The Battle For Los Angeles: Pali Blues
By Simon Allen
One thing that The National Women's Soccer League has failed to capitalize on, at least for now, is the massive amounts of folks in Los Angeles that are fans of the beautiful game. When the Los Angeles Sol disappeared from WPS, I did what most soccer fans do and looked for a Women's Team to support. Luckily for LA residents, The City of Angels has three “second division” Women's Soccer Teams to support. Second Division is a bit of misnomer as most who venture into the stands to watch the teams have found out that it truly is top tier soccer. This Season is no exception as all three teams are preparing for what could be the toughest season in the Western Conference in USL's W-League. All Three Los Angeles teams know the importance of winning at home against their Derby Rivals and All three teams have the Coaches to win the Battle For Los Angeles.
Pali Blues has quite possibly the best Women's Coach in America. Charlie Naimo has coached some of the best female soccer players in the world from Ali Riley to Whitney Engen. His time at Los Angeles Sol brought the likes of Aya Miyama and Marta to the forefront of the American Soccer Scene. But his time at Pali Blues is the most impressive where you can write a veritable who's-who of soccer players that have started out there and moved up to bigger things.
Simon: One of the things that NWSL did is leave a gap in LA that the W-League is filling. The potential craziness that can go on with three teams in LA...are you thinking about the massive marketing Potential that three women's soccer teams can bring to the City of Los Angeles?
Charlie: Not really it's been the same every year in my opinion we have Santa Clarita (Blue Heat) and the LA Strikers in town but we've had those teams on our schedules for three years now so I'm not so sure what type of rivalries have been created. I think that there's a shortage of fans that understand (the rivalries). The Strikers do the best job of marketing but maybe things would be different if there wasn't so many teams in a short geographical span. We have our small group of fans and I'm sure Strikers will and I'm sure Santa Clarita will...but outside the lines I think it still would be nice for there to be one professional team in this market and have these teams as more of...and I don't want to call them a feeder but a destination for top college prospects to play into that pro team kind of like a how Pali has run and will continue to run.
Simon: LA is Starving for Top Tier Women's Soccer and one of things that LA has is three teams. The Same way geographically Fulham is so close to Chelsea in London, the teams here are getting ready for the W-League Season. Two out of the Three LA managers are brand new to American Soccer. You could be considered the Elder Statesman of Women's Soccer. How are you preparing for the new season?
Charlie: If it's not broke don't fix it. It's my fifth season with Pali...So I think our formula works and I'm certainly not going to change it because a couple of (new) coaches came in. The way I look at it they are the ones that will have to learn how we do things here. Their learning curve will be different. We don't need to adjust. I know the player pool. We know the player pool. Players come to Pali because we have been successful and what you have done in the past means nothing...and we have to prove ourselves again. The same formula: we go after the best players, it's a non stop recruiting pool. The players I have this year I started recruited two years ago and it happened to work out this year. I'm recruiting for the future in the event I'm still here in 2014. It's ongoing and a lot of times we get them and sometimes we don't. As far as the philosophy we have...we won't change it...players come here and it's not easy. You might not play but if you do things the way we want ...you can get on the radar for the next level.
Simon: Tell me about your staff.
Charlie: Our Staff, now that we've added Angela (Hucles), we have the connection pieces for these kids to get to the next level...She's a Gold Medalist. She's been a College All-American and she's played in both the WUSA and WPS. She's exactly what our kids want to aspire to. She's done it all. And (that) helps me get some things across that I need to get across to the players and she'll be a great partner for me. To have another person who is not like me, where my assistants in the past have been pretty much me, same experience...professional men's player...but now it's great that we have a professional female player ...a female Olympian which is exactly what these kids want to be.
Simon: Is there a chance Angela will put on the jersey and play?
Charlie: I always have an angle don't I? C'mon, We Signed her...but the plans are not to...play her...but if we ever got to the point where we need to throw a uni(form) on her and we would have another Olympian out there...but if we need to...we will.
Simon: Tell me about your team.
Charlie: I was particularly blown away with some of my college players we've signed this year. They've shown a greater level of responsibility and the way they communicate and the things they say to me. These are the (players) that really have aspirations and understand what it takes...where in the past I've had very good players and they say they want this and they want that but it's not just as important to them as it needs to be to get there. But the players I've been speaking to...it seems to be a very high priority in their life.
Simon: What's different about Your Squad this year compared to last year?
Charlie: I'm always asked to compare my teams over the years. It's hard to say. I get the impression that this years team will have more of my personality with the ball. Last years team did an incredible job defensively but there was a lot of push back and how we really wanted to play the game. I don't think a lot of the relationships on the field and philosophies on the field with some of the players were as smooth as they needed to be...that said it wasn't bad...I'm just nit picking. They worked extremely hard together but there wasn't enough give and take with some of the girls...But this group will put aside what they want to do more than last years team. This season will be more important for them. Winning the W-League last year wasn't big enough for a couple of players...been there done that already...and I didn't sense that energy that we gotta win this thing....They were a great team that got the job done but to be honest with you I saw us play incredibly twice in our 17 games. Our record looked good but had it not been for a few fantastic performances...I don't know. I always look back at the negatives because I think it keeps you sharp. Instead of saying we had another great year...I look back at the games we didn't play as well as we could. I don't think We were hungry, I think this years team will be hungrier.
