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Spitballin’

Spitballin’

Blast Off!

In 1983, the Orioles won the World Series, but the hands-down hottest ticket in town was the Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Yeah, the roar from 34 was huge, and Memorial Stadium was the world’s loudest outdoor insane asylum, but it couldn’t compare to the sanitarium that was the Civic Center. The Blast sold out often and drew over 11,000 fans a game to the grimy old Baltimore Street hulk on their way to the ’83-’84 MISL championship, and the atmosphere was indescribable. Yeah, a Rick Dempsey rain delay was a gas, and Wild Bill Hagy was more popular than the mayor, but when the Birds took the field, they never arrived via a fire-spewing UFO that descended from the rafters into a smoke-filled arena to the bumping sounds of pyrotechnically enhanced disco. Even a suds-covered Ray Lewis riding that laser-eyed rocket-raven lacked the spectacle that opened every single Blast home game.

But 1984 was a long time ago, nearly seven decades by my un-fact-checked reckoning, and while the Baltimore Blast still plays, most of Mobtown has forgotten it, and it’s got a lot to overcome. The once grimy Civic Center has become the frighteningly decrepit 1st Mariner Arena. 1st Mariner combines the charm of late Cold War Polish architecture with the efficiency of late Cold War Polish maintenance. The extremely lo-def not-so-Jumbotron gave every replay the crisp clarity of the Zapruder film (I think the goal was scored by a second forward shooting from the grassy knoll), and the average Alabama smile has more teeth than the scoreboards had working light bulbs.

Then there’s the fact that the Blast plays a form of soccer, which is considered a “sport” by Europeans, a people who also consider Kraftwerk music and the liver of a waterfowl force-fed until it looks like a feathery Steven Seagal a delicacy. Soccer is slow, long, and full of ties, and I honestly wasn’t expecting much as far as thrills as I headed to the Blast playoff game against the Chicago Soul Saturday night. There was a crowd gathering, but it wasn’t anywhere near 11,000, and the pair of scalpers I met seemed to have a job tougher than the guy who books Mel Gibson’s bat mitzvah appearances.

The UFO that once brought the Blast to Baltimore, seemingly from the future, say, the year 2000, is long gone; instead they sprint through the hole between the “L” and “A” in a giant, light-up Blast sign while twin fire-geysers spew two-story gouts of flame. Cool, but not UFO cool. Once the game got going, though, it was clear the real show was on the turf. When the walls of the arena shuddered to the sound of the first ball blasted off the boards, I was blown back to those thrilling days of mid-’80s MISL soccer.

Unlike traditional soccer, the indoor game is lightning fast. Quarters are 15 minutes, with none of that nebulous extendo-time, and, with no TV timeouts, period breaks are mercifully short. The field has an NBA-type arc 45 feet out from the goal. Scores from within are two points, from without, three, keeping would-be blowouts tight in the final minutes. The hockey-like boards keep the ball in play and make for electrifying off-the-glass, bounce passes. Wide shots that would kill the action in field soccer are pounded back into play, making for NBA-style rebounding followed by ferocious short kicks—the MISL equivalent of the tomahawk jam. MISL soccer is tough, with lots of contact and little of the theatrical dives and wallowing fakery of the Euro game. Fluid line changes keep the sport moving at a frenetic, fan-friendly pace.

The first period, your Baltimore Blast kept the pressure on the Soul, who seemed undersized and slow compared to the Bmore squad. The ball seemed to live in the Chicago zone, with Brazilian forward Lucio Gonzaga putting together a few fine opportunities, first with an early bending shot from the boards that planed past the goal, sent just wide by Chicago keeper Nathan Sprenkel’s leaping tip-save. Later he added a pass that crossed the goal was just missed by the jammed-up Jamaican Blast forward Machel Millwood. Then, in the final two minutes of the period, the Blast turned up the heat, keeping a vise-grip on possession.

The crowd was on its feet and, after a rather odd encouragement by the PA announcer, was chanting, “Roy-Al-Farms! Roy-Al-Farms!” as the attacking Blast peppered the harried Soul keeper with shot after shot; but an arrant bounce set up a Chicago fast break, and with 12 seconds to go in the quarter, Soul defender Fred Degand drilled a shot past Blast goalie William Vanzela to take a 2-0 lead. The Blast’s scoring drought continued through the second, despite continued pressure on a disciplined Chicago D as Sprenkel shined in the net. Then, 3:58 into the third, open Soul midfielder Pablo Da Silva took the ball 50 feet out and just wide right of the goal. He dribbled quick to his left and hammered a low drive inside the pipe for three opening up an imposing 5-0 lead.

But the crowd, which had been roaring all night, barely had time to let the wind out of its sails as, 38 seconds later, Blast defender Ptah Myers launched a rocket shot off the boards, picked up his own rebound, and thundered it past the suddenly human Sprenkel for two. It was the beginning of a Baltimore onslaught—four goals in two minutes, 24 seconds—that had the suddenly not-so-charmless arena shaking to screaming fans and an orchestra of 12-year-olds blasting vuvuzelas all to the backbeat of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” (at least some things are the same as in 1983).

Despite a late push by the Soul, your Baltimore Blast held on for a thrilling 10-7 win, sending them to their third-straight championship appearance and looking for a repeat title victory. They’ll face the Missouri Comets on the road Thursday night in game one, and will be back in town for game two, and a possible 15-minute game three, on Saturday night. If you couldn’t make it to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, get down 1st Mariner this Saturday night to cheer Baltimore on to victory. I guarantee you, it’s an absolute Blast.

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