The National Premier Soccer League kicks off its new season Saturday, and first appearances suggest a massive turnover among the fourth-division outfit's Southern California clubs.
It's not as drastic as it seems.
Thousand Oaks' FC Hasental returns, and so do two other L.A.-area sides, although in new forms. The Santa Ana Winds' NPSL side is now affiliated with the Fullerton Rangers and the Antelope Valley's Rattlers FC have moved down Highway 14 to become FC Santa Clarita, associated with women's power Santa Clarita Blue Heat.
The big news is who isn't back. Hollywood United FC, which reached the NPSL's title game after battling the area's best semipro/amateur clubs in the rival Premier Development League, is gone … and without a trace.
Word, according to several sources within the NPSL, is that money issues are behind HUFC's demise, that owner Anthony LaPaglia, the Australian actor who starred for seven seasons in CBS drama “Without a Trace,” has withdrawn support.
General manager Jason Mathot and head coach Jose Botello did not respond to interview requests, and several figures affiliated with the greater club -- best-known for its celebrity side, which featured LaPaglia, other actors, rock stars and former pros -- said they didn't know what was going on.
Count NPSL Commissioner Dan Trainor among that group, too.
“We couldn't contact them and don't know [what happened],” Trainor said. “It concerns us when a team can't survive.”
That leaves the San Diego Flash, coached by Fox Soccer analyst (and former English pro) Warren Barton, the big name in the 12-team Western Division. The Flash employ a direct style that led to an 12-2-1 on-field record and the West's South Flight title last year; they'll expect challenges by Fullerton Rangers, Hasental and archrival San Diego Boca.
Four Northern California clubs return in the North Conference (2010 NPSL champ Sacramento Gold, Sonoma County Sol, Hayward's Bay Area Ambassadors and Real San Jose), supplemented by newcomers San Francisco Stompers and Eureka-based North Coast Tsunami. The Phoenix Monsoon join the South Conference.
In all, there are 48 teams spread among nine conference in four NPSL divisions. Jacksonville (Fla.) United is the defending champion.
A look at the three local teams:
Head coach: Raul Zico Ruiz
Who are they: Santa Ana Winds' NPSL team, almost intact, under a new umbrella after managing partner Alberto Ochoa reached an agreement with the Orange County youth club.
Key players: D Leobardo Alvarez, F David Arvizu (Santa Ana/Foothill HS), F Julio Madrigal (Inglewood/Inglewood HS and L.A. Harbor College/Cal State Dominguez Hills), F Eder Roldan, M Diego Turoldo (Torrance/North Torrance HS and Cal State Dominguez Hills).
Outlook: The Winds were a winner on the field last year, making it to the NPSL Western Division playoffs, but front-office troubles led Ochoa to switch organizations (but little else). Ruiz, who guided the team through an 8-5-2 campaign highlighted by a seven-game winning streak, and every big contributing player is back, and the addition of former Cuban star Roldan, U.S. youth international Arvizu, UANL Tigres product Alvarez and Guadalajara product Julio Garrido provides the means to contend beyond the West. The Rangers will get a chance to do so in the U.S. Open Cup, as the Western Division's qualifier.
They said it: “Our goal this year is to finish strong in league, be a contender, but at the same time we're developing our players,” Ruiz said. “The whole aspect for us as an organization is to be a league contender. We believe we have the nucleus to be a contender.”
Home field: Santa Ana Stadium (Santa Ana)
Head coach: Eric Warner
Who are they: Seven-year-old Conejo Valley youth club, which has fielded one of the area's best adult teams the past couple of years and went 6-2-3 after losing their first three games in their inaugural NPSL season last year.
Key players: F Alberto Anguiano (Oxnard/Pacifica HS and Oxnard College), M Taylor Canel (Sherman Oaks/Crespi Carmelite HS and UCLA), M Agustin Cazarez (Reseda/Taft HS and Moorpark College), D Greg Folk (Woodland Hills/Notre Dame HS and UCLA), D Ruben Rodriguez (Ontario/Kaiser HS and Mt. San Antonio College/Cal State Northridge).
