NORCO -- The big positive from the L.A. Blues' twin 0-0 draws with Richmond over the weekend was defense, which hasn't exactly been a team strength. That's a huge plus as they head into the USL Pro playoffs, a one-and-done, eight-team tournament in which shutting down the opposition is vital if you're going to be a real contender.
The Blues (8-7-9) had posted just three shutouts all season before Friday's draw at Cal State Fullerton, which was followed by another -- in a far more entertaining outing -- in a regular-season finale Sunday at Norco College.
Richmond (12-7-5), which won a USL title in 2009, reached last year's final and is in this season's U.S. Open Cup semifinals, struggled to create chances against an organized Blues defense, even after throwing on four regulars at halftime in Sunday's game. If only L.A. could have found the net even once.
“I have loads of respect for Richmond, so for me, it's a good measuring stick,” said Blues coach Charlie Naimo, who takes his team to Pennsylvania to face the Harrisburg City Islanders in a quarterfinal Friday. “Second half, they put some of their top-choice guys on to go for the game, and then I think we picked it up, too.
“We struggled to get clean sheets all year long, and then to get two in a row against what I think is [one of] the top two teams in the league ... knowing we have [injured Mexican forward Jonathan] de Leon resting and [suspended forward Cesar] Rivera possibly coming back, I'm good. I'm comfortable with where we are right now.”
They'd likely have another win had Antiguan forward Peter Byers finished when 1-on-1 against Kickers goalkeeper Ryan Jones just past the hour mark Sunday. Or if he'd be awarded the penalty kick he drew a few minutes after that. Or if he'd taken a few more shots when he got into Richmond's box, or had he had better support from the midfield. Winger Akeem Priestley's late withdrawal with a minor knee injury didn't help.
And attacking is about chemistry, which also hasn't been the Blues' strength.
“It takes a long time for a nucleus to build a team chemistry and a bond,” Naimo said. “We don't have a good one. It's not a bad one, but it's too many different kinds of players, and that's what I think evolves more in a group over time: They just want to compete together. We don't have that.
“It's OK. It's not terrible chemistry, but it's not a chemistry that's unbreakable to the point where they want to battle for each other.”
Harrisburg (10-7-7), which went 1-0-2 against the Blues this year, is very different: a team with outstanding chemistry, maybe one with not at much talent as L.A. But in Gambian forward Sainey Touray, they have a true game-changer, something the Blues haven't had since Walter Gaitan scampered away in June.
Naimo said his “eye's on” Touray (7 goals, 6 assists), given “his pace, and he's silky. He finds a way to slither in there, and he's dangerous.” Brian Ombiji adds class up top, and left-sider Jose Angulo (9 goals) and Andrew Welker (8 goals) have been deadly.
“Other than that, they're just honest, hard-nosed guys,” Naimo said. “They're just a very vanilla-but-foot-at-it team. They're going to fight if we get a lead. That game's not over until it's over. I know they're going to be relentless.
“I know they're extremely confident, semi-arrogant when it comes to us, and they should be. we haven't proven to them that we can beat them, so we're going to play against a confident group of guys who are very tough to play against because of their belief in one another.”
The Blues-Harrisburg winner will meet National division champ Rochester (12-8-4) or Pittsburgh (7-11-6) in the semifinals. The American division matchups are Orlando City (15-3-6) vs. Charleston (10-9-5) and Wilmington (14-7-3) vs. Richmond.
USL PRO: The final postseason berth was taken by Charleston, in a winner-take-all battle against Charlotte, and former UCLA star Mike Zaher was one of the heroes. He scored his first two goals of the season as the Battery went up by two goals after seven minutes and three after 30, then held on for a 4-3 triumph. ... FC New York's Jhonny Arteaga scored four times in the 5-0 rout at Dayton to win the goals (with 13) and points (with 27) titles. Teammate Tadeu Terra led the league in assists, with eight. ... Former MLS benchwarmer Jamie Watson netted a hat trick in Orlando City's 4-0 rout of Harrisburg. City won the Commissioner's Cup, as regular-season champ. ... Every team in the American Division won at least nine games. Only Rochester (12) and Harrisburg (10) among National Division sides won as many. ... The Blues last week sold Gaitan's contract to Atletico de Rafaela, which was promoted in May to Argentina's Primera Division.
WPSL: The Orange County Waves were well represented in the Women's Premier Soccer League awards after winning the title in their first season. Biggest among them: Waves boss Abner Rogers as the league's Coach of the Year. He did not win the award in the Pacific Conference -- it went to former U.S. national-teamer Jen Lalor-Neilsen, the San Diego SeaLions' coach.
Midfielder Brittany Klein (Arcadia/Arcadia HS) was the Pacific Division's Player of the Year.
Other Waves award-winners:
First team: Klein, D Dani Bosio (Mission Viejo/Santa Margarita Catholic HS and Pepperdine), G Sophia Perez
Second team: M Katrin Omarsdottir
Co-Goalkeeper of the Year: Perez
First team: Klein, Perez, Omarsdottir and Bosio
Second team: D Kika Toulouse
SeaLions defender Sarah Devine (UC Irvine) was a first-team All-WPSLer, and midfielder Rosie Tantillo (USC) was chosen to the All-Pacific second team.
Last week's results (home teams listed first)
Charlotte Eagles 0, Harrisburg City Islanders 1 (Angulo 87)
Dayton Dutch Lions 0, FC New York 5 (Arteaga 16, 69, 86, 88, Cole 61)
Wilmington Hammerheads 0, Richmond Kickers 2 (Heins 18, Delicate 74)
Orlando City 4 (Chin 22, Watson pen. 25, 80, 84), Harrisburg City Islanders 0
Charleston Battery 4 (Prince 5, Zaher 7, 30, Kelly 61), Charlotte Eagles 3 (Herrera 45, Bundu 91+, Ferrer 93+)
L.A. Blues 0, Richmond Kickers 0
Rochester Rhinos 1 (Costanzo 63), Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0
Dayton Dutch Lions 1 (Kissinger 58), Wilmington Hammerheads 2 (Avesyan 21, Banks 61)
L.A. Blues 0, Richmond Kickers 0
National: 1. x-Rochester Rhinos 40 points; 2. x-Harrisburg City Islanders 37; 3. x-L.A. Blues 33; 4. x-Pittsburgh Riverhounds 27; 5. FC New York 25; 6. Dayton Dutch Lions 12
American: 1. x-Orlando City 51; 2. x-Wilmington Hammerheads 45; 3. x-Richmond Kickers 41; 4. x-Charleston Battery 35; 5. Charlotte Eagles 33; 6. Antigua Barracuda 29
x -- clinched playoff berth
This week's games (all times Pacific)
L.A. Blues at Harrisburg City Islanders, 4:30 p.m.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Rochester Rhinos, 4:30 p.m.
Richmond Kickers at Wilmington Hammerheads, 4:30 p.m.
Charleston Battery at Orlando City, 4:30 p.m.