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Sunday, May 1, 2011
L.A. BLUES: First impression not a winner

By Scott French

Charlie Naimo spoke last week to the importance of first impressions, and when his L.A. Blues finally got to make one, the message came garbled.

There was plenty of good but much too much that wasn't in the club's home opener Sunday, a 1-0 USL Pro defeat to Antigua Barracuda before a small but appreciative crowd at Cal State Fullerton.

The Blues (3-1-1) lacked sharpness in Barracuda's box without late scratch Walter Gaitan, who failed a pregame fitness test after tweaking a quad muscle last week, and suspended forward Cesar Rivera and got far too little from their overwhelming advantage in possession.

Barracuda (4-2-0), which overtook L.A. atop the third-tier USL Pro's International Division standings, was content to sit back -- but with a high and effective restraining line -- and counter, and forward Peter Byers might have had a hat trick, or more, had he finished as well as he beat defenders.

Stefan Smith scored the goal, in the 24th minute, knocking home a rebound after a giveaway by Nelson Akwari led to a Lawson Robinson shot,  but the Blues surely would have prevailed with better precision in the final pass or finish.

“We were good at the things Walter would've helped us be good at, which was keeping possession and creating chances,” said Naimo, the Blues' head coach and vice president. “Cesar's that guy that if we had high amongst [Barracuda's] backline … [he's] so strong on the ball, you get him that ball in those areas, central, he's gonna turn you, he's gonna spin you, and he's also extremely creative. I think he would have made a difference.

“Obviously, Walter could have made a difference. But you know what? At the end of the day, whatever we had on the field tonight, I thought the guys did a good job. We lacked efficiency in the final ball, whether it was the service or the finish. We created some beautiful chances tonight.

“It had to be a great game to watch, but, obviously, you come up short, you come up short.”

OPENING NIGHT: The crowd count was 696, which is smaller by 7,157 than the gathering that saw the Blues' second team, playing in the lesser Premier Development League, in Fresno on Friday night.

Naimo thought the audience was larger and said, when he heard the attendance figure, that it “just adds to the disappointment.” He's said he'd like to draw 2,000 per game, but more needs to be done getting the word out to draw that kind of following.

Included were a vocal group from the Tony Danza Army, the Blues' fan group, and dozens of kids in uniform, many of them part of the Blues' youth set-up.

“I don't think we could have asked for more out of the first game, and hopefully from here it keeps growing,” said midfielder Josh Tudela, the Blues' captain. “We won't have too many of these losses, so we want to make sure the fans know that, that we will be having a lot of wins this year.”

WHAT WORKED: Edwin Miranda was superb at the base of midfield, linking players and exploiting space with balls for teammates that led to scoring opportunities. Jhonathan Bravo, Miranda's partner in the middle, made several dangerous runs, firing a Tudela feed off the crossbar and setting up Tomislav Colic for a sure-thing goal had he used his right foot rather than his left. Jamaican forward Akeem Priestley was active and mobile, wandering everywhere to get the ball and connect teammates. Chivas USA loaner Chukwudi Chijindu added class to the attack when he came on in the 66th minute.

WHAT DIDN'T: The Blues lacked energy and movement during the first half yet still created five good chances, and should have scored three times. Their crossing was poor, they too often failed to react, and they seemed perplexed by Barracuda's counterattack. Akwari, the Blues' most experienced defender, had a nightmare, giving the ball away to Byers in dangerous places three times -- he was fortunate the Antiguans got just one goal from it. They lost virtually every aerial battle.

NEXT IMPRESSION: The Blues play the Charlotte Eagles on May 12 at Centennial High School in Corona and as part of tripleheader, with a PDL game and the Pali Blues women's team, on May 14 at Cal State Fullerton.