Los Angeles Soccer: Edwin Miranda
It involves star attacker Brent Whitfield, a former Chivas USA outside back from Long Beach (Poly HS/Cal State Fullerton) who has played for several top local clubs and was set to serve as a player-coach for L.A. Misioneros, a PDL team that's brought in some big talent in a bid to compete for a trophy.
Misioneros cut ties with Whitfield just before the season began -- it also cost them former Galaxy defender Mike Randolph, whom Whitfield had brought to the club -- and he has turned up with the Ventura County Fusion, a club he bolted two years ago to play for pay with Hollywood United.
The Fusion opened their season Saturday night at Ventura College against, wouldn't you know, the Misioneros, who took a lead midway through the first half through Edwin Miranda (Reseda/Reseda HS and Cal State Northridge), who played last year for the L.A. Blues.
Whitfield gave Ventura a share of the points, scoring just before halftime.
The other two games involving local teams also finished 1-1. Cal State Northridge's Christian Gonzalez Diaz (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS) scored in stoppage Friday to lift Orange County Blue Star against visiting Pali Blues, which got a goal from UCLA's Evan Raynr (Calabasas/Viewpoint HS). Blue Star rallied against Misioneros in L.A. two nights later, with Loyola Marymount's David Ponce (Foothill Ranch/Trabuco Hills HS and UC Santa Barbara) scoring the equalizer.
Elsewhere in minor-league soccer:
USL PRO: The L.A. Blues got a home win last week, and, true to form, it came away from Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium. The 2-1 triumph over Wilmington at Fullerton College was their first victory of the season and just their fourth in what now is 16 league home games.
The record at CSUF is far worse: no wins in nine games (0-6-3), including a “road” loss to the Galaxy in last year's U.S. Open Cup. That includes Sunday's 2-2 draw with Wilmington in the second meeting of the weekend.
The Blues (1-2-1) climbed out of the third-division league's cellar, from 11th to 10th, two points ahead of the Dayton Dutch Lions (0-2-2), the only USL Pro team without a victory, and that after winning just two of 24 league games last year. Midfielder Allan Russell, who converted a penalty kick and assisted Matt Fondy's opener in Friday's win, was selected to the USL Pro Team of the Week.
The local clubs in the USL's Premier Development League take the league's name to heart. The objective is developing talent, far more so than winning trophies, although those are nice, too.
There are five L.A.-area teams in the PDL's Southwest Division, including 2009 national champion Ventura County Fusion, which figures to battle defending division titlist Fresno Fuego for the top spot this season, which kicks off in earnest this weekend after Fresno-L.A. Misioneros games the past two weekends.
Most of the clubs are loaded with college players, a few amateurs looking to showcase their talents for the next level and, in some circumstances, pros hoping to step up into one of the country's three fully professional leagues or to a club to the south or overseas. The Southwest Division, along with its conference partner in the Northwest, is a standard-bearer for the PDL, in terms of competition and development.
“First and foremost, [the priority] is to prepare players for the next level,” said Fusion coach Ole Mikkelsen, a 1978 UCLA All-American who played in the old North American Soccer League. “We select players primarily on whether or not we think they have the tools to play at the MLS level. We prepare the players first, and win second. It's hard to disconnect the two -- winning gives visibility to get you exposed.”
The Fusion and fellow PDL power Orange County Blue Star have sent scores of players on to Major League Soccer and other pro leagues. So has the La Mirada-based Southern California Seahorses, a Christian club that expects to battle the Fusion, Blue Star and Fuego for the division title and two postseason berths.
“All the guys who come to our team are interested in that development part of the league and the team,” Seahorses coach Todd Elkins said. “They know they get better. The level is consistently good. Just making the team -- making a team in our region -- you're going to be challenged. We take that very seriously. We want to maximize their time during the summer, making sure [a player] gets everything he can from us.
“We look at it as being a bit of a testing ground. If progressing the ranks is a goal for you, this is a good test to see if that's realistic or not.”
Chukwudi Chijindu scored twice and set up Edwin Miranda's brilliant opener as L.A. Blues put together their best performance since last month's Caribbean trip in a 3-0 romp over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in Bridgeville, Pa.
Chijindu, with the Blues on loan from Chivas USA, struck in the 28th minute and in second-half stoppage as L.A. (5-2-2) opened a seven-point lead on Rochester in the USL Pro's National Division. Rochester (3-3-1) has two games in hand, but the Blues are the only team with a winning record in the division. Pittsburgh fell to 2-4-2.
L.A. had been up and down since going 3-0-0 to start a season-opening trip to Puerto Rico and Antigua, winning just one of five games after Friday's 1-1 draw at Dayton, the league's only winless side.
But Miranda blasted a Chijindu feed to the upper-right corner from just above the box in the 17th minute, and Chijindu made it 2-0 just 11 minutes later from a Walter Gaitan flick.
Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Dautt stopped Stefan Lundberg 1-on-1 in the second half to claim his second shutout of the season.
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.
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.
The L.A. Blues made their public debut Saturday night, playing in front of a real, paying audience in a charity match -- and impressing with a 7-0 romp over a team organized as the Orange County All-Stars. The real news was in the Blues' lineup.
Two new faces were on the field for So Cal's newest pro team, and both have Major League Soccer experience.
Nelson Akwari, a UCLA product who spent five years with three MLS clubs, was in central defense. Edwin Miranda, a Cal State Northridge alum who was drafted by Dallas in 2004 and has played for El Salvador's national team, was at the bottom of the midfield diamond.
Akwari, 29, will be signed this week, a club source confirmed. Miranda, 30, signed Saturday. Their additions give the Blues (4-1-2 in preseason), who on April 15 open their inaugural season in third-tier league USL Pro, eight players who have spent time on MLS rosters, including Chivas USA forward Chukwudi Chijindu (Fontana/Damien HS), who is on loan from the Goats, and former Galaxy defenders Leonard Griffin (Palmdale/Littlerock HS and UCLA) and Mike Randolph (Chino Hills/Ayala HS), midfielder Josh Tudela and forward Israel Sesay.
Akwari, who was in residency with the U.S. under-17 team in the late 1990s with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, etc., played in 2002 with New York, 2003-04 with Columbus and 2005-06 with Real Salt Lake. He's played in lower divisions since, spending last season with the Vancouver Whitecaps, who made the jump this year to MLS.
Miranda, a two-time Big West Conference Defender of the Year at CSUN, didn't make Dallas' team in 2004 and has since played in lower divisions -- Portland Timbers, now in MLS, and Hollywood United FC are former employers. His experience with the Puerto Rico Islanders could be valuable; three of the Blues' International Division rivals are in Puerto Rico.
A GOOD CAUSE: Blues GM Alyse LaHue estimated Saturday's game raised about $1,000 for victims of the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, with the proceeds going to Orange County Red Cross. Argentine midfielder Walter Gaitan tallied twice and Serbian forward Tomislav Colic (Vanguard University) netted another in the first half, and Chijindu, Sesay, Gerardo Bravo-Benavides and Cesar Rivera scored goals after halftime.