Bernie Lilavois knows well the perils of the indoor game.
The former Cal State Northridge standout has spent most of a 20-year professional career in the arenas, from San Jose to Buffalo, Cleveland to Portland, and stops in between -- nine clubs in all, across five leagues.
“I've been around a long time, playing indoors,” Lilavois says. “I hate to say it, but every single team I used to play for doesn't exist anymore. I've seen a lot of mistakes made. But I've seen a lot of good things, too.”
It's with the good things in mind that he introduces the Anaheim Bolts, a professional indoor team that makes its league debut Saturday night at the Anaheim Convention Center. It's a culmination of a two-year project to return the beautiful game's fast-paced cousin to Southern California -- for the first time at the top level since the Anaheim Splash, one of Lilavois' former clubs, folded in 1997 after four seasons in the late Continental Indoor Soccer League.
“I just woke up one day and had a crazy idea of bringing professional indoor soccer back here,” said Lilavois, who attended La Salle High School in Pasadena and has played and coached for years in and around the L.A. basin. “Ever since the Splash finished up, I've traveled around, playing in all these cities, and in the back of my head it's been 'why not back in Southern California?' ”
So Lilavois, 41, stepped up -- he's the Bolts' managing partner, head coach and, if required, a presence on the field -- found partners and built a working relationship with the City of Anaheim, the Bolts' desired destination from Day One. Part of that is lineage from the Splash, which drew well, above 6,000 per game, played an effective, entertaining brand of the game and established itself among the CISL's better clubs.
The nature of the indoor game and its economics -- leagues and clubs fighting for survival, a battle usually lost -- doomed the Splash, just as they had Forum-based predecessors L.A. Lazers (1982-89) and L.A. United (1993).
Expenses are far less in the Professional Arena Soccer League, which kicked off its fourth season last week with 12 clubs. The salary cap is tight -- just $3,000 per game -- and every player works another job or attends school. There's no regular-season interplay between the Western and Eastern divisions, so the longest road trip is to Tacoma, Wash. The arenas are smaller (ACC seats about 7,000; capacity at the Honda Center, the Splash's home, was above 17,000). Costs are kept in check.
Now it's about attracting fans.
“Some of the biggest struggles have been to get the word out, to let people know that professional soccer -- professional indoor soccer -- is back,” Lilavois said. “A lot of people remember the Splash, the Lazers, L.A. United, and the problem is all these new teams pop up, hang around for a year or two, and it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths. So we're getting the word out: It's a new professional team, and we'll be around for a long while.”
The goal is to draw an average crowd better than 3,000. If that many show up for Saturday night's clash with two-time defending PASL champion San Diego Sockers, Lilavois said, “we'll be doing cartwheels.”
LOCAL FLAVOR: Lilavois has stayed local for talent, with the majority of the roster from the L.A. area or from local colleges and universities. Among them is Carlos Borja (Anaheim/Loara HS), the former Chivas USA defender, and forward Tomislav Colic (Vanguard University), Borja's teammate with the L.A. Blues, who play in the outdoor USL Pro just a few miles north in Fullerton.
The big name on the club is 42-year-old Paul Wright, an English-born forward/midfielder who starred for the Fullerton-based L.A. Salsa just before Major League Soccer's debut, spent four seasons with the MLS's Kansas City Wizards and has an indoor pedigree as rich as Lilavois'.
Wright came over from the San Diego Sockers, where he played for Lilavois in 2009.
“He brings a wealth of experience to the team, for sure. Tons and tons of experience,” Lilavois said. “He's been everywhere, and he's like an extra coach on the field. He's 42, but he's probably the most-fit 42-year-old I've ever seen in my life.”
Indoor veterans Jesus Molina, a goalkeeper, and Enrique Tovar, a forward, played with Lilavois in Stockton. Adriano de Lima played with a previous version of the Sockers.
The local talent includes forward Joe Allemand, a speedy forward from Brea (Brea Olinda HS/Fullerton College) who has impressed Lilavois, and 18-year-old Guatemalan midfielder Patrick Ruiz, whose skill on the ball has won him the nickname “Little Messi.”
The goal is to make the playoffs. It's more than that: Lilavois guarantees it.
“If we don't make the playoffs,” he says, “all season-ticket [renewals] are free. Next season is on us. It's a bold statement from an expansion team, but we [plan to be a] winning franchise, we want to lead the league in attendance. We're Soccer Town USA -- Southern California is, as far as I'm concerned.”
The Bolts' Western Division rivals are the Sockers, Phoenix Monsoon, Tacoma Stars, Revolucion Tijuana and Turlock Express. Eastern teams are located in Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, suburban Kansas City, suburban St. Louis and Canton, Ohio.
The season runs through late February, followed by playoffs, and a U.S. Open Cup competition will run concurrently. The Bolts' first-round game is tentatively set for Dec. 3 in Anaheim.
2011-12 PASL schedule
Nov. 12 San Diego, 8 p.m.
Nov. 19 at San Diego, 7:05 p.m.
Dec. 2 Turlock, 8 p.m.
Dec. 10 at Phoenix, 7 p.m.
Dec. 11 at Phoenix, noon
Dec. 16 at Turlock, 7:35 p.m.
Dec. 18 Tacoma, 6 p.m.
Jan. 6 Tijuana, 8 p.m.
Jan. 7 at San Diego, 7:05 p.m.
Jan. 14 at Tijuana, 5 p.m.
Jan. 27 San Diego, 8 p.m.
Jan. 28 Phoenix, 8 p.m.
Feb. 11 at Tacoma, 7 p.m.
Feb. 12 at Tacoma, 3 p.m.
Feb. 19 Tijuana, 6 p.m.
Feb. 26 Tacoma, 6 p.m.
Home: Anaheim Convention Center
For tickets, go to the club's website.