The near-marathon trek to start the season went well, for the most part, and now L.A. Blues -- the Southland's newest pro soccer club -- are ready to show their fans what they can do.
They'll get the chance Sunday in their home opener at Cal State Fullerton, and head coach Charlie Naimo admits he's feeling some pressure. He so wants his possession-first squad to make the best impression against USL Pro divisional rival Antigua Barracuda, even if he's unsure who -- or how many -- he'll be looking to impress.
The Blues (3-0-1), who leapt atop the International Division standings in the third-tier league with an unbeaten four-games-in-nine-days trip to the Caribbean, haven't had much opportunity yet to lure followers, so it could be a lot of friends and family joined by a few soccer junkies looking on when the 5 p.m. kickoff arrives at Titan Stadium.
Naimo, who is the Blues' vice president (and de facto technical director for all three pro-level teams within the club), says he doesn't have a feel for how big the opening-night audience but will be satisfied in a couple of thousand stop by. It might take a few games to reach that number -- the Blues also will play home games at Centennial High School in Corona and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita -- but this is a long-term project.
"If we can get 2,000 in seats [I'll be satisfied]," Naimo said. "I wish it were more, but I'd be happy with it. We're a first-year team with so many things to do. We didn't know we'd be playing until late October, didn't have a [general manager] in place until Feb. 1. Where we are, we have to be realistic with our goals.
"We're looking at the first year as we've got to build toward year two and get better every day. Every day build the fan base more. We're hoping if we do well, keep stringing together results, play well, we can be a team soccer enthusiasts want to support. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction."
TITLE CONTENDERS: On the field, things look good. The Blues likely will play more attractive soccer than either the Galaxy or Chivas USA, L.A.'s big pro clubs, and they're likely to contend for the USL Pro title, given the makeup of their roster: lots of veterans, some with Major League Soccer experience, several who have played in foreign leagues.
The big star is Argentine midfielder Walter Gaitan, who was sensational in the Caribbean, scoring three goals and assisting a fourth as L.A. toppled Sevilla FC Puerto Rico (3-0), Antigua Barracuda (2-1) and Puerto Rico United (4-2) before drawing, 1-1, with River Plate Puerto Rico.
Is Gaitan, 34, a different level in this league?
"I think he will be," Naimo said. "I think he shows moments. He's still on his way up getting his legs back and getting fit. He has unbelievable character and is an unbelievable teammate. You talk about great players, you discuss his ability. But he's unbelievable with the young guys. I think the team has made him feel young again, and I feel he's really a great example of what it takes to be a great teammate."
Also playing well in the Caribbean: Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Dautt, forwards Cesar Rivera and Tomislav Colic -- both scored twice on the trip -- and defenders Nelson Akwari and Leonard Griffin, who filled in adeptly in the middle when Akwari had to miss the final two games in the Caribbean because of conflicts with his classes at UCLA.
Naimo is hoping they can show off their game on Sunday.
"I feel a lot of pressure to try to get everybody in line. First impressions are going to be put out there for L.A.," Naimo said. "We've been happy with the way we're playing, but not satisfied. We know there's more. We're just scratching the surface.
"We have a big responsibility on Sunday, not just to get a win, but to play entertaining soccer, to build a fan base ... and hopefully to inspire a different brand of soccer."
BAD RED: The Blues will be without Rivera, who was red-carded in the first half of the draw with River Plate -- after a confrontation that Naimo says the forward stepped away from. Coaches and players for River Plate, Naimo said, bullied the referee, coming off the bench and onto the field, and the "most disappointing thing the whole trip was the way the officiating crew handled that," he said. River Plate, he charged, "was classless."
"I'm really disappointed for Cesar. He'll have to miss the home opener. And it's disappointing for the team -- he's an influential player, and he didn't deserve it. He walked away from something a lot of guys wouldn't."
CHIJINDU CLOSE: Forward Chukwudi Chijindu, on loan from Chivas USA, saw just 35 minutes of action on the trip, in the win over Barracuda. His tender hamstring still isn't 100 percent.
"We're getting to the point where we need to use him," Naimo said. "We need to lean on Chuck this week. At the same time, we don't want to lose him for longer. We brought Chuck in with the midset that he's going to be a handful for opponents."
WORTH NOTING: Antigua Barracuda (3-2-0) is led by former Montreal Impact forward Peter Byers, among several Antigua & Barbuda national-teamers on the club. He scored four goals in Barracuda's stunning 7-0 rout Wednesday of Puerto Rico United. The Antiguans won, 3-2, at Sevilla on Friday night. ... Iranian defender Mehrshad Momeni is awaiting receipt of his visa before joining the Blues. He's expected to be available when L.A. takes on the Charlotte Eagles May 12 at Centennial and May 14 at Fullerton. ... Defenders Leon Abravanel and Justin Valashinas, midfielder Federico Cino and forward Dane Saintus have been loaned to Blues 23, the club's side in the fourth-tier Premier Development League. ... Five players started all four Caribbean games: Gaitan, Rivera, Dautt, Griffin and defender Mike Randolph, whom Naimo said was outstanding on the left flank.