BLAST'S PRESENCE IN BALTIMORE BENEFITS YOUTH SOCCER PLAYERS
Posted on February 17, 2014 by Keith Mills
Four days after the Baltimore Blast clinched their seventh straight MISL playoff berth, coachDANNY KELLY ran his 2013-14 team through a fast-paced workout at the Northeast Regional Recreation Center in Parkville.
The ultimate goal was another MISL championship.
And right in the middle of this tough morning workout were Calvert Hall's PAT HEALEY andMARCO MANGIONE and Loyola Blakefield's MIKE LOOKINGLAND and MIKE DEASEL, who have added to the Blast's tradition of winning games and giving former local high school standouts a stage on which to play professional soccer.
"Hanging down at the arena so much, I learned a lot about the history of the team," said Pat Healey, the son of Blast president KEVIN HEALEY and one of the premier players now in the MISL. "I would look through old press guides and hear the stories about the original Blast. We grew up with the indoor game."
Marco Mangione is the son of NICK MANGIONE JR., a Polytechnic graduate and one of the original Blast players during the 1980-81 season. He is one of Nick and DANIELLE MANGIONE's six children and the grandson of the late NICK MANGIONE SR., who was a local businessman and also one of the community leaders who helped bring the team from Houston to Baltimore.
"I've learned quite a bit about how good my father was through family and friends," Marco Mangione said. "They remember the name. I've been approached many times by people who say, 'Hey, tell your dad I said hi.' They were there when he was playing, and they're still here."
Kevin Healey, an alumnus of Calvert Hall and Loyola College (now Loyola University), is one of the most influential members of the Baltimore soccer community.
"We always thought of ourselves as a soccer town," he said. "These kids are continuing that tradition. It is definitely part of our marketing strategy. We get players from all over the world, all over the country. But it's also part of our strategy to get the best players out of the Baltimore area. It gives the local kids a dream -- a realistic dream of being a professional soccer player, and to play for the Blast, their hometown team."
The strategy has worked. Owner ED HALE and Kevin Healey make sure their team is ingrained in the community while continuing to make signing local players a priority. Since the Blast played their first game in Baltimore 34 years ago, their rosters have included some of the area's premier talent. Poly's Mangione, Patterson's SONNY ASKEW and Calvert Hall's TIM WITTMAN set the table during the team's first two years in Baltimore, and an army of local players has followed.
Fallston's JOE BARGER; Northern's JOHN ABE; and Boys' Latin's STEVE NICHOLS continued the local involvement during the early 1990s. Archbishop Curley's JASON DIETER and BARRY STITZ and Calvert Hall's J.J. KREMER later passed the baton to Calvert Hall's P.J. WAKEFIELD, Curley's GIULIANO CELENZA and Bel Air's BILLY NELSON, who formed the backbone of the Blast's championship teams in 2003, '04 '06, '08 and '09.
"I got to be a part of the P.J., Jules and Billy Nelson team," said Lookingland, who played for Real Salt Lake of the MLS before joining the Blast in 2005 and is now in his ninth year with the team. "But I grew up watching Timmy Wittman. I couldn't believe some of the things he did with the ball. He was incredible."
Wittman was a high school All-American at Calvert Hall when the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League drafted him in 1981. He turned down the Rowdies to play instead for the hometown Blast, who had arrived the year before from Houston.
Wittman, who played for BILL KARPOVICH at Calvert Hall; Mangione, who helped Loyola College win the 1976 NCAA Division II championship; and Askew, a scoring machine at Patterson under coach HARLEE RUSS, were instrumental in helping the city's fans fall in love with both the indoor game and the Blast, who built a fan base behind such players as SCOTT MANNING and KEITH VAN ERON, two of the team's best goaltenders; MIKE STANKOVIC; STAN STAMENKOVIC;BRUCE SAVAGE; BILLY RONSON; PAUL KITSON; JOEY FINK; and DAVE MACWILLIAMS.
