USL Pro Preview: Orange County Blues
It has been a busy off-season behind the scenes for the newly minted Orange County Blues. The former LA Blues changed their name and relocated to Anteater Stadium on the campus of UC Irvine.
Despite playing some very esthetically pleasing soccer over the last few seasons, building a large fan base has been an issue. With the club always playing in Orange County, the movers and shakers behind the scenes hope that a change in name and a new badge representing the area will give the franchise an identity with which the local public can identify.
Behind the scenes, owner Ali Mansouri has brought in Jon Spencer to be the General Manager.
The former UC Irvine and Kansas City midfielder knows the community well, having grown up in the area and returning to coach the Orange County Blue Stars of the Premier Development League.
“We are looking to build a club that’s able to sustain itself as a professional club both here and in the USLPRO,” Spencer said in a phone interview. “We have a huge talent base right here in Orange County and it will help the youth players to develop with a professional club in their own backyard.”
It will be a busy week for Spencer as the club has the majority of the team put together, but the paperwork, transfers, and visas have kept the Blues from announcing its new signings. Busy work is the name of the game right up until the club’s season opener on March 22nd against the LA Galaxy II.
“The bulk of the team has been training together,” Spencer said. “We're not finished putting our team together, but we're not trying to sign a ton of players before the week ends.”
The new signings are crucial as many of last year’s top contributors have left Southern California. The club is returning just nine players from last season.
Shay Spitz (often the catalyst with his aggressive and yet skillful style) and George Davis IV (7 goals and 4 assists) have departed for Richmond.
Matt Fondy’s 10 goals in 10 games earned the Northern California native a contract with Chivas USA.
Goalkeeper Carl Woszcynski (six clean sheets last season) has left for champions Orlando City, while marauding full back Matthew Hall has moved up a division with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
Creative midfielder Rodrigo Lopez also leaves a huge creative void in midfield after supplying 11 assists last season.
In their place come former Chivas USA goalkeeper Patrick McLean, Charlotte’s William Pardo and Dayton’s Gibson Bardsley.
Bardsley finished last season with nine goals and seven assists and was selected to the USLPRO 2nd Team.
Among the returners, second year man Jimmy Turner is a smart outside back who picks and chooses his times to get forward.
Chris Cortez will make up for the absence of Davis IV and Fondy. The former Chivas USA striker had nine goals and three assists last season including the equalizer in the 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy Reserves.
Captain and former Scottish Premier League player Allan Russell is the heart and soul of the squad. A holding midfielder last season, the Glasgow native’s versatility could see him occupying many different roles this season.
Russell’s fellow countryman, Ryan O’Leary, is a player Spencer is very excited about. The former Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Dundee United defender started his career at age 17. At 26, the center-back is at the peak of his powers and is expected to anchor the defense after a strong showing in preseason.
The club also resigned Gabriel Gonzalez, a lanky midfielder who is hard to get around. On the offensive side of the ball, the former Ventura County Fusion playmaker is very skillful with the ball at his feet and has an eye for the killer pass.
“Overall we have a good mix of players, both young and old,” Spencer said. “We are really excited about the signings we've made and we think our talent is going to compete extremely well in this league.”
Even Mansouri has commented that he believes this roster is stronger than last year’s side.
On the sidelines, Dariush Yazdani will be in charge for his first full professional season after taking over on a caretaker basis last year after the departure of Jesus Rico-Sanz.
Yazdani had a decorated playing career with the likes of Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and Charleroi in Belgium as well as winning 63 caps for Iran.
The former Blues player turned coach had mixed results last season but is in close contact with Spencer as the team will look to keep its hallmark of being a possession oriented club.
“We want to possess the ball and put our opponents in uncomfortable positions,” Spencer explained, “but we have to know how to make the necessary adjustments based on the way other teams play, the environment we are in, or if we have injuries.”
Despite the desire to keep possession, versatility is the name of the game for the fourth year club.
The schedule is once again unforgiving for the Southern California outfit. The Blues open the season about two weeks earlier than the majority of teams with a March 22nd trip up the 405 to face the LA Galaxy II at the Stubhub Center.
The two teams will meet three times in the first two months of the season.
There will be no rest for the weary as April brings two home matches in four days against an often physical Harrisburg City Islanders side and the third match against the LA Galaxy II.
June 11-13 will also be a tough stretch with the Blues traveling to Orlando to face the reigning champions before heading to Charlotte to face last season’s finalist just two days later.
Back to back games on August 8-9 against an improving Pittsburgh squad and a Rochester side looking to rebuild after last year’s debacle.
Another date worth marking on the calendar is June 21st when Chivas USA’s Reserves will make the trip down to Irvine.
Outlook: The biggest thing for Spencer is that the team gels quickly. A good start to the season will most likely mean a return to the postseason for the Orange County Blues.
Last Season: 6th place with a 11-8-7 record with 52 goals for and 37 goals against. Lost in the first round of the playoffs 2-1 against the Charleston Battery.