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Local Standouts Hone Their Skills in New League

Soccer: Blue Star gives young, up-and-coming players another competitive venue.

June 16, 2001|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This wasn't one of the Orange County Blue Star's more serious training sessions.

The expansion soccer franchise in the six-year-old Premier Development League practiced on an unmarked 70-yard field that sloped so severely, players couldn't keep the ball or themselves from going in the water. The goal was nowhere near regulation size and the keepers constantly left themselves open to counterattacks.

The 90-minute game of five-on-five at Corona del Mar State Beach was a welcome break for Blue Star players who are getting their first taste of professional soccer while still attending college.

The league, which began emphasizing under-23 player development two years ago, also gives college players an opportunity to sharpen and develop their skills before the fall college season--something college players sorely need, said Blue Star coach and former UCLA player Nick Theslof.

Theslof, who helped UCLA win a national title in 1997, remembers what his summer workouts were like while he played in college.

"I would go running every morning for 45 minutes, hit the weight room and hopefully, I'd get my dad to play goalie," said Theslof, who spent his summers in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. "You do whatever you can. But that is not even close to being good enough."

Before the PDL came along, the sudden drop off in game competition was dramatic for most college players, who typically grew up playing 70 to 80 games a year during their 10-month long club season.

"Instead of getting inconsistent pickup sessions a few days a week, these guys are getting real training sessions and quality games," said Sasha Saneff, a former UCLA player who is the team's director of player operations.

Spencer George said he played year-round between the club season and Santa Margarita's high school season. But when he went off to Harvard last fall, he started only half of his school's 20 games.

"If this wouldn't have come up, I would have trained by myself," said George, a part-time player with the Blue Star. "But it's hard to discipline yourself. This is a lot of fun and it's very competitive."

UCLA Junior Ryan Futagaki, from Fountain Valley High, played for his youth club team after his freshman year and on the Under-23 U.S. National team after his sophomore year. He didn't have a place to play this summer, until the Blue Star called.

"This has been awesome," said Futagaki, who is recovering from a knee injury that caused him to miss almost his entire junior season. "Just to get some games in over the summer has been great. The league's very competitive and I've learned a lot from the older guys."

The PDL's focus is on the development of college and even high school players--three under-19 players must be carried on each roster. But teams can also carry up to eight over-23 players who are eligible to be paid.

One of the Blue Star's veterans is defender Shawn Saunders, who played three seasons with the now defunct Orange County franchise in the A-League, which is two levels above the PDL and a level below the MLS.

Saunders, who played at Santa Margarita High and Fresno State, is going back to college to complete his degree. But he wasn't ready to retire from competitive soccer, so he accepted the Blue Star's offer to play defense and provide guidance for the younger players.

Saunders, 24, said he would have benefited from the PDL when he attended college.

"I went to summer school at Fresno State and I was pretty dormant soccer-wise," he said. "I just swam and stayed inside. It hurt me when the season started. I wasn't as sharp as I should have been."

The Blue Star takes on Central Coast at 5 p.m. tonight at Santa Ana Stadium. The team is first in the Southwest Division with a 9-3 record and 39 points and is tied for third in the league. However, it is near the bottom in attendance with an average of only 119 fans through six home games.

Saneff said the team already has lost nearly $100,000.

Theslof blames most of the early financial problems on the team's late entry in the league. The franchise was awarded only five weeks before the season began in early April.

"You can't market a team that's not there," he said. "Hopefully after this season, we'll have something to market."

So far, the Orange County market has not been very receptive to minor league soccer. The Orange County Zodiac lost more than $2 million in three seasons. The Waves, which took over the Zodiac franchise after it folded, lasted only one year and lost several thousand dollars last year.

"The Waves left a bad taste in people's mouth," Saneff said. "That's made it harder for us to be accepted into the community."

Saunders said the players haven't been affected by the slow start at the gate.

"I don't think the guys really care about the atmosphere in the stands," he said. "I think a lot of us are just happy to be out there playing soccer on a Friday night."

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