Following a year in which soccer enjoyed increased American attention and support, a professional team has established roots in Ventura County.
The Valley Golden Eagles, a team in the Western Division of the U.S. International Soccer League, will play a 22-match schedule beginning with Saturday's opener on the road against the Las Vegas Quicksilvers.
The Golden Eagles are one of 55 teams in the USISL, which is accredited as a third-division professional league by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The league encompasses the continental U.S. and includes teams in Montreal and Puerto Rico.
The Golden Eagles' Western Division neighbors will include the Quicksilvers, the San Diego Top Guns and the L.A. Salsa, based in Mission Viejo.
After posting a 3-11 record in 1993 and going 12-6 with a playoff appearance last season, the Golden Eagles begin their third season in the low-budget USISL with a mix that owner John Campbell hopes will make them championship contenders.
"Chemistry is everything," Campbell said Tuesday night as he watched his team practice on a worn field in Reseda. "The way the team blends on and off the field relates directly to wins and losses. That's why you have to have a professional coach and players who understand their roles."
Coached by former Brazilian World Cup player Rildo Meneses, the roster is a blend of foreign and U.S. players. It also features several recent standouts from Cal State Northridge and Cal State L.A., including CSUN's 1993 All-American, Armando Valdivia.
After playing home matches at Valley College and drawing 450-500 fans per match the past two seasons, the Golden Eagles will play this year's 11-game home schedule at Moorpark High.
Campbell was encouraged by the league to move to Ventura County because of uncertainty over where the Salsa would play. The league wanted to keep some distance between the teams, though the Salsa eventually remained in Orange County.
Campbell has been working to bring the Golden Eagles to the attention of youth and adult soccer organizations in the county and is optimistic that the team will improve its drawing power.
"I'll be astonished if we don't get 1,000 fans at the first game," Campbell said. "Everywhere the USISL has been successful, it's been by putting youth in the stands."
The USISL is one of four leagues included in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, which has changed faces more often than a plastic surgeon.
Starting in 1986 as the five-team Southwest Independent Soccer League, the organization now includes more than 100 teams and amateur, indoor and women's leagues.
The non-professional Premier League features many college players and allows them to retain their amateur status while facing strong competition outside the college season.
The professional USISL is envisioned as a feeder system for Major League Soccer, the first-division professional league that is supposed to begin play in the United States by 1996. Team owners in the USISL pay a $2,500 franchise fee and Campbell said team operating expenses for a five-month season run between $65,000 and $80,000.
"That's why I was really enthused about it; you don't have to have a million dollars," Campbell said. "American soccer right now needs to be geared toward a grass-roots style. This is like triple-A baseball."
Like minor-league baseball, the USISL season stretches from April to August. The league championship will be decided over Labor Day weekend.
Last season, a number of experimental rules were introduced, including goals larger than the standard 24-by-8-foot size. This season, the goals are back to normal but "kick-ins" will be allowed in place of the usual throw-ins on out-of-bounds plays in each team's offensive third of the field.
In addition, each 60-minute match will be halted for stoppages of play, a deviation from the traditional 90-minute running time.
When Campbell got his start in soccer, he didn't envision being a part of a pro league. He was introduced to the sport through his son's youth teams in the 1970s, then moved up through the various age levels as a coach and organizer, even after his son quit the sport.
Seeing that older players had few competitive teams on which to play once they left school, Campbell ran the Eagles as a semipro outfit from 1985 to 1992 before lifting them to the USSF-accredited professional level.
Campbell's players are considered professionals, but are compensated only for meal and travel money while on the road, plus equipment. The team provides a doctor for injury treatment.
"I wanted to provide a vehicle for these guys to realize their dreams," Campbell said. "I've seen so many talented local players waste their talents after they reach their twenties because there wasn't a place for them to play."