L.A. BLUES: More than just an affordable alternative
The makings of a success story? The L.A. Blues hope so, and as they embark on their inaugural season in USL Pro -- American pro soccer's third tier -- they've got greater designs than putting out an affordable and entertaining alternative to the Galaxy and Chivas USA.
“We want to make the playoffs and get in the championship,” says midfielder Josh Tudela, one of eight Blues with Major League Soccer experience. “We're not going to settle for anything less than that.”
It's big talk, but the Blues, on paper, at least, have the makings of a contender. They've got Argentine midfielder Walter Gaitan, a superstar of mammoth proportion at this level of the game, veterans such as Tudela and defender Nelson Akwari, rising players like Chivas USA loaner Chukwudi Chijindu and some local-league stars head coach Charlie Naimo says he believes will make their names with the club.
“I feel we've done a pretty good job of putting together a very good roster for this level,” said Naimo, who has won three titles in United Soccer Leagues' women's league and was general manager of the L.A. Sol, the short-lived Women's Professional Soccer club partially owned by the Blues organization. “So they need to find some strength in that, then say, 'Hey, we've got the group, now we have to win.' ”
If they're not as good as the Galaxy, they might be more fun to watch. The plan is to play a pretty possession game, weaving passing patterns past foes to create chances for Chijindu and the other forwards.
“Everybody wants to play that way,” Naimo said, “so time to put up or shut up. Do what is required, and a lot of what I see is when it doesn't work, it's the guys off the ball who aren't working hard enough to get into good spots. You've got to make the game easy for your teammates.
“We're certainly not afraid to pass the ball to guys that are contested. We're certainly not afraid to ask for the ball when guys are on us. It's just a matter of getting those people in a little bit spot, a matter of of making that pass a little bit better so they can escape. And then you discourage that high pressure. That's the only way to slow a game down. Otherwise, what stops the other team from chasing you, from running you over for 90 minutes? You've got to be able to step on the ball. … It's obviously attractive if it comes off.”
The Blues open their season Friday night in Juncos, Puerto Rico, where the begin a four-games-in-nine-days sweep of the Caribbean, facing their four International Division rivals. First up: Sevilla FC Puerto Rico, which has weak ties to its Spanish namesake, followed by matches Sunday at Antigua Barracuda, Wednesday at Puerto Rico United and next Saturday against River Plate Puerto Rico.
The home opener is May 1 against Barracuda at Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium, and home games also will be played at Centennial High School in Corona and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.
Here's what you need to know about the L.A. Blues:
THE CLUB: The L.A. Blues have long been part of the So Cal soccer scene, fielding teams in amateur and semipro leagues, owning half of the L.A. Sol and fielding a winner in the USL's W-League with Pali Blues, whom Naimo led to championships in their first two seasons.
The club is owned by Persian-American businessman Ali Mansour and his wife, Maryam, and it also is starting a second men's team this season to play in the USL's Premier Development League, a national pro/amateur league considered the fourth tier of American men's soccer. L.A. Blues 23, as the PDL team will be known, will serve as a reserve team to the USL Pro side.
THE COACH: Naimo played at Seton Hall and Rutgers and coached at Lafayette and Centenary before joining the PDA youth powerhouse in New Jersey and helping in the development of women's national team stars Heather O'Reilly and Carli Lloyd. He's the most successful coach in W-League history, posting an 87-10-7 record the past seven years.
Naimo moved from New Jersey to California in 2008 to join the Blues organization in advance of WPS's kickoff, taking charge of the Pali Blues and working on the launch of the L.A. Sol. After the Sol's demise, he became a consultant for the WPS's Chicago Red Stars, who have gone on hiatus this season.
THE TEAM: Gaitan, 33, is the big name, a veteran of clubs such a Villarreal and Boca Juniors who spent the past decade in Mexico, winning a scoring title with UANL Tigres. The Blues will look to him, Naimo says, “to kind of slow the game down. We need him to be the on-field general, then dictate the kind of play that we need.” His partner in the middle will be Tudela, one of four former Galaxy players on the roster and the Blues' captain. Says Naimo: “He understands the little things that it takes, is not afraid to get dirty, and he's not afraid to get dirty.”
