On a Friday in mid-January, Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale, general manager Gianni Tumminello and new head coach David Bascome called their players for a virtual meeting.
The coronavirus pandemic had been raging for 10 months. Large events were prohibited and sports seasons were canceled, including the 2019-20 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL).
Hale and his staff had sought in vain for months for a viable place to practice or play games as part of MASL’s 2021 season. Towson University’s SECU Arena, where the Blast had played for the previous three years, wasn’t open. Neither were other fields in the area. Finally, they faced an unavoidable conclusion. They had to cancel the Blast’s season.
On the computer screen, Bascome could see his players’ faces fall when they learned the fate of their season.
“You could see it in their eyes. There were no words,” he said.
Several months later, Bascome and his players have gotten over the disappointment of losing the season to COVID-19. Later this year, they will have a chance to return to their first competitive game in nearly two years.
The team announced in February it would be playing a 24-game season starting in November, the 40th time the Blast will field a team in Baltimore.
“We’re just really excited about getting ready to play,” Hale said in a Zoom interview with PressBox in March, “for so many reasons because it’s just been so crazy, depressing and boring. Now it’s not. It’s going to be here before we know it.”
When the team takes the field, the Blast will have a new coach for the first time since 2006. Head coach Danny Kelly left the team last May and was replaced by Bascome, his longtime assistant.
Bascome has spent 16 seasons with the Blast, winning eight championships — three as a player, one as a player-coach and four as an assistant coach. He’s excited about building on the team’s legacy in the Baltimore area, he said.
It will also be the first full season for Tumminello, who became general manager in December 2019. The extra time has helped Tumminello and Bascome bond. They talk three or four times a day about player moves and operations, the general manager said.
“David’s putting a new culture back into the team. His standards are very high and he really prides himself on that,” Tumminello said. “It starts from the top all the way down to our equipment guy, I mean, he’s that thorough and it’s really refreshing.”
Bascome won’t change Kelly’s system much considering it helped the team become one of the most successful franchises in indoor soccer this century.
“Danny and I really built something here. There is a beautiful culture and community here for soccer,” Bascome said. “Why not continue it?”
What will be different are the off-the-field expectations of his players — most notably, their offseason fitness.
Bascome has crafted a personal training routine for the players to complete on their own until in-person training can begin later this year. The routines include online modules with virtual workshops and learning sessions, soccer training in the time COVID-19.
Bascome said he is treating this as the period during which his team learns his ways before he starts really coaching the players in person.
“It’s like having an early kind of preseason with them mentally and physically,” he said.
This spring, seven of the 17 Major Arena Soccer League teams finished off a shortened 2021 campaign. Three key Blast players were able to go out on loan this season: first-choice keeper William Vanzela to the San Diego Sockers; defender Adriano Dos Santos to the Tacoma Stars, and Mike DaSilva to the Kansas City Comets. All three played well.
Ensuring some of the team’s top players stay sharp will benefit the team in November, Bascome said.
“I look at the bigger picture that the game was allowed to stay alive despite everything,” he said.
When the Blast opens the season in November, it will be roughly 20 months since the team’s last competitive soccer game. That last game has left a sour taste in the mouths of some members of the organization, including Tumminello, who sees it as a missed opportunity.
It was March 7, 2020, and the Blast was rolling, having won 13 of 17 heading into the second-to-last game of the season. Baltimore had just beaten Harrisburg by four goals in front of a sold-out crowd and had a good chance of making the playoffs the following weekend. Then Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in response to the virus arriving in Maryland. A few days later, the season was shut down.
“We truly believed we were playing our best soccer. Everyone was clicking,” Tumminello said.
That fire, lit by the disappointment of what could have been, will still be burning when the team takes the field this fall.
When the abbreviated 2021 season ends, the three players on loan will be returned to the Blast. They’ll make up part of the core that has helped sustain the team’s success during the last several years. Other returnees include Tony Donatelli, Jonatas Melo, Juan Pereira, Mike Deasel, Lucas Roque and Victor France.
The team has also added local newcomers Jake Dengler, a former Loyola University defender, and Keegan Kelly, a former University of Maryland midfielder and the son of the Blast’s former coach. The team also signed veteran midfielders Armando Tello and Jeff Michaud.
For its 40th anniversary, the organization plans to induct three of its club legends from the 1980s into the team’s Hall of Fame: Paul Crossley, Jim Pollihan and Paul Kitson.
Kitson, who scored 94 goals in 129 appearances for the team from 1983-1986, was a mentor to Bascome during his playing days. He died suddenly in 2005 at the age of 49. The tragedy sticks with Bascome to this day.
Bascome hopes to honor Kitson and the other legends of the club by hosting weekly open practices and inviting former players to build on the decades of winning tradition.
“I appreciate the fabric that’s been laid down and put before us, and I want my players to appreciate that,” Bascome said. “It’s going to create accountability for my players, and I’m asking the legends to come around and be a part of it because it’s important that they are involved in the next steps we take.”
Photo Credit: John Coulson/PressBox