In the rare times the Baltimore Blast have had their backs against the wall they always seemed to dig down and find another level. After four losses in their last six games, including their first two home losses at SECU Arena, the Blast were in danger of falling hopelessly out of first place in the Eastern Division.
The Blast showed they were not ready to pass the torch just yet and responded with a 6-2 win over first place Utica City FC, whose division lead was cut to 1 1/2 games.
“Tonight was a must win for us,” said Blast defender Adriano Dos Santos. “We left everything on the field and it showed on the scoreboard. We got the job done.”
The Blast lost to Utica City 9-1 on February 8, ending an 18-game home winning streak. Baltimore also lost Friday at home against the Milwaukee Wave, 5-2. Today Blast coach Danny Kelly went with a heavy veteran rotation after dressing as many as five rookies in previous games.
“I’m going to take the blame for some of our losses, trying to integrate new guys into the lineup,” said Kelly. “When you have some inexperienced players, some experienced teams like a Utica are going to punish you for it and we got punished the last time we played here just from making fundamental mistakes, so you live and you learn, but there’s only one way these guys are going to learn the game and that’s by playing.”
Unlike the last meeting where Utica built a 6-0 lead before finally conceding a goal in the fourth quarter, Baltimore got on the board first. Elton De Oliveira and Tony Donatelli scored to put the Blast up 2-0 before the first official timeout.
Utica got one of their only breaks on the day when Lucio Gonzaga scored with less than one second left in the first quarter. The second quarter was scoreless.
“It was really important especially the last game that we lost against them,” said Blast forward Jonatas Melo, who scored a key third quarter goal to put the Blast up 3-1, commenting on the win. “We’re still a work in progress, that’s what Coach says. We try to get better as we can for the playoffs because that’s when it counts. Friday we didn’t get our best performance, but tonight we were much better.”
Whether the Blast’s intensity got the crowd into the game or the crowd was particularly engaged this afternoon, SECU Arena was rocking today, from a rain of cheers for a routine William Vanzela save to a chorus of boos for Gonzaga after a perceived foul that was not called, the atmosphere was playoff-like all game.
“Tonight we scored early goals, we were able to keep more possession,” said Melo. “We bring the crowd with us and we bring a lot more energy with us.”
“The intensity that Baltimore started the game with was good,” said Utica goalkeeper Andrew Coughlin. “They came out they punched us kinda right in the face with the speed they played with, the intensity, the physicality and I’m not sure we were ready for that.
“Baltimore did a good job and caught us on our heels at the beginning of the game and I thought we kind of battled back and we were in it and just a couple mistakes let them back in and you can’t make mistakes against Baltimore.”
One of the mistakes was a bad clear by Coughlin, who otherwise kept Utica in the game with 13 saves. His pass to the middle was intercepted by a sliding Dos Santos to give the Blast a 4-2 lead.
“As a goalkeeper something you have to be very cognizant of is playing out of the back in this arena because it’s so small you easily can go three lines,” Coughlin lamented. “You have so many things you have to think about.”
Two minutes later Melo scored again and Utica couldn’t muster a consistent attack. A venture with the sixth attacker ended with a tripping penalty to Gonzaga and a Donatelli shootout goal.
“We knew mentally that they were going to come after us, unfortunately we weren’t able to match them physically,” said Utica coach Ryan Hall. “They were firing on all cylinders and we seemed to be a step behind the entire game. We kept it close into late in the fourth quarter, but whether it’s tired legs or mentally they just took it to us. There’s no excuses, we didn’t play well and you can’t do that against any top level team, especially Baltimore in Baltimore. Hats off to Baltimore they were the better team tonight.”
The Blast improved to 10-6, while Utica fell to 12-5. The teams meet one final time on March 31 in Utica, with City leading the season series 3-2.
“I know we have the power, the strength, to fight for another championship and like we played Friday we’re not going to get there, but how we played today is going to give us a chance to get there,” said Dos Santos.
NOTES: At halftime PJ Wakefield and Giuliano Celenza were inducted into the Blast Hall of Fame.
Celenza played 11 years with the Blast from 2000 to 2011 scoring 218 goals and winning five championships. Wakefield, who played seven years between 2002 and 2009, also winning five championships, retired at 28 to join the police academy.
“PJ and Giuls former teammates of mine, we won multiple championships with those guys together,” said Kelly. “They’re both great players in their own right. I couldn’t be happier for those two guys.”