Danny Kelly: A New Challenge

by Michael Lewis

For many coaches and teams, owning an 11-7 record and being in the hunt for a playoff spot would be ideal.

For the Baltimore Blast and Danny Kelly, it is an aberration. 

Entering this weekend's Major Arena Soccer League action, Kelly finds the Blast in an unaccustomed position -- in fourth place in the Eastern Division with an 11-7 record and a .611 winning percentage, barely ahead of the Harrisburg Heat (10-7). The top four finishers in each division will qualify for the postseason. 

For Kelly, it's a new challenge, considering the Blast has won seven indoor/arena championship under his direction and hasn't finished below second place in the regular season in more than a decade. 

"We're not where we want to be. We're working our way there," he said. "Obviously, our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves an opportunity to compete for a championship." 

"The bottom line is, I think Bill Parcells said, 'You are what you're record says you are.' To be fighting for a playoff spot, it almost in a way made us take a look at ourselves very early on in the season and realize, 'Hey, this has got to change. We've got to fix some things and it's not going to be an easy fix and it’s going to take some time. Every game is going to be critical.” 

It turned into an early-season wake-up call. 

"It's not there are only four games left, five games left,” Kelly said. “These games are extremely important. No, there's 10 games, 12 games, these games are extremely important. Every game is important, every game is critical. We were saying that a few weeks ago. You know what? Every game is like a playoff game for us because we're not in the playoffs right now. We have to fight to get there. Truth be told, it has motivated us to try to get into the playoffs. That's not our motivation every season, but that motivation was kicked in and heightened at a much earlier time." 

The Blast stumbled to a 2-4 record, losing three straight games, including a disastrous trip to Florida. 

"We've been inconsistent this year," Kelly said. "We've had a good performance and a bad performance. We've had games where we've [conceded] goals and consequently given games away. It's been an up and down season for us. We're trying to maintain an upward swing now." 

That Florida trip, which Kelly called "a terrible weekend," was a turning point. The Blast lost at the Florida Tropics, 7-2, on Dec. 21 and at the Orlando Seawolves, 5-4, on Dec. 22. 

"Our soccer was terrible, our overall play was poor, outplayed, outcoached, whatever you want to call it," Kelly said. "It was a weekend where we really had to take a look at ourselves and start to figure things out. Since that time, we're 9-3. We've had some good wins. We developed a little bit of momentum." 

Kelly used Baltimore's most recent game, a 7-4 home victory over the Heat, as an example of the team's inconsistency. He called it "a good win, a big game, because that is a team that we're fighting with for a playoff spot."

But ... 

"We caused our own problems," he said. "They capitalized on mistakes that we handed to them. Some unforced errors cost us some goals and allowed them to stay in the game. You can't afford to do that this time of year. We've just got to continue to get better. Just working to trying to make sure we're taking care of the details and little things that allow us to be successful, to give ourselves an opportunity to win every single game we play." 

Kelly, 50, has taken his share of blame for the problems. 

"I've got to be honest. I think it’s across the board," he said. "At times we had some poor errors at critical times in games that changed the game against us. At times it was fundamental errors where we were ball watching and not tracking the man in the box. That's a fundamental error in this game. You don't do that in this game, you're going to get punished. We should know better than that. For those things to happen, I've got to do a better job. If those are goals we're giving up, where a guy is not tracking his runner, that's on me. We can't afford those types of errors, whether it is a mental error or what have you." 

Of course, like every MASL team, Baltimore has some newcomers, rookies and even second-year pros who are prone to well, rookie mistakes. 

"We've got some new players that where the only way you get better is by playing the game and gaining experience," Kelly said. "We have a few guys, who even though it is their second year, are still rookies, will make that rookie mistake at times. As a team you've got veterans who are being inconsistent. Those mistakes become magnified. We really almost unfairly try to bring them up to speed at such a fast rate, It's almost unfair to them they're expected to take in so much, learn so much and be able to perform and not make these rookie mistakes that rookies are prone to make. 

"We've made fundamental errors. We had veterans who made critical errors at critical times. There is only one way to get out of it and that's together and to work and just grind and every day we get a little bit better. Over the course of 11 games we've sort of righted the ship in a way, but we're still working on it. That game against Harrisburg this past weekend, maybe earlier on in the season, we don't find a way to win. But where we are now, finding our way, figuring out who we are, figuring out what we've got to do. We still made some mistakes, but we were able to grind out a win." 

