Mr. March

by Michael Lewis

With the Baltimore Blast close to securing an unprecedented third consecutive Major Arena Soccer League championship, forward Vini Dantas just might have secured himself a new nickname:

Mr. March.

For the past two postseasons, the 28-year-old Brazilian native has risen to the challenge and then some.

Last year Dantas recorded a playoff-best nine goals and nine assists in as many games as the Blast defeated the Sonora Sol for the Ron Newman Cup.

This year he and his teammates find themselves in the final against the Monterrey Flash at Arena Monterrey at 7:05 p.m. ET Sunday. Dantas, who has tallied seven goals and one assist in three matches, is tied for the postseason goal-scoring lead with Monterrey's Brayan Aguilar and Milwaukee's Ian Bennett.

"If anybody doesn't turn up to the playoffs, then they shouldn't be in this business at all," Dantas said. "I think every player lives for the games that we're playing right now. the games that matter most are the ones that if you don't do well, you're going to go home. that's my mindset. Yes, I have been fortunate to help my team with real good plays, scoring goals, maybe creating goals. But the sole reason for that is that I hate losing. I really try my very best to win. There is no special recipe. When my back is against the wall, I come out swinging."

There is little doubt Dantas has brought his A-plus game to the playoffs again. In the last two regular seasons, he tallied 20 goals in each campaign before putting his performance into another gear.

"I think he's big-time player," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "He's obviously one of the top target forwards in the league. He has a great skillset. He's got a great shot. He can distribute the ball as well and he's a handful for any defender to mark 1 v 1. We try to create situations to isolate him and give him opportunities. This is when big-time players show up, when everything's on the line. Hopefully we can find him in situations that he can be Vini and score goals, create or distribute and find players who can finish opportunities. Hopefully we can get a big game out of Vini."

Monterrey coach Mariano Bollella realized what he will be up against, though he noted that the Flash slowed down all-star forward Franck Tayou, the regular-season scoring champion (72 goals), in its Southwest Division series. Tayou was limited to four goals in two games.

"We were doing something with Tayou," he said. "When we played Sonora we did something to try to control him a little bit. It's not going to be all game. We can do a job. In the end we cannot play all of the time thinking about him. We're going to think what we do the best and try to do in the game. For Baltimore, it's going to be hard for them to control us too. Both teams have dangerous players. They can score. So, I think its going to be even."

But if you think the Blast is a one-man show on attack, then think again. Six players scored in double figures in the regular season, led by Tony Donatelli (22) and followed by Dantas, Andrew Hoxie ((16), Juan Pereira (12), Lucas Roque (12) and Jonatas Melo (11).

"If you were going to play against us, and you just say, hey, 'If we take out Vin out of the game, that's their game plan, that's them, figure it out,' no it's not," Dantas said. "This past weekend was an example of it."

Dantas then rattled off the names of teammates who scored in the 10-6 Eastern Conference final win over the Milwaukee Wave last week -- Pereira, Melo, Donatelli, Daniel Peruzzi and Adriano Dos Santos.

"It's everybody," he said. "It's not one or two guys to worry about. If you don't worry about our system, if you don't worry about the way we play, you're going to come up short. That's the biggest thing about us. That's our belief, our unity as a group."

Added Kelly: "If you look at our past, we've always been that way for as long as I can remember. Even when I was playing here, it's not at about one guy. It's about the team. If the team is doing what it should be doing, everybody's going to get opportunities. The guys always buy in. Ultimately, it's about putting yourself in position to win championships. Teams can't focus on just one guy because everybody is capable of putting the ball into the back of the net. It makes it very difficult for other teams to concentrate on one player. I think it makes us that much more dangerous."

In many ways, Dantas has been a perfect fit for the indoor game. While growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he played futsal, which demands many of the qualities needed for indoor soccer.

"Futsal makes you be very agile with your feet but as well sharp with your mind," he said. "You don't have a lot of time to think about it. The decisions you got to make are very fast, very on the fly. You got to make them, and futsal demands that from players. Being in that sort of environment gives you that quick thinking.

"In futsal it's a little bit different than indoors. It's a little bit longer shift than indoor. In indoors you're doing a minute to a minute and half tops shift. In futsal, you're doing three, three and half minutes. So, it's a lot more contestant decision making. I think it challenges you a little bit in terms of how quickly you can do things, how quickly can you think and deliver."

So far, Dantas has delivered so delightfully in the postseason.

Baltimore's eyes unprecedented three-peat

The Blast is trying to become the first MASL team to win three successive titles.

Baltimore and the San Diego Sockers (2011-12 and 2012-13) are the only teams to win it consecutive times.

"The team's in good form," Kelly said. "The way our schedule was, we were playing some teams that were fighting to get into the playoffs. So, we've been in the playoffs for some time now and just embracing the challenge that it is. We're defending champions. Everybody has given us their best shot. That's the challenge for us. Can we take everybody's best shot and find a way to win? That’s what we've been doing and that's our mindset going into this game. Probably nobody outside of Baltimore wants to see us win. We're embracing that challenge."

If Baltimore makes it three in a row, Dantas said it would be "amazing."

"People talk about the likelihood of winning one championship, very small," he said. "To win back-to-back championships, even smaller. Now to win three times in a row, it's something not a lot of franchises have ever done. We're definitely very focused. I don't think it has been done in the history of the Baltimore Blast. All the guys are in the mindset that if we do this, we'll be in the history of the club forever."

While the Blast has done well during the regular season, how teams fare in the playoffs are the reasons why teams will be remembered.

"Every year we set out to accomplish, which is get to the championship," Dantas said. "That's our goal from day one. That's what we're judged on. We're never really judged on the regular season. We're judged on how well we do in the playoffs. So, it's good to deliver. It's good to get there again. I've been with the Blast for four years and this is my fourth year in the championship. We want to give it our best shot to win it all."

These two teams met once before in the final, in 2014-15 as Monterrey prevailed in the mini-game in overtime. Dantas' wish to play the Flash in the final came true.

They did not meet during the 2017-18regular season.

"I wanted Monterrey to win," he said about the playoffs. "Three years ago I went to Monterrey and it was my first year in the league and we lost the championship there. Then they folded, and they weren't back in the league. So, I always wanted to get my revenge on Monterrey, but I never had my chance to because they weren't playing.

"They are a team to be respected. They have a lot of quality. They defend well. They are a very frantic team. They go up and down the field really fast. They tackle really hard. They know what they're doing. Those are things that I respect, but we're not scared at all."

Bollella, who returned the favor to praise to the Blast, expected a classic confrontation between the two best teams in the league.

"The big thing about Baltimore is they know how to play in the final," he said. "They're a really calm team. They know when to put high pressure, know when to jump up. Every player really knows the game. Kelly's doing a great job and they know what to do on the field. So, for us it's going to be play mostly perfect to have a chance to win. I know we're going to play in our place. We're going to have the fans on our side. I think it's an extra we're going to have to win the game. I think it’s going to be an even game most of the game. The team that makes less mistakes is going to win."

If the Flash prevails, Monterrey would win its first MASL crown, returning from a two-year absence. So, just putting together a competitive side was an accomplishment.

Winning a title in its first year back would be a completely different story.

"Yes, it's going to be something," Bollella said. "We knew its going to be hard to put a team together in one year and go to the final, but it was our goal since the beginning. When I signed my contract we talked about it. So, we thought we were going to get all the players in Monterrey and Mexico and we did it. We got a really good team. So why not go for the championship? We know it's going to be a challenge. We work hard and that's why we're in the final."