Since Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale bought the Blast in 1998, the organization has become the gold standard for professional indoor soccer, winning nine championships during the past 16 years.
The Blast has reached eight straight league finals -- winning four -- since 2011, and the team won a third straight Major Arena Soccer League title in March. In 2018-19, the Blast, led by head coach Danny Kelly, will seek a fourth straight MASL title.
The Blast begins the quest for another championship against Mississauga (based in Ontario, Canada) at home Dec. 1.
"We know every single game we step on the field, we're getting that team's best effort," said Kelly, entering his 13th season as coach. He's won six titles since he took over in 2006 to go with the three he won as a player for the Blast from 1999-2006.
"They know that's what it's going to take to beat us," Kelly said. "And therein lies the challenge and that's what I think we all relish. ... Can we continue to be the best in the league?"
The Blast finished the 2017-18 season 17-5, first in the Eastern Division, and undefeated (11-0) at home despite dealing with injuries to key players. Forward Lucas Roque, the 2016 MASL Finals MVP, tore an ACL in January, defender Mike Deasal was recovering from an ACL tear of his own and 2015 MASL Goalkeeper of the Year William Vanzela missed time with a torn adductor.
In Vanzela's stead, the Blast signed veteran goalie Joey Kapinos, who helped win six regular season games and two playoff games before making way for a fully healed Vanzela in the playoff semifinals. Vanzela led the team to the MASL title, defeating the Monterrey Flash, 4-3. Vanzela was named Finals MVP.
"He was everything that we needed," Kelly said of Kapinos. "For a guy who was out of pro indoor soccer and, admittedly when he got the call from us was on his couch eating Doritos, he came in and did phenomenally well and was a huge reason we had the success that we did."
The Blast re-signed Kapinos in the offseason, but Kelly left no doubt who the Blast's No. 1 goalie will be this season.
"William is No. 1 and Joey is No. 2," Kelly said.
Vanzela has been a rock in net for the better part of a decade for the Blast. Before he was injured, he helped the team win 10 of its first 13 games and had a league-best .770 save percentage to go with a 4.18 goals-against average, good for top three in the league by season's end.
"William is hands down the best goalkeeper in the league," Kelly said. "Joey showed he can come in and win regular season and playoff games. To have those two guys at your disposal as a coach is a luxury not too many teams have."
Vanzela, who co-captains the team with forward Tony Donatelli, called Kapinos "the other piece of the puzzle" in helping guide the team while Vanzela was recovering.
"We expected him to play and that's exactly what he did," Vanzela said.
During the offseason, veteran Blast defender Pat Healey retired after more than a decade with the team. He is now the head coach and general manager of the Harrisburg Heat.
A group of veteran players, including Vanzela, Donatelli, Roque, forward Vini Dantas and defender Adriano Dos Santos, will help guide a team that thrives when a variety of players contribute offensively.
Donatelli was the team's leading scorer last season with 22 goals to go with 21 assists. Dantas added 20 goals, and Roque had 12 goals and three assists in 11 games before tearing his ACL. The team re-signed Roque in September, and he has been cleared to play by team doctors, Kelly said.
In all, six Blast players scored double-digit goals last season.
"No one person is bigger than the next," Donatelli said. "If you look across the league, a lot of teams are reliant on two or three scorers to really do their damage, and for us we kill you with the numbers."
That team-first mentality translates to the defensive end of the field as well where every player -- including Donatelli -- is expected to defend and block shots in Kelly's system.
"We hold each other accountable," Donatelli said, "and it's because we have a great goalie and we have great players that are willing to sacrifice for the next guy and buy into that defensive effort."
The team added Joey Kapinos' twin brother Jayme, a veteran defender, during the offseason to help fill out the defense.
The 2018-19 season will mark the second straight season in which the Blast will play its home games at Towson University's SECU Arena. The team agreed to a three-year deal to play at SECU, a smaller but more intimate venue, according to Kelly.
Last season was the first time the Blast played its home games away from Royal Farms Arena.
"Going into SECU, we were unsure how we were going to be able to do what we've done playing a possession-based style on a field that was much smaller," Kelly said. "But ultimately we found a way."
The team adapted quickly, he said, adding that the arena, which seats 3,800, was near or at capacity for each home game.
"There's not a bad seat in the place," he said. "The fans are right on top of you. It creates a much better atmosphere."
Photo Credit: David Rippeto/Baltimore Blast
This has been updated.
Issue 249: November 2018
Originally published Nov. 15, 2018