Soccer in Southern California?
It's the Galaxy and Chivas USA, the L.A. Blues, lots of national-teamers (and nearly every head coach in the modern era), the best youth soccer in the country, a deep minor-league system, and about 70 colleges and universities -- several of them perennially chasing championships.
It's Landon Donovan and, we hope, David Beckham, but that's just a start. Hundreds of players from here have gone on to bigger things, and our fields are filled every weekend with youngsters carrying huge hopes.
It's one of the richest landscapes for adult soccer -- competitive, recreational, wholly casual and everything in between -- with hundreds of leagues from Ventura to Victorville.
It's also soccer in Mexico: Several clubs have huge followings in So Cal, every top-tier game is on television and Club Tijuana is a short drive south. It's big-name teams, such as Real Madrid and Manchester City, making summertime visits, but others, too -- the Ventura County Fusion always has a few foreign clubs on its slate.
Here are a dozen things we're looking forward to, strictly as a fan, in L.A. soccer this year:
1. Can the Galaxy repeat?: Whether it's Beckham or Frank Lampard in midfield -- or somebody else -- L.A. will be seeking an unprecedented third straight Supporters' Shield and to become the third club to win back-to-back MLS Cups. So many players had career-best seasons in 2011; can they be replicated?
2. World Cup qualifying: The U.S. games begin in June, with a half-dozen against Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda on the schedule through mid-October, and the top two teams -- one, presumably, will be the Yanks -- advancing to next year's CONCACAF hexagonal final. Best thing about Caribbean opponents: Better likelihood of a qualifier coming here.
3. 2012 Olympics: Our women have won gold at the last two Games and in Atlanta before that, and they'll want more after falling on PKs to Japan in the Women's World Cup final. A nice run by the U-23 men -- who will be our overage picks? -- is Caleb Porter's aim. The path to London begins in Carson for some teams: Mexico, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago play their March qualifying group at Home Depot Center.
4. L.A.'s Champions League dream: Before the MLS campaign is two months old, we'll have a CONCACAF club champion. Will it be the Galaxy? Santos Laguna is the biggest barrier to the final.
5. Chivas USA's next step: The Goats' goal is the playoffs, or more, in Robin Fraser's second campaign -- and the first for which he's truly been able to prepare. Expectations won't allow less.
6. Across the Atlantic: For a lot of us, the best soccer experience is spent on the couch, what with every English Premier League match available and Fox's networks providing a heavy dose of UEFA Champions League play -- including the May 19 final in Munich. Our pick: Barcelona. Everyone else's, to, we suppose.
7. Summertime with a giant: Will Jose Mourinho be bringing Real Madrid back to L.A. for preseason -- and a friendly with the Galaxy. That would be three straight years, and we aren't complaining, but it would be nice to see Barca, Man United or AC Milan, too. Expect the usual deluge of summer visits to the U.S., and pray for a few to come this far west.
8. What's next for UCLA?: UCLA's men came up two steps short of a national title in 2011, then lost at least a half-dozen players to the pros. The Bruins' women lost just once but couldn't get out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament. UC Irvine's men could be set to join UC Santa Barbara as the Big West's second national power. Long Beach State's, Pepperdine's and Irvine's women have plenty to build on. UC Riverside is making moves. We expect more from USC's women. Lots of good teams in the sub-D1 divisions. And the best JCs in the country. Fall is a rich season, indeed, in these parts.
9. Year 2 with the L.A. Blues: So Cal soccer's best-kept secret will stick to one venue in 2012 -- Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium -- and it plans to do more than make the playoffs, like they did last summer.
10. CIF championships: One of our favorite weekends of the year arrives in early March, with the CIF Southern Section and CIF L.A. City Section soccer championships -- typically spread across two days at four venues. And the Southern California Regional tournament, the closest thing to a state championship around here, follow right behind. Some of the teams making stirs early in the season: the boys teams from Servite (Anaheim), San Clemente and JSerra (San Clemente), and the girls sides from Flintridge Sacred Heart (La Cañada Flintridge), Aliso Niguel (Aliso Viejo) and Oaks Christian (Westlake Village).
11. Going Surfing: Lots of great youth-club competition worth watching, starting with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy sides -- boys only -- and not just the Galaxy and Chivas USA. There's also Coast Soccer League and lots of tournaments, the biggest come summer in Del Mar: San Diego's prestigious Surf Cup.
12. South of the border: The Mexican Primera Division's Apertura kicks off this weekend, and when we're not watching Cruz Azul or Guadalajara on the tube, we might head down to Tijuana to see the Xolos. Big home games coming against Monterrey (Jan. 15), Santos Laguna (Jan. 29), Cruz Azul (Feb. 12), America (March 11) and Pumas UNAM (April 29). If Tijuana survives, more Primera games next fall.