ANAHEIM — Four days into workouts, Splash Coach George Fernandez's confidence was already obvious.
"Our practices are so intense," he said then, "I would put our team on the field right now against anybody and we would literally kick the . . . out of them."
Four weeks later, the question is whether Fernandez's team can do the same when it counts.
The Splash opens its second Continental Indoor Soccer League season Saturday in San Diego against the Sockers, and opens at home at 7:05 p.m. Sunday at The Pond against Portland.
"My one worry is that we haven't had a preseason game, so I don't know where we're at," Fernandez said Thursday. "But the guys are tired of training--they want to kick somebody else. San Diego is a good stomping ground just because of the rivalry--[the players are] well aware of what our weekend is like, and they're looking forward to it. If they're not, I'm going to be on their [butts]. But I don't have to say too much--they're ready."
With the arrival of the team's second season in Anaheim comes the expectation of improving upon last year's worst-to-first campaign. The franchise was the league's worst as the Los Angeles United, but reversed its fortune under new ownership, Ogden Facility Management, and co-governor/player personnel director Tim Orchard.
Although the Splash had the league's second-best overall record and won the Western Division title, it was upset by eventual champion Las Vegas in the semifinals.
It was not the ending the team, coach or ownership expected. Not after a 20-8 regular season.
Including the playoffs and the last four regular-season games, the Splash lost five of its final nine games despite losing only six of its first 24.
After being swept by Las Vegas in the semifinals, forward Rod Castro said it was "embarrassing and sad to play so well during the regular season and then play so poorly in the playoffs."
That's the challenge this year, to get it right when it counts most.
"Hopefully, the things that took place last year will be a benefit to us and we can go a step further than last year, get to the finals and win the whole thing," forward Dale Ervine said. "The goal is to win a championship, not just get to the playoffs."
The top two teams in each of three divisions and two wild-card teams make the playoffs.
Realignment moved the Splash from the Western Division to the Southern Division, but it should still be a playoff team, competing against the Sockers (18-10), Arizona (11-17), Houston (7-21) and the expansion Mexico Toros, who play in Mexico City.
The 28-game schedule includes four games with each of those teams, two against Sacramento (15-13), San Jose (12-16), Portland (14-14) and expansion Seattle, and single games against Dallas (24-4), Detroit (11-17), Monterrey (17-11) and Las Vegas (17-11). There are no games against Pittsburgh (13-15) or Washington (14-14).
That's 19 games against teams that finished at .500 or below.
Still, Fernandez--the only returning coach in the Southern Division--thinks his division is the league's toughest. Indoor soccer's most successful coach, Rod Newman, has gone from San Diego to Arizona to take over a physical Sandsharks team; Houston brought in Trevor Dawkins, a two-time coach of the year in the National Professional Soccer League; former national team member and Sockers all-star Brian Quinn takes over in San Diego; and Mexico, based in Mexico City, has the entire soccer-playing country from which to choose its players and could be as tough as expansion Monterrey was last year.
"A team from our division should be making it to the finals," Fernandez said, "but we'll be beating the . . . out of each other in the regular season, will we have it in the playoffs?"
There could be two notable changes in the Splash's on-field chemistry en route to the postseason.
Castro, who had 30 goals and 20 assists in 26 games, will play on an as-available basis--he's working on a law degree. He will be replaced by Jose Vasquez, described by Orchard as "Rod Castro, but bigger." Vasquez is 6 feet, 176 pounds, Castro 5-7, 155.
The other change was the trade of team captain Ralph Black to Seattle. Black was the league's defensive player of the year, but he will be replaced by Sean Bowers, who was the league's defensive player of the year in 1993. Bowers, 26, is also six years younger, six inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Black (5-8, 165).
Bowers will miss the first four games because he's getting married Saturday. His absence could be compounded by nagging injuries to defenders Shane Hickson (twisted ankle) and Paul McDonnell, who will miss today's practice. Midfielder Jaime Francisco also is banged up.
Those injuries had Fernandez treading more cautiously on Thursday, but the 1994 coach of the year was unwilling to back down from his confident projection of four weeks ago.
"I felt that way in the beginning," Fernandez said, "and I have to say I haven't changed my mind."
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Saturday at San Diego 7:35 p.m. Sunday vs. Portland 7:05 p.m. June 30 vs. San Diego 7:35 p.m. July 1 at Houston 5:35 p.m. July 8 vs. Seattle 7:35 p.m. July 14 at Arizona 7:05 p.m. July 16 at Mexico 3:35 p.m. July 20 at Las Vegas 7:35 p.m. July 22 vs. Houston 7:35 p.m. July 27 vs. Arizona 7:35 p.m. July 29 vs. Sacramento 7:35 p.m. July 30 at Portland 6:05 p.m. Aug. 2 vs. Mexico 7:35 p.m. Aug. 6 at Houston 4:05 p.m. Aug. 10 at Detroit 4:35 p.m. Aug. 12 at San Jose 7:35 p.m. Aug. 13 at Sacramento 6:05 p.m. Aug. 19 vs. Houston 4:05 p.m. Aug. 25 vs. Monterrey 7:35 p.m. Aug. 27 vs. San Jose 7:05 p.m. Aug. 31 vs. Arizona 7:35 p.m. Sept. 2 vs. San Diego 7:35 p.m. Sept. 10 vs. Mexico 7:05 p.m. Sept. 16 at Seattle 7:05 p.m. Sept. 22 at Mexico 6:05 p.m. Sept. 23 at Arizona 7:05 p.m. Sept. 29 at San Diego 7:35 p.m. Oct. 1 vs. Dallas 7:05 p.m.
Games aired live on KORG-AM 1190