By Dave Lomonico
Danny Kelly admitted to being a bit skeptical. The seventh-year coach of the Baltimore Blast had lost not one, but two quality goalies during the offseason, rendering the 2011-12 Major Indoor Soccer League runners-up keeper-less.
Gone was eight-year veteran Sagu, a four-time Goalkeeper of the Year and seven-time all-league performer who led the Blast to three championships. Also gone was backup Akira Fitzgerald, who showed promise by posting a 3-1 record during his one season with the Blast, but decided to test his mettle outdoors.
"Sagu was a huge loss -- a guy you can't readily replace," Kelly said, "… and Akira showed a lot of good qualities, and we were sure he could take over the No. 1 job [when Sagu left]. So [those two leaving] left a gaping hole at the goalkeeper position."
Enter the replacements, Troy Hernandez and William Vanzela. The two new goalies, who have been working with the Blast since September, have been charged with minding the net for a squad that has won five championships since 2002.
"Everybody knows in this league you need some good goalkeeping to win championships," Kelly said. "I was a little concerned a couple months ago with no experienced goaltenders, but I'm less so now, seeing the potential these two guys have. I'm impressed with how they've adapted to the game so far, and I think they're fully capable of becoming top goaltenders in this league."
Vanzela, a shifty, quick-twitch goalie, was named Best Goalkeeper for his work during the 2011 World Cup on Italy's National Futsal team. Following his national team forays, Vanzela suited up for Athletico Arzignano, an Italian indoor league team.
"William's experience in the indoor game is valuable," Hernandez said of his new teammate, who was unavailable for interviews. "Plus he's really good with his feet and vision, he has really good timing and he's as good as I am with shot blocking. He's a very confident keeper."
Hernandez himself is a burly, 6-foot-1, 220-pound defender, who brings valuable postseason experience to the table. Last year, he suited up for the United Soccer League's Wilmington Hammerheads and won two playoff games when the team's starter went down with an injury. Before that, Hernandez played in the Premier Soccer League with the Pocono Snow and FC Sonic.
"Troy is a good shot stopper," Kelly said. "He's composed, he distributes the ball well and he's got a really good arm. William might be ahead of Troy with his footwork right now, but Troy might be ahead of William with his distribution and arm."
What might have been a battle for a starting spot was decided when Vanzela sustained a preseason injury during a scrimmage, which limited his practice repetitions. By default, Hernandez claimed the starting job. That said, Kelly acknowledged that if both keepers were healthy, it would have been tough to decide which would start.
"It's still been a good competition, both of us fighting for that No. 1 spot," Hernandez said. "We're always going to be competing with one another, but at the same time we definitely want to help each other out -- that's what goalkeeping is all about. We see ourselves as part of one team, with one team goal in mind."
That goal is to win a championship. Now, the Blast aren't exactly the New York Yankees of the MISL, but when a team averages a title every other year for a decade, winning it all becomes the only acceptable outcome.
That means Hernandez and Vanzela had better adjust to their new surroundings quickly.
Hernandez, for his part, said he's improving every day, but also admitted he's still getting used to the quickness and speed of the game. When Hernandez played outdoor soccer, he didn't have to worry about balls flying off the boards or reacting to the quick-strike forwards that pepper MISL rosters.
"I expect some growing pains," Kelly said, "but I also expect these guys to have a short learning curve and not make the same [early-season] mistakes again."
That's a daunting task in and of itself, compacted by the fact they will be following a standout in Sagu.
"[Replacing Sagu] definitely weighs on my mind a little bit," Hernandez said. "[Sagu] was a big deal here, and he left some big shoes to fill. But if we play to our potential, hopefully we can keep those championships coming for the Blast."
More Cheap Seats:
• Blast Rearing Pair Of New Keepers
• Former Bees Visit Life-changing Coach
• Mustangs' Freshmen Breaking New Ice
• Eight New Members Enter Lacrosse HOF
• Byron Knows His Way In JFK 50-Mile Race
• Shoes For Grades Targets Better Marks
Issue 179: November 2012