The local clubs in the USL's Premier Development League take the league's name to heart. The objective is developing talent, far more so than winning trophies, although those are nice, too.
There are five L.A.-area teams in the PDL's Southwest Division, including 2009 national champion Ventura County Fusion, which figures to battle defending division titlist Fresno Fuego for the top spot this season, which kicks off in earnest this weekend after Fresno-L.A. Misioneros games the past two weekends.
Most of the clubs are loaded with college players, a few amateurs looking to showcase their talents for the next level and, in some circumstances, pros hoping to step up into one of the country's three fully professional leagues or to a club to the south or overseas. The Southwest Division, along with its conference partner in the Northwest, is a standard-bearer for the PDL, in terms of competition and development.
“First and foremost, [the priority] is to prepare players for the next level,” said Fusion coach Ole Mikkelsen, a 1978 UCLA All-American who played in the old North American Soccer League. “We select players primarily on whether or not we think they have the tools to play at the MLS level. We prepare the players first, and win second. It's hard to disconnect the two -- winning gives visibility to get you exposed.”
The Fusion and fellow PDL power Orange County Blue Star have sent scores of players on to Major League Soccer and other pro leagues. So has the La Mirada-based Southern California Seahorses, a Christian club that expects to battle the Fusion, Blue Star and Fuego for the division title and two postseason berths.
“All the guys who come to our team are interested in that development part of the league and the team,” Seahorses coach Todd Elkins said. “They know they get better. The level is consistently good. Just making the team -- making a team in our region -- you're going to be challenged. We take that very seriously. We want to maximize their time during the summer, making sure [a player] gets everything he can from us.
“We look at it as being a bit of a testing ground. If progressing the ranks is a goal for you, this is a good test to see if that's realistic or not.”
That's the the approach the Pali Blues are taking, too. “I think the main goal for us is building a showcase for these players,” head coach Federico Bianchi said. “The goal is for all of them to make it to next level, and also myself [as coach].”
The area's fifth team, Misioneros, has a pro side that features some MLS experience.
Blue Star is home Friday at Irvine's Concordia University against Pali, the Fusion open Saturday night against Misioneros at Ventura College, and Misioneros are home Sunday at Carver Middle School against Blue Star.
A look at the five local teams:
LOS ANGELES MISIONEROS
Head coach: Sergio Salazar
Who are they: Six-year-old PDL veterans, best known under former name L.A. Legends, who have loaded up on pros under new management this year.
Key players: M Jaime Chavez (Industry/Workman HS), M Gerson Mayen (Los Angeles/Manual Arts HS), M Edwin Miranda (Reseda/Reseda HS and Cal State Northridge), D Mike Randolph (Chino Hills/Ayala HS), F/M Cesar Rivera (Pomona/Garey HS and Mt. San Antonio College).
Outlook: The Misioneros' history is spotty, and last season -- which started under the Legends name and then shifted, everywhere except in the league's annals, to the current moniker -- was disastrous: 1-13-2. New management has brought in some big names (Mayen, Randolph, Miranda and former CSUN/Reseda HS forward Willie Sims have MLS experience), but Mayen (ex-Chivas USA) and Randolph (ex-Galaxy and L.A. Blues) were absent from the first two games, both losses to Fresno. Salazar succeeded Brent Whitfield as coach just two weeks ago.
They said it: “I have great players,” Salazar said. “I think we're going to do a good season this year. It's why I'm working hard with these players. We're going to make a great team.”
Home field: Carver Middle School (Los Angeles)
ORANGE COUNTY BLUE STAR
Head coach: Jon Spencer
Who are they: Longtime PDL power, based in Long Beach, has been producing talent since 1997. The biggest name among alums: Jurgen Klinsmann, although the German legend played under an assumed name (Jay Goppingen). A few more names: Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Russell, Dan Kennedy, Josh Saunders, Brad Evans, Kamani Hill, Sal Zizzo, Chandler Hoffman.
Key players: D Connor Dreschler (Temecula/Great Oak HS), D Everett Pitts (Chino Hills/Ayala HS and UC Irvine), M Jonathan Prieto (La Habra/La Habra HS and UC Irvine), D Joe Sofia (Dove Canyon/Mission Viejo HS and UCLA), F Reed Williams (Newport Beach/Corona del Mar HS and UCLA).
