Blast Eye Playoff Showdown With Wave
By Krystina Lucido
Despite the Blast's defense not doing the team any favors during some games, Baltimore (14-6 as of Feb. 11) has secured a spot in the Major Indoor Soccer League playoffs and the Eastern Division title. But this is no time for the team to rest on its laurels.
Following a four-game win streak, including a 26-4 romping of Norfolk Feb. 1, the Blast traveled Feb. 4 to face Milwaukee (17-2), who was seeking revenge against a Blast team that handed it a 9-4 New Year's Eve loss on its home floor.
Seven different Milwaukee players hit the back of the Blast net during the first quarter alone en route to a 22-8 victory. Pat Healey managed to get his team on the board before the end of the second half, but it was too late to salvage the win. Ten blue and yellow cards, totaling 25 penalty minutes between the two teams, didn't help matters.
"It wasn't necessarily that their keeper had a great game," coach Danny Kelly said. "We just didn't finish. We didn't hit the target. We missed opportunities."
The Blast intended to rebound in Missouri Feb. 10, scoring a couple goals during the second quarter, but then the Comets scored three goals in less than a minute for the lead. The second half was littered by power plays, which the Blast didn't take advantage of during an 18-9 loss.
While Kelly said one or two losses wouldn't break his team, it could bruise confidence. Still, Kelly isn't easily discouraged.
"Every game you play, you're trying to get better," he said. "That doesn't always work out to plan. Obviously, we want to win every game. We want to play well every game, but that's not necessarily the case. That's why the games are played. Mistakes are made and sometimes you can't recover from mistakes."
The Blast have secured home-field advantage during the first round of the postseason by capturing the division regular-season title. But from now on, every game has playoff implications, especially games with Milwaukee. The team with the best regular-season record will get home-field advantage for the championship game.
Baltimore and Milwaukee have both clinched playoff spots and division titles. With the regular-season series sitting at 1-1, the Feb. 18 matchup looms large.
"Milwaukee is Milwaukee," Kelly said, "obviously a huge rivalry between the two clubs. Both organizations look at the other as the measuring stick to see where they're at. We both hate losing to each other. It's got all the makings of a great rivalry. Every time we play them, you could literally throw the records out the window; it's going to be a battle."
But with uncertainty in how other games in the league will play out, every game counts. Kelly said he focused on the positives, but the Blast couldn't afford to have another poor defensive outing.
The Blast have one force of nature to be excited about.
Rookie goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald stepped into the goal and immediately made an impression for the team that has grabbed three championships with current goalkeeper Sagu.
Though there is no talk of replacing the nine-year veteran, Fitzgerald has proven himself worthy of becoming the future of the goaltending core when the time does come.
"Akira's done really well from day one," Kelly said. "I like all these attributes. He communicates well. He's got good feet. He's a good shot-stopper. He reads the game well. He distributes well with his feet and his hands. He's got all the makings of a very good goalkeeper."
During four games, Fitzgerald holds a 3-1 record with 33 saves and only 16 goals allowed. His instincts and floor presence coupled with those numbers have to make the Blast feel pretty good about depth in goal.
"He's done well in practice and he's earned the starts that he's gotten," Kelly said. "It wasn't something we said, 'Hey, let's give Sagu a rest and give Akira a game.' He's earned them. He's doing well in training, and he's done well in the games he's played."
Issue 170: February 2012