Since taking over the Blast coaching reins fulltime at the start of the 2006-07 season, Kelly has directed the team an impressive 222-89 record (.713 winning percentage). The Blast's "worst" season since then?  When the team finished 15-15 in Kelly's first season as Baltimore did not qualify for the playoffs. 

Since 2007-08 the Blast have been regular post-season participants, never missing a beat. In fact, the team hasn't finished below second place since 2008-09, winning its division eight consecutive times before finishing second last year, and taking a victory lap with the championship trophy seven times during Kelly's reign. The Blast captured three successive MASL titles from 2015-16 through the 2017-18 seasons. 

Entering the stretch run of the regular season, Kelly has seen improvement and is optimistic the Blast will be part of the post-season mix. 

"I like our chances where we are right now as a team," he said. "I think we're on an upward swing. We've got good problems in terms that guys are healthy. I got good problems in terms of selection and guys have to fight to get into the lineup. Everything is on the line for us. We've had a lot of success over the years and here's a year where we're fighting to get into the playoffs. I like our chances, not necessarily because of our schedule, just because of where we are right now as a team in terms of our mentality and knowing what we have to do, knowing that we have been playing together as late. When we play our game, we can beat anybody. But if we make fundamental errors, we also can be beaten by anybody." 

With only eight games remaining in the regular season, this weekend is a vital one for the Blast, which plays two teams that have been hard on their luck this season. Baltimore hosts the Orlando Seawolves at the SECU Arena on Friday night before visiting the Harrisburg Heat on Sunday. Three wins could go a long way in securing a playoff spot. 

"I certainly don't take teams that we're coming up against that their record might not be indicative of how they are as a team because these teams have been in game into the third quarter, causing problems," Kelly said. "Both Orlando and Rochester, more Rochester than Orlando. have been playing zone defenses and have been making it difficult on other teams and frustrating. Both these teams have been in games well into the third quarter. We obviously look past no team and the biggest game is the one in front of us and that's Orlando on Friday." 

Regardless how the Blast fares this weekend or the rest of the way, a good chuck of Kelly's coaching legacy already has been established. 

His introduction into coaching was sudden and a surprise. During the 2005-06 MISL playoffs, Blast head coach Tim Wittman got into an altercation with a referee and was relieved of his duties. Club management asked Kelly to take over the rest of the season as a player-coach Baltimore captured the championship.

Kelly was 37 at the time and realized his career was almost over.

"When Ed [Hale, Blast owner] asked me I took about five seconds to be like, 'Hmmm, ok,' because I realized my playing career was coming to an end. What was going to be my next step?” he said. “I had some ideas of what I wanted to do but being able to jump into coaching professionals in an organization I was very familiar with was very fortuitous for me.” 

Some 311 games later, Kelly is still going strong. He has considered himself one lucky man because he is able to do what he enjoys the most -- coach a team. 

"I still love the game," he said. "I love going to work every day and trying to get better, whether it's trying to come up with new set plays, trying to figure out new pieces, what new players we can bring in to accentuate the pieces that we already have here. I realize how fortunate I am. Every day I go to work and I coach. Not many people are that lucky and I get paid to do that. So, it's not lost on me how fortunate I am in that regard, that my job is to coach a game." 

Despite all his success, Kelly admitted he hasn't had time to look back at his accomplishments. He is only looking forward.

"I honestly I haven't thought of it like that," he said. "Every day I get up and go to work and I'm very fortunate to do what i do. I know I'm really fortunate that I wound up with the Blast and the Blast organization and working for an owner that was just wanted to win. That's why we're in this. It's about winning, and he really had that drive and it starts with Ed Hale in terms of wanting to win and never giving up and competing every day. He gave us the wherewithal to win in terms of bringing in players. 

"People like to think we throw money around like it's nothing. That is not the case. We've been turned down many times or outbid on players and we found a way to get the right pieces together and keep that core together for a lot of years. And that's a credit to Ed to keep the core together. That was critical being successful and ... allowing us to build on that core every year and fill in pieces. I haven't really taken a look back because I'm still enjoying the ride. I know I will at some point look back and say, 'Wow, I was really fortunate to do this for such a long time.' Right now, it's just one day at a time and very much in the moment with this group." 

As in finding a way to get the Blast into the MASL postseason again and then going from there