BALTIMORE - Over the past 34 years, Baltimore has seen its fair share of professional sports teams come and go.
From the Colts leaving town on an infamous cold March night in 1984 to smaller teams such as the Baltimore Skipjacks hockey team and the Baltimore Thunder indoor lacrosse team, Charm City has dealt with its fair share of sports rejection.
But, other than the Orioles, one constant has remained during that span: indoor soccer.
For all but a few years the name synonymous with indoor soccer in Baltimore has been the Blast. The fast-paced 5-on-5 brand of soccer became an instant hit in the soccer-rich city and many fans embraced the team the same way a generation before embraced the Colts.
To Blast fans, names like Stan “the Magician” Stamenkovic, Tim Wittman and Scott Manning resonate like Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Artie Donovan did for Colts fans a generation earlier.
“We understand that we are here because of the fans,” said Blast longtime general manager Kevin Healey. “We try to be role models on the field and in the community. That has helped us secure good sponsorship deals and endure during the good times and the bad times.”
When it comes to on the field, there is no denying that the Blast - who averaged more than 6,100 fans a game this season at the Baltimore Arena - are the measuring stick for professional indoor soccer.
The Blast (17-3) are the defending Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) champions, won the regular season title and will go after the franchise’s eighth championship when they begin the postseason Friday night in Syracuse against the Silver Knights (12-8). The teams will then play 7:35 p.m. Tuesday at the Baltimore Arena.
While Baltimore won three of four meetings against Syracuse, all of the games were close with three of the games being decided by two points or less. This included a 10-9 win Feb. 22 in the Blast’s regular season home finale.
“Syracuse is a dangerous team that can score and has gotten better on defense,” said Blast defender Mike Lookingland. “They accomplished one of their goals of getting into the postseason. We know getting another championship starts by getting past them first. Just getting into the playoffs is not enough for our franchise. We expect to compete for a championship every year.”
Commitment to excellence
For the most part, the Blast have done just that, playing with a level of consistency that would make any sports franchise envious.
Blast coach Danny Kelly said the commitment to quality and winning starts at the top of the franchise with longtime owner, Baltimore businessman Ed Hale. Hale is in his second tenure as owner of the Blast. He first purchased the team in 1989 and held on under the MISL ceased operations in 1992.
This led to another ownership group bringing in the Baltimore Spirit, which played in the old NPSL until Hale repurchased the team in 1998 and brought back the Blast name.
“Ed Hale loves this city, he loves this sport and loves this franchise,” Kelly said. “We try to bring in the best players possible and our commitment is known throughout the sport.”
More often than not, the Blast don’t have to look far to find quality players. This year’s roster has seven Maryland-born players who suited up for the Blast.
Many times, the players grew up Blast fans and came up together from youth and club teams to high schools like traditional powers Calvert Hall and Loyola before moving on to play collegiately at UMBC, Maryland and Towson (before the school killed the program last year).
“It’s great to bring in so many local players,” said Lookingland, who had 17 goals and 18 assists this season. “But, we also work hard to fill in the roster with great international players. The Baltimore guys are more blue collar and some of the guys from Brazil offer more of a splash. It’s the perfect balance.”
Blast forward Marco Mangione can attest to that. The son of former Blast player Nick Mangione starred at Calvert Hall and Towson before joining the Blast last season. He had 10 goals and 7 assists this season and was seventh on the team with 28 total points.
“There’s just such a great soccer tradition in Baltimore,” Mangione said. “Many of us come up together and the fans watch us at every level. Having friends, families and other in the stands every game only adds to the great environment.”
Like Mangione, Pat Healey grew up around the Blast. As the son of the general manager, Healey always knew he wanted to be a part of the Blast. Pat Healey, who went to Calvert Hall and Towson University, said a big reason the franchise has endured for so long is because of how they get out in the community.
Whether it is a bull roast, school event, soccer camp or charity event, Blast players can be spotted all over town. It’s also not unusual for players to stick around after games to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans.
“I just try to give back like the players before did for me,” Pat Healey said. “It really is a 12-month job and I’m hoping by doing the things in the community
like players before me did that the Blast will be here another 30 years.”
Room to grow
Kevin Healey said as happy as he is to see how the Blast has succeeded, he would like nothing more than for the sport as a whole to grow alongside them.
One of the biggest issues the Blast face perennially is who they will play and what the league will look like from season to season. Under the MISL’s current incarnation since 2008, the league has seen 10 teams fold, including newer franchises like the Monterrey La Raza and Rockford Rampageto and teams with rich tradition like the Wichita Wings.
“We’ve weathered tough economic times thanks to loyal fans, and I believe now is the time for the sport to grow,” Healey said.
Hale believes indoor soccer could develop a national following and is pushing for the MISL to merge with the 20-team Professional Arena Soccer League, which is based largely in the western half of the country.
A move like this, Kelly said, would give the sport a great profile, stabilize the leagues and allow the Blast to truly prove they have the best indoor soccer team in the country. Such a merger would also allow the Blast to once again play former rivals like the Dallas Sidekicks and the San Diego Sockers.
“Hopefully this merger can get done,” Kelly said. “The product on the field is amazing and an opportunity like this could allow the sport to grow to levels it hasn’t seen since the heydays of the 1980s. There have been talks in the past, but I believe this is something that can finally happen for the good of the game.”