Yesterday Jon from the San Fernando Valley Quakes sent me an obscenity-laced tirade demanding to know why I didn't support my local team in a tight playoff race. (It wasn't an obscenity-laced tirade, it was actually very polite. It's just that obscenity-laced tirades are more fun to write about...let alone actually write.)
The minor league scene in Southern California has just exploded over the past couple of years. We've talked a lot over the years about the talent pool in the United States in general, and California in particular. Just to reiterate, guys are already starting to make the transition from the PDL to MLS. Former Quake Sean Franklin, for example.
What was surprising to me was the fan base these very new teams already have. The Quakes are in their third season (while the San Jose Earthquakes were in abeyance, hence the availability of the name), while the Ventura County Fusion are all of a year old. Teams like the Southern California Seahorses and the Orange County Blue Star are positively sepia-toned relics in comparison. But by golly, there they were, two hundred for the Valley, a hundred or so travelling to see the Fusion.
Division rival Fresno, the team that now stands between San Fernando Valley and the playoffs, outdraws that by an order of magnitude. But the Fuego have also been around a little bit, and have over the years expertly marketed to the Central Valley's Latino community. (So it's a little surprising to see pictures of them in American flag uniforms, but that's what a US Army sponsorship will do for you.) (Also giving the lie that Latino fans won't support a team outside the FMF...although what else is there to do in Fresno, besides watch the Victor Davis Hanson-War Nerd Feud while pining away for the day the California Raisins get back together?)
The Quakes-Fusion game itself was much more exciting than it had any right to be. The detailed report is here, and that pretty much captures the intensity of it. Maybe it was a rivalry game, or maybe the complaints about rudimentary coaching in this country have been exaggerated, but the game was a fiery, fast-paced little deal. Attacks failed mostly because at this level, guys have some skill but make some pretty lousy decisions when it comes time to either pass or shoot. In other words, they're not quite MLS level yet, but they are ready for the Galaxy (I make a small joke).
The other problem with young players is that, holy God, they can be stupid. The game turned in minute 38 or so, when a hot-headed Ventura player committed what was probably, in total fairness, not that severe a foul. Certainly other fouls as severe or more weren't given a yellow card, but this was. Player goes ape, gets in the ref's face, and gives him a teeny little bump.
Now, I haven't actually called in to Soccer House or FIFA to find out how the Laws should be clarified when a player makes contact with the ref in anger, but I'm pretty sure it's a red card. The actual ref was also pretty sure. You can't blame coaching for that, tempting as it is, because while yes, it's a development league and on-field demeanor is something you gain with experience, at some point a coach shouldn't have to say "don't bump the ref" any more than he should have to say "don't pick up the ball and run with it." Oh, PS, the player in question was Ventura County's captain. I'm not going to embarrass him by saying his name here, but hopefully he's embarrassed enough.
Instead of a rout, though, Ventura County came back. It ended up nearly being one of the great comebacks I had ever seen, but the Fusion just ran out of time. Some of the goals were wonderful - Jason Leopoldo for the Quakes' first, Hagop Chrishian for Ventura's first. And some were just silly - after not diving after a foul in the penalty area, Leopoldo effectively stopped play dead and made the classic "WTF?" look to the ref...who obliged him with a penalty kick call. Well, at least Leopoldo didn't dive...and it WAS a foul...but it sure looked weird.
I stink at scouting, but Leopoldo and the Barrera brothers (one on each team...now that's a rivalry) should get some attention. The scouts have been busy - the Quakes' Brad Rucin is now in Scandinavia, as is Fresno's Pablo Campos, whose absence is probably a non-trivial part of the reason San Fernando Valley pasted them last week. It's possible that MLS scouts have already weighed these players and found wanting, of course. But it does provide yet another clue that eventually, soccer scouts from around the world will descend on the United States the way they did in Africa after George Weah and the Caribbean after Dwight Yorke. Missing out on the El Dorado of untapped American potential soccer talent must keep the MLS brass awake at nights. Well, it should, anyway.
And there's certainly no guarantee that the locusts will settle in Los Angeles. The talent pool could keep minor league teams down here in business for years, but I haven't even mentioned Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Iowa and Michigan, which is where the PDL keeps teams what actually win trophies. (Yes, Iowa.) It's been ten years since a California team won the championship, when the San Gabriel Valley Highlanders won what was then the PDSL trophy. I don't know whether Fresno or San Fernando Valley or San Francisco or San Jose will bring the PDL title back to the California, but I can give my opinion that any of those teams would have taken the Highlanders, chewed them up, and spit out their bones. Project 2010 might have been optimistically named, but we'll get eleven guys who can trouble the world soon enough.