Outlook: The Rabbits believe in building from the back, keeping the ball on the ground, emphasizing a stylish game with players that, primarily, have developed within their youth club. Canel and Folk are the veteran leaders, and there's a lot of good young talent, including four Cal State Northridge products (Rodriguez, Armando Gutierrez, Michael Abalos and Jose Luis Garcia), former Chivas Academy player Nick Ledesma, Jeffrey Quijano (part of that great Canoga Park High School team a few years back, who arrives from the NASL's FC Edmonton), Reggie Edu (U.S. national-teamer Maurice Edu's brother) and perhaps UCLA's Chris Cummings (if an opportunity to train with the Seattle Sounders doesn't come through). Hasental ought to battle for supremacy in the West.
They said it: “We don't talk too much about wins and losses,” Warner said. “Part of what we do is honor the process rather than the destination. … We need players focused in the moment and not too caught up in the consequences of losing the ball or losing the match. It's a long-term [approach].”
Home field: Simi Valley High School, Cal Lutheran (Thousand Oaks) or Rancho Santa Susana Community Park (Simi Valley).
FC SANTA CLARITA STORM
Head coach: Jose Meza
Who are they: The former Lancaster Rattlers, who moved south after a 3-11-0 campaign last year, their first after a switch from the PDL. Affiliated with the Santa Clarita Blue Heat women's team -- Blue Heat owner Carlos Marroquin in a partner and the side's GM -- the team will take the Blue Heat name in 2013 and looks to return to the PDL at that time.
Key players: F Andres Bueno (Canyon Country/Golden Valley HS and College of the Canyons), D Tyler Coombs (Palmdale/Palmdale HS and Cal State L.A.), D Eddie Corona (Santa Clarita/Canyon HS), D Erick Corona (Santa Clarita/Canyon HS), M Steve Martines.
Outlook: Meza, who played in Mexico and Los Angeles and had been an assistant coach with the PDL's L.A. Misionarios, was brought on this week in place of Palmdale HS coach Jarrod Cline after a blowout loss in U.S. Open Cup qualifying. He's still figuring out what he's got, but the Corona twins (Chivas USA Academy products who played in Club Tijuana's system) and Martines (an actor whose family has clout in St. Louis' rich soccer community) provide a strong foundation.
They said it: “We are going step-by-step, not thinking about San Diego Flash or some other teams,” Meza said. “The first team we have to beat is San Diego Boca. So we are just thinking about this game. … Next week I'll try to put my idea into the team. I know in a short time they will get my idea.”
Home field: Valencia High School.
The third-tier USL Pro kicked off Friday, with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds prevailing, 1-0, at Antigua Barracuda. Three more games this weekend, and the L.A. Blues open April 14 against the Rochester Rhinos at Cal State Fullerton.
The decision to award the Fullerton Rangers, and not the Bay Area Ambassadors, the NPSL's final automatic berth into the U.S. Open Cup caused some controversy. The Ambassadors captured the match the league had identified as a win-and-you're-in showdown, but the bid was instead given to the Rangers ostensibly because they'd won all their matches while the Hayward-based team tied a group-stage game and won the North Flight qualifying final on penalties. Bay Area has to win a playoff with U.S. Club Soccer's representative to make the 64-team Open Cup field.
Antigua Barracuda 0, Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1 (Seth 41)
Charleston Battery at Richmond Kickers, 2 p.m.
Orlando City SC at Charlotte Eagles, 4 p.m.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Antigua Barracuda, 1:30 p.m.
NATIONAL PREMIER SOCCER LEAGUE
Sacramento Gold at North Coast Tsunami, 1 p.m.
Fullerton Rangers at Phoenix Monsoon, 4 p.m.
FC Hasental at San Diego Flash (Del Norte HS/San Diego), 5 p.m.
FC Santa Clarita Storm at San Diego Boca (Balboa Stadium/San Diego), 7 p.m.
Bay Area Ambassadors at San Francisco Stompers, 7 p.m.
Real San Jose at Sonoma County Sol, 7 p.m.
USL Premier Development League: April 29
USL W-League: May 11
Women's Premier Soccer League: TBA