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Club finds niche in Santa Clarita

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- Everyone in the Santa Clarita Valley's booming soccer community knows Carlos Marroquin. He has been a pied piper of sorts for the sport since moving into town 15 years ago, working with youth teams and clubs in the area and running a soccer store.

But this was something else.

Marroquin, a former professional player, long wanted to bring an elite women's team to town. How he made his dream happen -- and how he quickly positioned the Santa Clarita Blue Heat as a community asset -- provides a perfect primer on how to make minor-league sports a success.

Marroquin is basking in that success this weekend as the Blue Heat play host to the championship final four in the W-League, a national amateur/semipro women's league run by the Tampa, Fla.-based United Soccer Leagues. It's the second tier of women's soccer in America, just below Women's Professional Soccer, with a mix of talented veterans, former (and current) pros, college players and high schoolers with promise.

The Blue Heat aren't playing -- the first-year club was competitive but finished last in the tough Western Conference -- but the goodwill they have built with the league and Santa Clarita's soccer community is evident by a decent crowd for Thursday's semifinals and a good draw expected for Saturday's title game, which pits the Vancouver Whitecaps against the Buffalo Flash at Canyon High School in Canyon Country.

Marroquin said it's "like a dream come true," but there's more to come.

"Soccer's my passion," said Marroquin, who was born in Guatemala and played in Italy and Turkey before coming to the U.S. in 1990. "When you have passion for something, it's what you have to do with your life."

He determined the best thing to do with his passion would be to bring an elite women's club to Santa Clarita, a rapidly growing city north of the San Fernando Valley, and he turned in an application to the USL five years ago. There were no open slots, so he waited somewhat patiently, and his opportunity arrived last fall.

The Ventura County Fusion, which has a successful amateur men's team competing in the Premier Development League -- another league under the USL umbrella -- decided to disband its women's team, and Marroquin bought the rights.

That's when the hard work began. He needed to hire staff, find sponsorship, recruit players and find venues for home games. He needed to draw support from those involved with the sport in Santa Clarita.

His first appointment -- and here's the first lesson for potential minor-league owners -- was with City of Santa Clarita representatives.

"Oh my God, you have no idea [how important that was]," Marroquin said. "I came to the meeting at Central Park [in Saugus], we sit at the table and I said, 'You know what, I just bought a franchise from the USL. I need help, guys.' And the answer was, 'OK, what do you need?' Right away."

Russell Sypowicz, an administrative assistant with the City of Santa Clarita's economic development division, worked closely with Marroquin in the buildup to and during the first season.

"From the get-go, we were on Carlos' side," Sypowicz said. "When Carlos told us he was bringing a team here, we were excited. We felt any league the USL is involved with would do very well, knowing how much of the community is involved with soccer."

Sypowicz and David Knutson, the city's arts and events coordinator, worked with Marroquin on sponsorships -- Umbro USA and local car dealerships were the club's major sponsors -- as well as promotions and agreements to play games at the College of the Canyons and Valencia High School.

The city took the lead in the bid process to bring the W-League finals to Santa Clarita, the crowning achievement of Blue Heat's first season.

"It says a lot about Santa Clarita Blue Heat," W-League senior director Melanie Fitzgerald said. "They had interest from the very beginning. We go through a bid process for the host, and they put in the best bid."

The partnership between Blue Heat and the city, she said, "is a model we're trying to adapt to more in the W-League."

Marroquin used his contacts in the soccer community -- from his relationships with the local American Youth Soccer Organizations regions, the four competitive clubs based in the Santa Clarita and with those who know him best from Planet Soccer, his shop on Main Street in Newhall -- to build his staff and develop a buzz around town.

"Santa Clarita is a very small town," he said. "Everybody knows everybody. People like me; people know me, so they help me a lot."

He brought in Italy-born Sergio Salvadori, the director of coaching with the Santa Clarita Valley Magic youth soccer club, as his technical director and Eduardo "Lalo" Zatarain, who played for the L.A. Aztecs and Hollywood Kickers and has coached for the Magic and Santa Clarita United clubs, as coach. Debbie Caracciolo was appointed director of operations.

Pulling in players was more difficult.

"When you're new in this league, a lot of players, they don't trust in you," Marroquin said. "They want to play with a team like Vancouver, like Pali Blues [the two-time defending champions, from Pacific Palisades]."

He, Zatarain and Salvadori scraped together players from all over, including forwards from England and Sweden, a goalkeeper from Mexico and midfielders from Canada.

Three local players -- former Loyola Marymount University defender Shannon Omahen (Canyon High School), Oregon State freshman defender Milan Cabrera (Canyon) and University of San Francisco sophomore midfielder Aly Drake (Valencia High School) -- were on the roster.

"Only three," Marroquin said. "That was very sad for me. Because the idea to have a team here in town is to have local players play for us. My daughter, Melissa, is 17 now, and my goal is to have my daughter play with us. … But after this year, now everybody wants to play with us. So it's very good."

Players from outside Southern California stayed with local families -- star striker Cherelle Khassal, an English teen who was a finalist for the W-League Rookie of the Year award, stayed with Caracciolo and her family -- and connected with the community through clinics, camps and postgame autograph sessions.

"It was good the kids came out and supported us, and they can look up to us and think they can achieve this," said Khassal, who plays for Arsenal's women's club in London and for Ireland's national team. "It was fun to see them yelling, 'Blue Heat! Blue Heat!'"

The club went 2-6-2 but was 2-1-2 at home -- with victories over Pali Blues and longtime W-League club Colorado Force -- and finished solidly. They developed a loyal fan base, drawing several hundred fans for each home game, largely from the large pool of youth players in the area.

A city survey estimated that about 60 percent of youth players in Santa Clarita -- about 6,500 in AYSO, more with the Magic, United, Select Cities Soccer Club and AC Milan Soccer Academy Santa Clarita, and still more in city-sponsored leagues and through the Santa Clarita Soccer Center -- are female.

"There's a huge soccer community out here," said Knutson, who plays in adult recreational leagues. "And it's really neat to see them banding together and coming out here."

Marroquin is readying for his next step. He wants to unite the four competitive clubs -- Magic, United, Select Cities and AC Milan -- under the Blue Heat Banner and compete in the USL's Super-20 (for under-20 players) and Super-Y (for youth) leagues. A PDL club could be on the horizon, too.

"What I want," he said, "is to be like, for example, a Vancouver Whitecaps. They have an academy. They have a men's team [which will join Major League Soccer next year]. Hopefully, SC Blue Heat will be a big club next season. Hopefully, we can merge with the [city's competitive youth] clubs. That would be good for everyone in town."

The rest would follow.

"Every year," he said, "do something bigger."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.