The backline could, at times, have three MLS veterans -- Akwari, an MLS vet recruited after he'd left the game to return to school at UCLA, and former Galaxy backs Mike Randolph (Chino Hills/Chino Hills HS) and Leonard Griffin (Palmdale/Littlerock HS and UCLA) -- in front of veteran Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Dautt, whose employers have included Monterrey, Tigres, Puebla and Club Tijuana.
Chijindu (Upland/Damien HS), surplus to Chivas coach Robin Fraser's needs, is expected to be “a difference-maker” up top. Jamaican midfielder Akeem Priestley, Chijindu's former UConn teammate, and Iranian right back Mehrshad Momeni, expected to arrive before the home opener, also ought to be big contributors.
Former Galaxy winger Israel Sesay, once a Generation adidas signing in MLS, is the other player with MLS experience, and midfielder Edwin Miranda (Los Angeles/San Fernando HS and L.A. Mission College/Cal State Northridge) and forward Dane Saintus were drafted and spent preseasons with MLS clubs.
Several unknowns will play important roles, too. Erlys Garcia, who defected from Cuba's under-23 team in Tampa three years ago and has since played primarily in L.A.-area amateur leagues, will partner Akwari in central defense. Silky skilled forward Cesar Rivera, who has spent time with Mexican teams and has played for the Blues' amateur side, is the best-bet breakout star. Serbian forward Tomislav Colic, an NAIA All-American at Costa Mesa's Vanguard University, is a diligent worker up top. The Peruvian-born Bravo brothers -- Jhonatan and Gerardo, from Sylmar -- will be key in midfield.
“It's L.A., man,” Naimo said. “You're so fortunate to be around and find a couple guys like that, that are playing for a couple hundred bucks on a Sunday afternoon, that are good enough to come in here and compete against an MLS team [as in last weekend's game against Chivas USA's stacked reserve side] no problem.”
THE LEAGUE: The Tampa, Fla.-based United Soccer Leagues has for more than a decade governed several national competitions, with the amateur/semipro W-League and PDL the most prominent in these parts. It also has fielded pro leagues and had two going, the aptly named First and Second Divisions, until several clubs split off last year to form a new North American Soccer League.
That led to all sorts of turmoil, much of it to do with U.S. Soccer sanctioning, and the USL's D1 and the NASL were merged into a one-year USSF D2 Pro League last year. Now the NASL is off on its own -- it's been declared a “second division” league by U.S. Soccer; MLS is “first division” -- and USL has pulled together its remaining pro sides from D1 and D2 into the new USL Pro.
The league is really an East Coast entity, with teams running up the coast from Orlando to Rochester and a handful in Pennsylvania and Ohio. So the Blues have been grouped with four Caribbean newcomers, a new club in Antigua (largely based on Antigua and Barbuda's national team) and three teams from the Puerto Rico Soccer League, including reigning champs River Plate Puerto Rico.
The Rochester Rhinos, one of minor-league soccer's most storied franchises, and Orlando City FC, after a move from Austin, Texas, arrive from the USSF league. Six more come from the USL Second Division, including five of the past six champions: Charleston (S.C.) Battery (2010), Richmond (Va.) Kickers (2006 and 2009), Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders (2007) and Charlotte (N.C.) Eagles (2005).
There are about three dozen players who have been with MLS clubs scattered among the rosters. The Blues, Charleston, 2010 USL-2 runner-up Richmond, Rochester and Orlando City have impressive collections and appear, on paper at least, as the teams to beat.
SCHEDULE: It's 24 games, followed by playoffs, with eight of the 15 clubs advancing -- the top three in the National and American divisions and the first two in the Blues' International Division. It's single-game knockout all the way, and the Sept. 3 final will be played on the higher-seeded finalists' home field and televised by Fox Soccer Channel.
Given the great distances the Blues must travel for road games -- newcomers Dayton Dutch Lions are their nearest neighbor, 1,900 miles away -- the team will play its away slate in four spurts: two four-game treks to the Caribbean, two two-game weekends back east.
The home slate is similarly divided, with 10 of the 12 matches coming in two-games-in-three-days spurts, one at Cal State Fullerton the other at either Centennial (four of the five) or Canyons.
The must-see encounters: the May 1 opener (against Barracuda) tripleheaders May 14 (against Charlotte, with Pali Blues and La Mirada-based PDL club Southern California Seahorses in preliminaries) and July 2 (against Richmond, with Pali Blues and the Blues in action first).
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