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LOCALS: Strikers have built-in rival

5/14/2011

When the opportunity to own a women's soccer team presented itself last year, Joe and Debbie Caracciolo jumped at the it. It cost them a friendship but gave their club an archrival before it had a name, coach, players or a place to play.

The L.A. Strikers will make their debut Saturday in the USL W-League, taking on two-time league champion Pali Blues in the 1 p.m. opener of a tripleheader at Cal State Fullerton, but the dates to circle on the calendar are May 29 and July 13.

That's when the Pasadena-based side takes on the Santa Clarita Blue Heat, a second-year club that counted Debbie Caracciolo as operations manager last year. The parting was not sweet -- Blue Heat owner Carlos Marroquin felt blindsided, Caracciolo felt abandoned -- and the battle will be intense.

"I went from hero to zero [with Marroquin] the minute I chose this franchise," Caracciolo said. "In my eyes, we had this partnership of working together, and I thought we had a great relationship throughout the entire season. At the end of season, when the opportunity presented itself, you'd think he'd be happy for me, that we were able to put this together, about another game to add to the schedule. That wasn't the case. I don't understand why he's upset I'm not working there."

Marroquin says he'd have loved to have been supportive, but he felt betrayed because he said the Caracciolos didn't let him know they were considering taking their own team -- not until they had done so.

'TASTE OF IT': Both head into the season with similar goals: to reach the playoffs, give players an opportunity to grow and showcase their talents, and to connect with their communities -- and especially the youth soccer clubs.

Caracciolo says she wanted to utilize her experience from last season with Blue Heat, the lessons learned and philosophies on how to do things that were brought into focus, to establish a presence in the Pasadena area, one of several girls soccer hotspots in Southern California.

"I got a taste of it" last year with Blue Heat, she said. "I saw the future, basically, of what a team could do for an area, for the youth development and to keep players playing in the area."

She and head coach Reggie Rivas, a former Cal State Northridge player who is coach at Crescenta Valley High School and founder of Crescenta Valley Soccer Club, have recruited a strong group of players, including Australian national-teamer Amy Chapman, USC stars Samantha Johnson (Palmdale/Highland HS) and Carly Butcher, and three players from last year's Blue Heat team: English forward Cherelle Khassal, Canadian defender Katie Tarrant, and Biola University goalkeeper Erin Frushon.

Khassal, a Rookie of the Year finalist in the W-League last year, was Blue Heat's best player in 2010. She's one of three players residing with the Caracciolos -- Tarrant and Irish forward Julie Ann Russell are the others -- and Debbie Caracciolo says she calls Khassal "my English daughter."

It's a full house: The Caracciolos also have kids ages 6, 8, 10 and 12, three of them involved in club soccer.

Club soccer is pivotal to the success of the Strikers, who will play home games at Pasadena City College.

"My goals off the field are to basically brand my team throughout the Pasadena/San Gabriel area, so that they know who we are," Caracciolo said. "That's the immediate goal. I'd like to partner up with a youth club -- that's key to make this a success. I feel like we're going through an interview process, getting to know the different clubs [in the area], see what their goals are."

BIGGER DREAMS: Marroquin, whose Blue Heat were a hit last year in the Santa Clarita Valley -- and played host to last year's final four in the W-League, one of two national semipro/amateur women's leagues -- has big plans, too.

"My goal is the next two years to be part of [top-tier league] Women's Professional Soccer," said Marroquin, a former pro player from Guatemala who has been deeply involved in the sport in Santa Clarita for the past 15 years.

He has a team he thinks can compete with the best -- in the W-League's Western Conference, that means the Pacific Palisades-based Pali Blues, plus the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps -- and it's led by Portuguese national team captain Edite Fernandes, who has starred in Spain's pro league.

Also aboard are Scottish national-teamer Julie Melrose and several local college standouts, including forward Ann Marie Tangorra (Arcadia/Arcadia HS), who starred last year with LAFC Chelsea of the rival Women's Premier Soccer League and just transferred from Cal State L.A. to Cal State Fullerton.

Blue Heat will play home games around Santa Clarita, at Valencia and Canyon high schools and The Master's College.

THE FAVORITES: Pali, which went unbeaten and won league titles its first two seasons, in 2008 and 2009, remain Southern California's best side in the W-League. It's part of the Blues organization that fields the L.A. Blues, a professional men's team in the USL Pro league; Charlie Naimo has turned the reins of the women's side to Jacob Tudela -- L.A. Blues midfielder Josh Tudela's brother -- so he can concentrate on the men.

Pali's roster is dotted with stars, including WPS veteran defender Christie Shaner, former Canadian national-teamer Sasha Andrews, Stanford University stars Mariah Nogueira (Westminster/Marina HS), Camille Levin (Newport Coast/Tarbut v'Torah Community Day School) and Rachel Quon, and a number of local standouts, including star Long Beach State midfielder Shawna Gordon (Rancho Cucamonga/Los Osos HS).

Pali will play its home games at Palisades High School.

The other teams in the eight-team Western Conference: Colorado Force, Colorado Rush and Victoria (B.C.) Highlanders.