Outlook: Blue Star used to dominate in this division before shifting to a development emphasis, and it still is in the hunt each year, although successive third-place finishes in the division have left a hunger for more. The return of Williams after a season with Ventura County could be big -- he seems on the verge on stardom at UCLA, and a summer with his hometown club could mean what it did for Chandler Hoffman, who netted 13 goals last year, leading to a spectacular junior campaign with the Bruins and first-round selection by Philadelphia in the MLS SuperDraft. Last year's team also starred Toronto FC first-rounder Luis Silva and Chivas USA goalkeeper Patrick McLain. Watch for UCI defender Pitts, who has MLS potential.
They said it: “Our main focus is trying to create a bridge in summer for a lot of college guys looking for games to play and a better training environment,” Spencer said. “Obviously, we want to win along the way.”
Home field: Concordia University (Irvine)
Head coach: Federico Bianchi
Who are they: Brother team to the women's powerhouse with the same name for the club headed by USL Pro side L.A. Blues. The team debuted last year as pro side L.A. Blues 23, but a switch to amateur players opens the door to college talent.
Key players: F Cody Carlson (Burbank/Burbank HS and University of Redlands), D Fernando De Alba (UCLA), M Victor Muñoz (UCLA), D Sam Nicholson (Santa Barbara City College), M Jordan Tabor (Santa Barbara City College).
Outlook: The Blues have shifted gears, becoming a developmental side rather than a pure farm club for the USL Pro team, but their aspirations haven't changed: the climb into the division's upper tier and battle for playoff berths. By dropping pros, they can bring in players with NCAA eligibility, and three UCLA stars -- Spaniard Muñoz, forward Evan Raynr (Calabasas/Viewpoint HS) and winger Ryan Hollingshead -- add to a decent foundation.
They said it: “We play an attacking style, an entertaining style, creating the platform where players can make it to the next level,” Bianchi said. “I think that's the end goal for all of us.”
Home field: Palisades High School (Pacific Palisades)
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SEAHORSES
Head coach: Todd Elkins
Who are they: La Mirada-based club, formed in 1983, is sister club to USL Pro side Charlotte Eagles. Both are affiliated with Missionary Athletes International, a Christian organization that spreads the Gospel through soccer.
Key players: M Jordan Chrzan (Mission Viejo/Trabuco Hills HS), D Rob Hall, M Felix Horn, F Ryan Shaw (La Cañada Flintridge/St. Francis HS), G Cody Suppe (Chino/Ayala HS and UC Riverside).
Outlook: The Seahorses have been competitive all along, and their alumni are scattered about professional soccer in America, but they're on the rise after an 8-5-3 campaign last year -- Elkins thinks they're on par with archrival Blue Star, maybe a step behind the Fusion and Fresno Fuego. Shaw, who scored nine goals last year, is the chief returning player on a fairly new roster. So Cal's strength is a sense of unity, through shared belief, and Elkins says the development of his players' soccer tools is “not separate from the spiritual development of our guys.” If it all comes together, the Seahorses could challenge for a playoff berth.
They said it: “Some guys are very attracted to the faith-based program we run,” Elkins says. “Some guys also have said they're here because we're a very good soccer program. We want it to be combination. We want to be as good as we can be in all of it.”
Home field: Biola University (La Mirada)
VENTURA COUNTY FUSION
Head coach: Ole Mikkelsen
Who are they: Sixth-year club that battles annually for the PDL title -- the Fusion won the championship in 2009 -- while helping to produce pros and playing Major League Soccer clubs in preseason and European opposition during the summer.
Key players: D Mickey Daly (Cal State L.A.), G Sam Hayden (UC Santa Barbara), M Ivan Mirkovic (Oxnard College), D Matt Wiet (UCLA), F Gyasi Zardes (Hawthorne/Leuzinger HS).
Outlook: The Fusion won the PDL in 2009, won the Southwest Division in 2010 and went unbeaten into the playoffs last year. Expect something similar from So Cal's most prominent fourth-division club. There's been a lot of turnover -- that's part of PDL life -- but they've got a veteran in the nets (Hayden), talent around the field and a prospective superstar in Cal State Bakersfield's Zardes, who turned down a Galaxy offer during the offseason. He's an MVP candidate before the first ball is kicked.
They said it: “I think we [can win] if we keep improving as we have been, keeping the ball out of our net and putting it in the other net,” Mikkelson said. “We've continued to improve on those statistics every year. The challenge is once you're in the playoffs, to continue to do that in the playoffs.”
Home field: Ventura College.