Simon: Are there any players we should be looking out for this season?
Charlie: Probably everyone of our college players that we have. This team reminds me of the 09 team with the talent. We have six Under-20 players and four of them won a gold medal in the U-20 World Cup.
Simon: I've noticed that teams in the W-League have gone out and picked up players from around the world. Is that an indicator that the talent pool in America isn't as big or as talented as people think it is?
Or am I way off base on that one?
Charlie: Respectfully...I think you're way off base! I see way to many teams going out and signing an international because they're an international. My policy is that if you're not a local international playing at a local school...I'm not going to take you unless you're a bone fide National Team player from another Country. There's plenty of great local college players for me to take.
Simon: But Will Local Talent be enough to pull in the crowds?
Charlie: I don't think fans know...Simon....Outside of the top names that you get I don't think it matters if you have International players. I think The Strikers got it right the way they market. They're always out and doing stuff. Steve (Miller- owner of the Strikers) does a fantastic job with his philosophy but you get in front of fans...half the time they don't know who these players are unless you're Abby Wambach. Any player can be a role model. The kids want to look up to somebody and it doesn't have to be Mia Hamm...it doesn't have to be the biggest names. You have to get your players out there and The Strikers do a good job with it. Outside of getting the huge names...it doesn't matter. Fans will follow the team that's successful, that is friendly to the fans.
Simon: Promoting LA Soccer is one thing but the W-League has two Colorado Teams, one of them being brand new. You also Have the Bay Area Breeze being a brand new team. You have the Seattle Sounders Women. What do you know about your competition outside of Los Angeles?
Charlie: Who knows about the Bay Area Breeze? There's not a lot listed about who they're signing or what...so you really don't know. Colorado Rush...they're going to be a very good young team. They have a lot of great youth prospects. They're well coached. It's a great club and they're always tough. They lost some huge players so who they're replacing them with I don't know. Colorado Rapids...They got better and better as the season went on last year and I know their staff has worked extremely hard to get deeper so I suspect they will be a bit better. They didn't lose anyone to the pro league. And now that Seattle have hired Hubert Busby, he's pretty much grabbing all the Vancouver players from the Canadian U-20 so they'll be pretty good as well. I have no idea who the weak links are going to be this year...so I suspect the Western Conference will be by far the best Conference as competition goes once again.
Simon: Is the Western Conference to Toughest to Play in? Would Your Team have been better off in a different Conference (Say in the East)?
Charlie: There's Less good games there...this is the deepest Conference where every team is pretty good. I think if Pali Blues played in a different Conference last year our goal differential would have been much bigger.
Simon: Could The Western Conference go Toe-To-Toe with the NWSL? Business wise and Soccer Wise?
Charlie: No. Just having the word “pro” in front of you and people will identify, sponsors are going to identify with the one league. It is what it is...(W-League) is the best under-league in the country. Right now that's the landscape. I believe that this years Pail Blues team...and if I could sign one more great forward and we trained every single day of the week...we could be middle of the table in the NWSL with the players we have. In our league there are boundaries, we're bound to our territory and it doesn't have the three letters in front of it...PRO...and that does matter to the American fan.
Simon: How are you preparing your squad for Road Matches?
Charlie: We played Seattle last year and everyone was thinking that they were the best team and we played them three times and we didn't give up a goal against them...Our team is always going to be prepared for the road. Our kids know that you guys didn't win anything on this team. This team has won nothing. You're a whole new team. 70% of the team is new...so don't think those stars on your jersey...you didn't earn them. You have to earn your own stars. But (on the road) people are going to treat you like you won it. (So) there's no easy game for us no matter where we play.
Simon: How will you win The Battle For Los Angeles?
Charlie: We're not going to change our formula until someone proves to us theirs is better. And I don't say that to be arrogant. Why over work things? We put enough work into what we do and we respect everybody and I'm always afraid were going to lose and that's why we win. I never take anything for granted. I suspect the Strikers will be a lot better this year. They have a different look. Every team we play. Even when we played Victoria Highlanders who struggled there was butterflies before that game. You never know what can happen and you have to score more goals than them. You have to score more goals than they have chances in a game to really feel like you've won it. We're not going to change...we'll go about our business and hopefully try to win another Championship...we're going into every game thinking every team is better than us.
I asked some more questions which you can listen to on The World Wide Soccer Podcast. As we were wrapping up Coach Naimo said “ You have to live in the now” and I asked.
“You have to live in the now” Is that your philosophy?
To which he replied “ That's the secret! you live in the now!”
Women's Soccer fans will be “living in the now” May 18th when Pali Blues meets The Los Angeles Strikers for their first LA Derby and then on July 14th when they meet Santa Clarita Blue Heat. The Battle For Los Angeles should be a very entertaining and hard fought affair.