Strikers sell Valley kids on soccer

L.A. Strikers captain Vanessa Valentine shows off her skills at Sun Valley Middle School. Rebecca Neuren/L.A. Strikers

The USL W-League season is not quite a month away, and the L.A. Strikers will be looking to take a step forward after a 4-9-1 campaign in their inaugural season. There's new ownership, a new home, new players and high hopes that the team can compete with the giants of the Western Conference, a task that won't be simple.

Whatever the Strikers do, they're champions in the eyes of a lot of middle-schoolers in the San Fernando Valley. The Glendale-based club, represented by captain Vanessa Valentine, Mexican national-teamer Christina Murillo and general manager Rebecca Neuren, paid a visit Wednesday to Sun Valley Middle School's “field of dreams” to promote an after-school recreational program primarily for at-risk youth.

Neuren, Valentine, a four-time All-Big West Conference selection at Cal State Fullerton, and Murillo (Ojai/Nordhoff HS), who was a Big Ten All-Freshman pick last fall at Michigan, juggled soccer balls with the kids during a lunchtime rally, then appeared at an event after final bell to promote participation in Mark Ubben's after-school sports program, which focuses on team sports.

Attendance among girls at the after-school session was double the usual turnout, school officials told the Strikers, who worked with program coaches to run successful practices -- fun, interesting and helpful -- that will keep kids excited and involved.

The program is vital in the mostly Hispanic community, in which pressures at home -- to work, in order to help the family, or take care of younger siblings -- often force middle-school and high school students to miss class time and, ultimately, drop out of school. Ubben's program is designed to improve the kids' educational outlook -- and provide opportunites to grow through team sports.

Neuren, who played club soccer at the College of Charleston, said the Strikers wanted to demonstrate, especially to the girls, how participating in sports can lead to success in other facets of life.

“With the whole climate of women's soccer as unstable as it has been,” Neuren said, “I think it's really up to us to show the next generation that girls can play and there is a lot of success in life that comes from being an athlete.”

The Strikers and club sponsor SoccerOne donated jerseys to the girls teams at Sun Valley.

“You guys are making a huge difference for these kids, even if it's just one day or a couple of hours,” Sun Valley assistant principal Alicia Bernal told the Strikers. “They will remember it.”

Said Valentine: “The rally was incredibly rewarding. We want to show these kids that people care about them and do what we can to inspire them by sharing with them our passion for the game.”

The Strikers, guided by Cal State Fullerton women's soccer coach Demian Brown, open the W-League season May 13 against two-time W-League champion Pali Blues at Occidental College's Patterson Stadium, the club's new home field. Pali is expected to battle W-League runner-up Vancouver Whitecaps, U.S. national team-heavy Seattle Sounders and defending Western regular-season champ Santa Clarita Blue Heat for playoff berths.