"It was a very, very exciting time," said Kevin Healey, who also played on the Loyola College national championship team and has been connected with the Blast for the last 13 years. "There were really no indoor leagues then, but we were all playing indoors somewhere back then -- basketball courts, gyms, anywhere we could find. Finally, when the Blast came here, they let them practice in that old facility on Boston Street (now Du Burns Arena). Everybody came down there to play. Didn't have any heat, and it was old and run-down. But we loved it. It was a place to play indoors."
Boys and girls in Baltimore during the last 30 years who've played high school or college soccer, or even kicked a ball at the recreation or club level, owe a debt of gratitude to KENNY COOPER, the Blast's first coach, and the members of the original team.
The Baltimore soccer community of the late 1970s and early '80s was a mix of neighborhood club teams.
"Baltimore was a great soccer city then," Cooper said during an interview with WBAL Radio. "It had a great reputation -- tough, hard-nosed players. They reflected the city."
Born in Liverpool, England, Cooper moved to the United States in 1970 to play goalie for the Dallas Tornado, the city's North American Soccer League franchise. One year later, he helped the Tornado win the NASL championship, and was a three-time All-Star before retiring as a player in 1979 to take over as the head coach of the Houston Summit of the brand-new Major Indoor Soccer League.
The owner of the team was New York businessman BERNIE RODIN, who told Cooper he was moving his team in 1980 to either Boston or Baltimore.
"He said: 'You're the coach. You need to pick a city where you want to live and raise a family.' " Cooper said. "So I came to Baltimore and met [then-Baltimore City Mayor WILLIAM DONALD SCHAEFER], Dr. LARRY BLUMBERG, Nick Mangione Sr. They were all very involved with the team moving here.
"We met people like [sportscasters] VINCE BAGLI and CHRIS THOMAS. Then I went to a Clippers [minor league hockey] game. There was around 8,000-9,000 people at the game. I called the owner and said: 'We don't need to go to Boston. This is where we need to be.' "
Indoor soccer was new to Baltimore, as it was in the rest of the country. Cooper's instincts as a salesman surpassed his talent as a coach. He appeared almost daily on local TV and radio, met with sponsors and local business leaders and assembled an odd group of local, national and international players that christened Baltimore's involvement in the MISL Nov. 29, 1980.
"It was all about timing," Cooper said. "The Orioles were still very good, but the Colts were struggling. Baltimore had always been a great soccer city. I thought it'd be perfect for us. We came in and kind of took the city by storm."
But the Blast also ruffled some local feathers. Many of the former and current local collegiate players of that era thought they deserved a chance to play for the hometown team. Cooper thought differently.
Mangione and Askew were the only two local Baltimore high school players to make the first Blast team, while Wittman joined the franchise one year later.
"I stuck my neck out that first press conference when we announced the team was coming by saying I guaranteed us a championship in four years," Cooper said.
Thomas, then a sportscaster for WBAL Channel 11, disagreed.
"He said, 'Are you crazy?' " Cooper said. "I said, 'Absolutely not.' I believed with the support of the city, we could do it."
And they did.
The Blast averaged 6,500 fans their first year, 9,500 their second, 10,700 their third, and more than 11,000 in 1984 and '85. They became one of the hottest tickets in town. On game night, the team was introduced from a huge neon soccer ball, which was lowered from the ceiling of the then-Baltimore Civic Center while the song "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang -- a song that is still played today after Blast goals -- was blasted from an elaborate sound system.
Between games during the week, Cooper had his team run and up down Federal Hill in south Baltimore as part of its fitness regime, which drew local television and radio coverage.
The game was fast and physical, and the fans ate it up.
"The team brought a lot of pride to the city," Kevin Healey said. "They put together a great product on the field -- the introductions, the electricity in the arena. Everybody was out playing the indoor game -- in the gyms, on tennis courts. It caught on quickly."
The MISL had a phenomenal run during the 1980s, Cooper said.
