By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 5, 2018) US Soccer Players – The original North American Soccer League’s demise following the 1984 season ushered in a dark period in American pro soccer. There were, however, a few bright lights. The popularity of the indoor game, considered an abomination by some, kept the professional version of the sport alive. It was the place where American players could make a living. Many recall the original version of the Major Indoor Soccer League for the exploits of teams such as the San Diego Sockers, Dallas Sidekicks, and Tacoma Stars.
Another club that helped keep the game popular and one that continues to do so to this day is the Baltimore Blast. It is this team’s enduring legacy, and it’s various incarnations through the decades, that deserves both praise and recognition. From 1980 to 1992, the team operated as part of the MISL, was later reborn as the Baltimore Spirit and eventually rechristened the Blast as part of the MASL. The Blast remain one of the winningest American soccer franchises, outdoor or indoor, for nearly four decades. In all, the team has won 10 national championships.
The Blast became part of Maryland’s proud sporting tradition in 1980 after previously playing as the Houston Summit for two years. Under owner Bernie Rodin, who also operated the Rochester Lancers and New York Arrows, the Summit relocated to Baltimore and took on the Blast name. It marked the only championship the Blast would capture in the original incarnation of that league. For its entire MISL existence, former goalkeeper Kenny Cooper coached the team.
The 1983-84 season featured an expanded playoff system and a best-of-seven championship series of the first time in league history. The Blast finished the regular season first in the Eastern Division with a 34-14 record, powered by the scoring prowess of Stan Stamenkovic. As the league’s top scorer at the end of the regular season, he amassed 34 goals and 69 assists in 46 games.
Stamenkovic was part of a wave of Eastern European players who flooded into the MISL throughout the 1980s. Born in what is now Serbia, Stamenkovic had been a member of the famed Red Star Belgrade team that dominated Yugoslav soccer at the time. He moved to the United States in 1981 and played two seasons with the Memphis Americans before signing with the Blast. Stamenkovic, famous for his girth after weighing in at 223 pounds at his first team physical, signed with the Blast at the time for a league-record $150,000. He would shed some of that weight as the season progressed.
“As a franchise we went out of our way to make Stan feel welcome,” Cooper told Sports Illustrated in June 1984. “I told him that in Baltimore he was just going to be one of the guys, that we weren’t going to build the team around him like they tried to do in Memphis. Baltimore is a blue-collar city that doesn’t take to superstars that much. The last thing he told me before I left Yugoslavia was, ‘Kenny, I’m going to win the championship for you.’”
Win he did that season. Baltimore dominated its side of the bracket, taking the series against the Arrows 3-1 and the Cleveland Force 3-0. Again, it was Stamenkovic that lead all scorers during the playoffs, recording 13 goals and 20 assists in 12 games. Nicknamed “The Magician,” Stamenkovic’s fancy footwork coupled with the league’s penchant for high-scoring games and end-to-end play propelled him to individual success. The Blast beat the St Louis Steamers in five games. Before 12,007 fans on June 8, 1984, the Blast won Game 5 at home 10-3, winning its first title and the only one in the MISL era after having lost the championship the previous season. The team became the toast of Baltimore. Popularity around the team only increased after the NFL’s Baltimore Colts relocated to Indianapolis in 1984.
A week after winning the title, the team’s sale for a league-record $2.9 million to Nathan Scherr became official. The Blast had entered a new era, averaging 10,000 fans per game at Baltimore Arena, now known as Royal Farms Arena, located in the heart of the city’s downtown district. The MISL’s flashy pre-game shows and raucous music had by now become a staple of NBA and NHL games. The Blast had been at the forefront of this phenomenon. Blast players had famously emerged from a giant, neon-colored soccer ball suspended from the arena’s rafters at the start of games. No longer unique and with the indoor game’s popularity on the wane, Scherr sold the franchise to Ed Hale in 1989 for $700,000.
The Blast would lose to the Sockers in back-to-back finals starting in 1989, a time when Baltimore remained one of the strongest teams in a league. Canadian-born striker Dominic Mobilio led the team. Although he had played outdoors with the Vancouver 86ers, Mobilio won the MISL’s Newcomer of the Year in 1989, staying with the team through 1992.
In January 1992, the Blast competed in the Transatlantic Challenge, a six-a-side game played indoors at the Sheffield Arena in England. The Blast emerged victorious 8-3 against First Division side Sheffield Wednesday, which featured US midfielder John Harkes. The game, however, is most-remembered for featuring striker Eric Cantona in his only appearance for Wednesday during his brief training stint with the club. The Blast played its final MISL season that year after losing again to the Sockers, this time in the semifinals. The MISL went out of business in the summer of ‘92. The league dissolved, but the Blast lived on. A new team named the Baltimore Spirit joined the National Professional Soccer League with Cooper returning as coach. They would play in the NPSL for six seasons.
Hale bought the Spirit from Bill Stealey in 1998 and promptly restored the name to the Blast. Marketing the team under the slogan “The Blast is Back,” Baltimore won back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004. The team has also won the last three Ron Newman Cups awarded to the MASL champions. Under Hale, this second incarnation of the Blast has continued to dominate the indoor game in North America, forever cementing its reputation as one of the best teams in this country’s history.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Blast