Entering the 2019-20 season, the Baltimore Blast finds itself in a position it hasn't faced since 2015: seeking to avenge a season that ended in defeat.
The Blast, winners of three consecutive Major Arena Soccer League championships, made it to the 2018-19 MASL Eastern Conference final last year, and Baltimore trailed the Milwaukee Wave, 2-1, with time winding down. The Blast pulled its goalkeeper off the field to make midfielder and co-captain Tony Donatelli a sixth attacker.
The Wave cleared the ball with 15 seconds remaining. Donatelli retrieved it with 10 seconds to play and sent a ball into the attacking third with eight seconds on the clock, and the ball fell to Baltimore forward Juan Pereira. He took one dribble and fired a shot that would've tied the game and forced overtime. But it hit the top crossbar, bounced back toward midfield and time expired.
"It was almost like disbelief," Donatelli said. "You don't expect to get that chance with three seconds left because it looked like the game was over. To have it bounce to our player and then hit off the crossbar, it takes your breath away because you thought you were about to tie it up."
Baltimore was not at full strength in that contest. Forward Daniel Peruzzi got off to a fast start last year with two goals and one assist in two games before a knee injury ended his season. The Blast lost key defender Ibrahima Keita in its first playoff game against Utica City FC. Blast head coach Danny Kelly said forward Vini Dantas was banged up throughout the entire season and was at 50 percent in that game.
In the Milwaukee game itself, midfielder/defender Mo N'diaye had to leave with an injury, and forward Andrew Hoxie was involved in a collision and was playing at about 50 percent the rest of the way.
"I don't want to make excuses because that's not what we do," Kelly said. "But that was a rough game for us in terms of guys getting banged up at a critical time."
The Blast's 2019-20 season begins Nov. 22 with a home matchup against Utica at Towson University's SECU Arena. Baltimore faces Utica twice that weekend, as the Blast play at Utica Nov. 24. The games represent a playoff rematch, as Baltimore defeated Utica to advance to the Eastern Conference final last season.
Despite last season ending on a bitter note, the Blast won't change much this season. The same core returns with Dantas, Hoxie, Donatelli, Pereira, goalkeeper and co-captain Vanzela, forward Jonatas Melo and defender Adriano Dos Santos.
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran
The Blast added left-footed forward Victor France ahead of this season. France played last season with MASL's Orlando SeaWolves after three seasons split between the St. Louis Ambush and the Cedar Rapids Rampage. Kelly said France will be a critical player this season who can contribute in a variety of ways.
Melo led the Blast in points (41) and finished second in goals (22) last season. He attributed his success to feeling good physically and mentally, things he thinks he can carry over into this season.
"I was just more comfortable," Melo said. "I think after you play a few seasons -- I had a tough injury my first year, and now I feel fully recovered. But I think last season I was feeling pretty confident. I was trying to help my team in everything -- in points, in goals, assists, definitely in the game being a playmaker, trying to help everybody."
While the Blast certainly hope for similar results from Melo this season, Baltimore will rely on its established team-before-self culture to take them back to championship contention.
"Our team plays as a team," Vanzela said. "We don't have a superstar. It's not William the superstar, it's not Vini the superstar, not Tony, not Melo. It's the Blast as a team. So we never know who's going to step up."
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran
Vanzela actually views the semifinal loss as a good thing. After winning three championships in a row, a sense of complacency can set in. Melo said that although the team knew winning a title wasn't easy, things got a little relaxed at times last season. The disappointing end to the season brought renewed ambition to the team.
"I can tell you there's a motivation. When you've been that successful and you don't get back to the championship [and don't] give yourself an opportunity to compete for a championship again, there's a hunger there," Kelly said. "Once you taste that success, you want to keep tasting it. And, obviously, last year, we didn't. So there's a hunger to get back there."
The team is sticking to its culture and mantra of giving itself a chance to win every game it plays. Kelly will lean on his captains -- along with the rest of his veteran core -- to keep the team mentally strong. He knows that, given the Blast's success in the recent past, the team will have a target on its back.
"This team, this organization expects a championship every year, and that's what our goal is, that's what we strive for," Donatelli said. "At the start of the season, there's that hunger. Maybe a little more this year, seeing the season end the way it did. But I don't think it changes much just because once you start winning, you get addicted to it."
Photo Credits: Sabina Moran
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019