"We had a television contract with CBS," Cooper said. "There was satellite TV, great rivalries, big crowds. We basically captivated the soccer market. We always had giant goals. I told the players if you have giant goals, they produce giant motivation. As everybody knows, vision without planning is nothing but an illusion."
Though Rodin owned the team, and the players were talented, available and approachable, Cooper was the face of the franchise. The Blast held a monthly press conference at P.J. Crickets, a local restaurant on Pratt Street across from the Convention Center.
Cooper and a handful of select players would meet the media during lunch. Several games per year were broadcast locally on WJZ-TV Channel 13, while ART SINCLAIR and CHARLEY ECKMAN broadcast every game on WBCM AM 680, a station the Mangione family later owned.
In 1984, the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, and the Blast helped fill the void. They sold out almost every game in 1984 and '85, and also began a trend of reaching out to the community, which the team continues to do today. The Blast played against local high school and elementary school faculties in celebrity basketball fundraisers, held camps for kids while helping recreation programs organize indoor leagues, and held guest bartending nights at local restaurants and taverns.
They won the 1984 championship against the St. Louis Steamers, and they lost during the finals four times to the San Diego Sockers, coached by Ron Newman.
"[Newman] was a great coach and great personality," Cooper said. "San Diego, Cleveland, New York, St. Louis -- it was intense, very physical, very passionate."
And all over town, thousands of young soccer players were watching and playing the indoor game. They included ZACH THORNTON of Edgewood High and SANTINO QUARANTA of Archbishop Curley, who both went on to play for the U.S. national team, along with a handful of other young and talented players years later.
"There's a ton of things you can take from the indoor game to the outdoor game," said Pat Healey, who helped Calvert Hall win two MIAA A conference championships before earning CAA Player of the Year honors in 2007 for Towson University. "Target play, good spacing, good three-man runs, timing and rhythm of play are much more important in the indoor game."
Marco Mangione said the indoor game taught players about movement.
"Off-the-ball movement, first touch, which is key to any good player," Marco Mangione said, "it's the building block of everything you do out there. You learn how to play defense, how to follow your runner. Everything in the indoor game can be transferred outdoor."
In 1994, Cooper coached his last game in Baltimore. Kevin Healey had changed the face of the area club game even more with the 1990 formation of the Soccer Club of Baltimore. That has morphed into the Casa Mia Bays, which won nine national club championships under Nichols, now the head coach of the Loyola University men's soccer team, and Kevin Healey. Amateur and high school soccer have exploded throughout the area with the indoor game, and the Blast are still a part of the Baltimore landscape.
"It's great to see the team continue to do so well," said Cooper, who was inducted into the inaugural Blast Hall of Fame 11 years ago. "Ed's been a fantastic owner for the Blast. He and Kevin have done a tremendous job. They do a wonderful job of marketing the team. Danny Kelly is a championship coach, and it's still the longest-serving soccer franchise in America."
Cooper and his wife, IRENE, live in Dallas. He said he was semiretired, although he consults for several local businesses and manages his son's soccer career. KENNY COOPER JR. has been playing professionally for the last 10 years, the last three with Portland, New York and FC Dallas of the MLS. This year, he's playing for the Seattle Sounders.
MOLLY COOPER and her brothers, Kenny Jr. and JOE, were born in Baltimore, while their sisterAMANDA was born in Dallas. All four are now scattered all over the country, while Kenny Sr. still savors the 15 years he spent here as one of the pioneers of American indoor soccer.
"Three of my four kids were born in Baltimore," Cooper said, "and some of my dearest friends still live there. Our best days have been in Baltimore, Md."
Kevin Healey said Cooper was a tremendous promoter of soccer.
"He did an outstanding job here in Baltimore of starting the Blast," Kevin Healey said. "He put a lot of time and energy into it. We were all still learning about the indoor game then, and he was smart enough to adapt as it went on -- use a little basketball, a little hockey. Everyone that came after Kenny here in Baltimore is indebted to him for what he did."