Having a Blast

There’s another sports champion in town—and they shouldn’t be overlooked.

For a split second, Lucas Roque seemed suspended in mid air, his back parallel to the green artificial turf, his eyes focused on the soccer ball he was about to rocket off his right foot.When Roque’s circus-like flip kick improbably—impossibly, really—sailed past the stunned Missouri Comets goalkeeper, delivering the Blast the decisive blow in March’s final Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) championship game, he became the latest legend in the storied franchise’s decade of dominance. Most Baltimore fans know the Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones play in Denver much better, but Roque’s bicycle kick, as the rare soccer feat is known, was a sports “miracle” materialized from skill and luck. And for Blast fans—a decidedly smaller, yet no less passionate bunch than their NFL or MLB counterparts—it’s every bit as significant.

“It couldn’t be a better ending,” says the Brazilian forward, who is entering his second season with the team. “I couldn’t say we were going to win after the goal because there was still a lot of time left. But I was praying it would be the winning goal.”

You’ll have to excuse Baltimore sports fans if, after a 2012-13 season that saw them celebrate a Super Bowl win, baseball resurrection, and the Blast’s title, they truly believe that God’s ears were attuned to Charm City.
Call the Ravens run dominant and the Orioles rebirth overdue. There’s only one way to characterize the Blast, a team that has won six championships in 11 years.

As a dynasty.

This season, which began this month with the Blast hanging its latest championship banner from the Baltimore Arena rafters, marks the 34th consecutive year of professional indoor soccer in the city. The sport essentially is an Americanized version of the so-called “beautiful game”—soccer with amped up speed and scoring.

Six men per side play balls off the boards and substitute on the fly, hockey-style. As in basketball, goals count for two or three points, so leads can turn into deficits in the blink of an eye.

“Indoor soccer is definitely end-to-end,” says defender Pat Healey, a Calvert Hall grad. “There’s a lot of action, a lot of goals, and the game can transition very quickly. You’re never really out of a game.”

Like its pro-football history, Baltimore’s indoor soccer lineage includes several franchises playing in various leagues. The current iteration dates to 1998, when developer and former 1st Mariner Bank CEO Ed Hale reacquired the team (he previously owned it from 1989-1992) and changed its name from the Spirit back to the Blast.

While the Blast’s fortunes rose, the vitality of the sport itself wavered. Indoor soccer enjoyed its heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s, when crowds in Baltimore and cities like Dallas and Cleveland threatened five digits. But as the economy shifted downward, sponsorships and ticket sales, which along with merchandise and summer camps encompass virtually all of an indoor-soccer franchise’s revenue, fell. Last year, the Blast averaged about 6,000 fans per game. The MISL, which at one point dropped to just five teams, will include seven this season.

Earlier this year, the team moved its headquarters from Du Burns Arena in Canton to a nondescript office park in Rosedale. It practiced at the Northeast Regional Recreation Center in Baltimore County. Unlike after previous title-winning seasons, Blast players, who earn between $1,500 and $4,000 a month, did not receive championship rings. (Many coach soccer or work at summer camps to supplement their income.)

“Let’s face it: We went through a very tough time in our country with the economy, and I’m proud to say that our Baltimore franchise and the league were able to get through it,” says Blast president and general manager Kevin Healey (and Pat’s father), who was among Hale’s initial hires in 1998. “The overall health of the league is trending upwards.”
After taking over, one of Healey’s first moves was to sign native New Yorker Danny Kelly to play midfield.

That trio of leadership—Hale, Healey, and Kelly—remains intact today. Kelly, now the head coach, has won three titles with the Blast, two as a player and one as a player-coach. He understands that Hale and Healey’s expectations never change.

“Our goal is to reach the championship every year,” Healey says. “If we reach the final and don’t win it, we don’t feel like we had a great year.”

Devout Blast fan Kathy Reynolds was in some serious pain. She had just undergone emergency surgery to correct a bowel blockage and remove a gallstone. Doctors released her from the hospital three days later—Friday night at 7:30. The next day, she went to see her beloved team play. Since attending her first game eight-and-a-half years ago, Reynolds has only missed two, both for “really big” church events.

“My husband and I got married on a Friday before opening night,” she says. “We gave each other season tickets for our wedding gift. We went to the game the night after our wedding and had T-shirts made that said, ‘We celebrated our honeymoon with the Baltimore Blast.’ We won.”

In an era of $40 parking and $10 beer at sporting events, Blast games remain a bargain. Tickets range from $16 to $22 for this year’s 10 home dates. Fans are treated to performances by cheerleaders, contests between quarters, and autograph sessions after the game. Reynolds has been president of the Blast fan club for six years. Last year it had about 250 members, who establish real and lasting relationships with the players at events like bowling nights and season-ending banquets.

“It’s very intimate,” says Paul Kram, who has been going to games with his wife, Sheree, for decades. In 2009 they began attending all the road games, as well. “The players come as rookies, and you watch them develop. You get to know them and their families. If the Ravens or Orioles lose, I’m disappointed as a fan. When the Blast lose, I’m really disappointed for the players.”

A little more than a year ago, Kram’s mother passed away. At the viewing in Dundalk, his wife noticed Ed Hale’s mother make her way into the funeral home.

“A few minutes later Ed Hale came by to pay his respects,” Kram says, his voice cracking. “Neither of them knew my mom. Later that evening Danny Kelly came. They had just found out from somebody and made it a point to come. That was stunning to me.”

“We have the best fans in the league without a doubt,” says forward Marco Mangione, whose father, Nick, also played for the Blast. “They support us through the good times and bad times, and we try to give back to them as much as possible.”

The Blast started last season looking up at rival Chicago in the standings before eventually securing the best record in the league and home-field advantage for the four-team playoff. The team advanced to the final, where it defeated Missouri in Game 1 of the best-of-three series (if needed, the decider would be a 15-minute mini-game played immediately after Game 2). Back in Baltimore, the Comets took a 4-0 lead into halftime.

A power play goal got the Blast on the board and energized the crowd. A few minutes later, Roque electrocuted it. A first-year member of the team who was signed after a tryout, the 25-year-old from São Paulo grew up playing a sport called “footvolley” on the beaches of his homeland.

“We do a lot of bicycle kicks, so I always had the ability to hit the ball in the air,” he says. “When I saw the ball coming off the wall it was high; a bicycle kick was the only way. I couldn’t believe I scored that goal in such an important moment.”

Neither could anyone else in the arena. Roque popped up off the turf, started pulling on his red-and-yellow jersey, and ran as a mob of his teammates chased him. Fans behind the goal reacted as if they’d just seen Muhammad Ali knock out George Foreman.

“I was on the bench, and my jaw just dropped,” says defender Pat Healey. “The place went crazy. You couldn’t ask for a better picture.”

The title wasn’t officially secured until a Missouri free kick was cleared away in the final seconds, but after “The Goal,” victory seemed fated.

When the final horn sounded, Kelly allowed himself to exhale.

“It’s an indescribable feeling, because everything you’ve worked so hard for you’ve accomplished in one moment,” he says.

After the arena finally emptied, a group of players, coaches, and fans walked a few blocks to Pratt Street Ale House, where they kicked back a few pints and celebrated winning another championship. Together.

Will the champagne (and beer) flow in Baltimore for an eighth time when the season’s champion is crowned in March?
“I’m expecting this group to compete for a title,” Kelly says. “We have most of the pieces back. Things look good, but can we put together the same kinds of performances and gel like we did last year? That remains to be seen.”

For fans of Baltimore’s winningest professional sports franchise, finding out will be a blast.

Mike Unger is a senior contributing writer for Baltimore.