Owners of the Los Angeles Heat, frustrated by poor attendance at the West Torrance High field, have decided to move the American Professional Soccer League team to Orange County for the 1991 season, although they have not found a permanent location there.
Like the Rams, the team is not expected to change its name. Owners hope it will continue to be known as the L.A. Heat.
"Deep in our hearts, we all believe that Orange County is the best territory for this team," said club President John Ajemian. "We want to get down there, with its strong youth market, and put some people in the stands."
Ajemian said the move will lead to some personnel changes in the front office and on the field, but he would not say specifically what those would be.
"I would like to keep the same players together," Ajemian said. "I think we have the best group of players in the league, if not the country, even though we haven't shown that well this year."
With four games left, the Heat (8-8) is in fourth place in the league's Southern Division, 15 points out of first place. Only the top three teams advance to postseason play.
Head Coach Bobby Sibbald and assistant John Britton will be offered new contracts, Ajemian said. However, it's not known whether either will follow the team south.
Said one team official who asked not to be identified: "I think there will be a lot of things offered to a lot of people, but whether they accept them or not remains to be seen."
Sibbald, who has missed some practices recently because of conflicts with his job as salesman for a hair products company, has complained privately to owners about the poor attitude of some players and their indifference to his game plans.
However, the two major obstacles to the move appear to be finding a stadium and getting league approval.
Said owner Roland Martin: "We'd like to move out (to Orange County) but there are still some bugs in (the plan). Most importantly, we've got to find a place to play."
Ajemian favors South Orange County, with its burgeoning middle-class youth soccer programs. But the only playing site there that appears to meet league specifications is at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. A college official told The Times earlier in the week that the football field is expected to be closed for as long as two years because of renovations scheduled to begin in the spring.
That leaves the Santa Ana Bowl, also known as Eddie West Field, as the most likely site. Ajemian said he has had preliminary discussions with a Santa Ana city official about using the 10,000-seat downtown arena, a popular location for international exhibitions featuring top Mexican and Central American teams.
Santa Ana's Latino communities have grown tremendously in the past decade because of the city's cheap housing and the need for inexpensive laborers in its factories and warehouses. If the Heat ends up in Santa Ana, Ajemian said, he will bring in at least two Mexican National players and gear the team more toward a Latino audience. He added that several potential sponsors have expressed interest in backing the Heat if it plays to the Latino crowd there.
A third option, which Ajemian dismissed as unlikely, is to find a field that can be renovated or altered to meet the team's needs. The Heat tried to do this in the South Bay and came up empty.
As for league approval, APSL West Secretary Art Dixon, of the Portland Timbers, said earlier opposition to such a move has quieted down.
"I think (the move) is a very good thing for the Heat," Dixon said. "It should have been done much earlier than this. It is in the best interest of the league, and those in the league who oppose this move (had) better stop and examine what their motives for opposing it are."
League President Bill Sage, who earlier in the year said the league would suffer without a Los Angeles team, has apparently softened his stand, Dixon said.
Sage was out of town and could not be reached for comment, but Dixon said that the two had recently discussed a move by the Heat and that Sage had told Dixon that he would support it.
The L.A. Heat Inc., founded in 1986 by four South Bay businessman, has been plagued by poor attendance from the beginning. Although sales of game and season tickets have increased this year, the Heat's largest crowd has been 1,124 for a game with Salt Lake City in mid-July. Next season the league is expected to require teams to average 2,500 spectators per game.
The Heat never established itself as a part of Los Angeles. It has its headquarters in Redondo Beach, practices in Manhattan Beach and plays in Torrance.
Money problems have also hurt the team. It moved its games from 12,000-seat Murdock Stadium at El Camino College in Torrance because it could not afford the rental fees. The team, which has a yearly budget of about $400,000, has never turned a profit.
The players, many of whom grew up in the South Bay, had varied reactions to the move.
"It is a disappointment to me," said Marine Cano, the team's backup goalie, who is also the head soccer coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills. "In regards to my position as a coach here in the community, I have several players from Dominguez Hills playing in this league, and I want to see professional soccer remain here in the South Bay. I was born here. I want to see it stay here."
Backup forward Joe Flannigan, who holds the career scoring record at Dominguez Hills, was also upset.
"I like playing very close to my house. I would like to see a team remain in L.A.," said Flannigan, who grew up in Torrance. "But I realize what the problem is here. We have not had a lot of support from fans. There is a lot more desire for soccer in Orange County."
Defender Danny Pena was excited about the move.
"Previous exhibition games we have played in Orange County have really turned out the fans," he said. "The soccer community there is strong. They are more serious about soccer there."
Ironically, the South Bay, birthplace to the American Youth Soccer Organization and several top club teams, failed to support a team that played the area's most popular game.
"The South Bay is made up of the soccer old guard," said Martin, a founding member of the team. "They didn't want to come out and support us."