minutes into the game, but wasn't heard from the rest of the game with the Blast defense keeping him in close check.
With a 4-3 lead going into the third quarter, the Blast took charge with third-quarter goals from Melo and Levi Houapeu for a 6-3 advantage. Then Tergou made it 7-3 midway through the fourth quarter as the Blast effectively kept the ball away from the Suns, who finally scored a meaningless goal with 2:31 to play.
"We wanted to play our way and not get into an up-and-down game," Kelly said. "They like to run and they punish teams with their quickness and pace getting down the field. We like to control possession, so it was contrasting styles and I thought we did a good job of composing our style on the game."
It was evident early that the teams were evenly matched with the Blast claiming a 4-3 lead at the half. Both came out with good energy, crisp passing and responsible play in the back.
Tied at 2 early in the second quarter, the Blast got quality finishes from Kaoru Forbess and Melo to take a 4-2 lead with 4:22 to play in the half.
Forbess' goal was particularly impressive as he took a short feed from Adriano Dos Santos and buried a heavy shot from far away that quickly found the near post to make it 3-2 with 12:01 left in the half.
Sonora responded with a goal just before half – Luis Cuadros scoring off a restart from Christian Seguar with just 17 second left before intermission..
Vanzela made five saves when the Blast pulled away in the third quarter – his best on a Damian Garcia's free kick in front with the Blast up 5-3 with 6:51 to play.
He was awarded Player of the Game honors, but shrugged it off.
"I'm going to be honest with you, it was hard to find a player because everybody played very well," he said. "So credit to me teammates because they did an amazing job and I'm just happy for the win, for the team and for the fans. To win the first game and make are fans happy means a lot to us and now we put the pressure on them, so let's see what happens in Mexico."