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Soccer With a Different Beat : As Salsa Opens Season, Officials Hope to Avoid Mistakes of Predecessors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Davis is well aware of professional soccer’s history in the Los Angeles area and ticks off the list in a matter of seconds.

“Let’s see, the Aztecs, the Surf, the Sunshine,” he says. “Depends on how far back you want to go. The Heat, the Emperors. . . .

“Of course, you had the Lazers, an indoor team. Six or seven teams have come and gone.”

All of them, RIP.

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Into the breach now steps the Salsa, a new American Professional Soccer League team that will open its inaugural season against the Toronto Blizzard at 4 p.m. Saturday in Titan Stadium on the Cal State Fullerton campus.

As the Salsa’s general manager, Davis isn’t promising a league championship. He isn’t boasting about bringing in big-name stars on big-league contracts.

And he is offering no Ringling Bros. gimmicks--such as glass and dasher boards--in attempt to draw fans.

“I think we’re pretty in tune with who we are and where we’re headed,” said Davis, a former 10-year captain of the U.S. national team. “We’re not trying to compete with the Rams and the Dodgers and the Angels. We’re a sport trying to grasp our share of the market.

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“We’re putting a product out there that we feel is entertaining. If nothing else, we hope we’re entertaining to the soccer community.

“If you’re an aspiring young player, you can come and watch the L.A. Salsa and learn things.”

Just don’t ask Coach Rildo Menezes about his key players.

“I don’t want to name names,” Menezes said. “It might hurt the feelings of the other players.”

Say what?

The APSL is a seven-team league that began in 1990. It traces its roots to the old North American Soccer League, former home of the New York Cosmos and Pele, with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and Blizzard. But what may be more important is that those involved in both the NASL and APSL are a bit older and wiser now.

“In our case, I think (the APSL) is a better plan,” said Davis, who played for the Cosmos. “It doesn’t have an identity crisis. Teams in the NASL wanted to be much bigger than what the market would bear. Owners figured that by spending money people would come.

“That’s not true--it’s not football. One pitfall of the NASL is that it wasn’t Americanized enough.”

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To that end, the APSL mandates that 11 players on each 18-man roster must be citizens of the team’s country.

Otherwise, the league’s biggest demand is that you can play.

“Basically, it’s a case of the league wanting to establish itself as the premier league in our country,” Davis said. “There are a lot of clouded waters (in soccer) like indoor, semi-pro . . . a lot of people confused the (United States Inter-Regional Soccer League with the APSL), but it (the USISL) is really a lot lower-caliber.”

Salsa followers, though, will likely become familiar with that league, because the team already has established somewhat of a farm system. The East Los Angeles Cobras have joined the USISL as the Salsa’s reserve club.

That move fits in with Davis’ broader goal, which is to create a franchise with a solid foundation and some stability in Orange County.

“The idea is we’re trying to create a club structure where we will start to identify and develop our own talent and work them up through the ranks,” Davis said.

Davis said the team is resigned to losing money. Even the best scenario this season has the Salsa losing in the “six figures,” he figured.

The salaries will range, roughly, from $30,000 to $60,000. The organization has sold about 1,000 season tickets and is hoping to draw between 3,000 and 5,000 spectators for Saturday’s opener.

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“I’d like to think that with a little time, it’s not unrealistic to think we couldn’t sell out 10,000 seats for the bigger rivalries,” Davis said.

The biggest question to be answered Saturday is what kind of soccer the people who show up will see. Davis and Menezes are comfortable with the team they have put together, but they have only one exhibition with APSL opponents--a triangular with Colorado and Vancouver--on which to base their analysis.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have as much of an idea (as to talent) as I would like,” Davis said. “I think we’ll do OK. I think we’ll be competitive from the get-go.”

Menezes was even more upbeat.

“This team can do very good,” he said. “I look for the team to be in the playoffs and in the finals.”

Early indications are that the Salsa forwards, Paul Wright and Dale Ervine, will be strong. Both are refugees from the Major (Indoor) Soccer League--Wright played with San Diego and Ervine was with Wichita, where he broke the league record for goals in a season by an American when he scored 62 in the 1991-92 season.

Davis also thinks the Salsa’s midfielders, Paulinho Criciuma and Mike Fox, will be solid. Paulinho--who prefers to go by one name, in the fashion of most Brazilian players--led Botafogo F.C. to the Brazilian national championship in 1988. Fox, from La Verne, played soccer at Cal State Fullerton before joining the Cosmos and then moving indoors with Wichita, the L.A. Heat and the California Emperors.

Defender Arturo Velazco was an integral part of San Diego’s 1989 indoor championship and Thor Lee, another defender, was with the APSL’s Salt Lake City Sting last season.

And don’t be surprised if a few basketball scouts show up at Salsa games this summer--goalkeeper Ian Feuer is 6 feet 7.

“We’d like to think we’ll win some games,” Davis said. “It would be an awful thing to go 0-24. With the quality of team we’ve put together, I think we’ll be competitive and think the playoffs are a possibility.

“Secondly, we’d like to think we can establish a solid core of 2,000 to 3,000 fans. . . . I’ve always been a big believer that you want to make sure people are getting good value for what they’re spending, and you want to make sure that when people walk out of our stadium, they feel pleased.

“If we can accomplish that, I think it will be a terrific year.”

Here’s a look at the Salsa’s competition this summer, through the eyes of Davis:

Colorado Foxes: “They’re very representative of American soccer. I played with a lot of their players, people like Robin Fraser, Jeff Hooker, and Mark Dodd, the goalie.”

Ft. Lauderdale Strikers: “They have a proud heritage in American soccer. The Ft. Lauderdale Strikers have been around for as long as I can think of professional soccer. And their uniforms stand out. They’re very distinctive black, red and yellow.”

Montreal Impact: “They’re the unknown, the one team in our league nobody seems to know about.” The Impact did hold training camp in Italy, though, so they must be doing something right.

Tampa Bay Rowdies: “They’ve always been a fun, dynamic, upbeat organization. They’ve had great ad campaigns: ‘The Rowdies Are a Kick in the Grass.’ ”

Toronto Blizzard: “Good history. Their team has been around the longest. It dates back to (1972). It’s kind of a Chicago Bears-type of thing--they carry on a strong tradition.”

Vancouver 86ers: “I think of the Canadian national team. Their coach (Bob Lenarduzzi) is the coach of the Canadian national team, and I believe five or six of their players play on the national team.”

APSL at a Glance

Name: American Professional Soccer League.

Headquarters: Washington, D.C.

Founded: Feb. 22, 1990, as the result of a merger of the American Soccer League and the Western Soccer League.

Affiliations: Federation Internationale de Football Assn. (FIFA, world soccer governing body); U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF, national governing body). The APSL is the only nation’s only professional league sanctioned by the USSF.

Teams: Colorado Foxes, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Salsa, Montreal Impact, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Toronto Blizzard, Vancouver Eighty-Sixers.

Defending champion: Colorado, which defeated Tampa Bay, 1-0, Sept. 26 in Denver.

Season: April 30 through Sept. 12, 24 games. Playoff semifinals scheduled for weekend of Sept. 17-19; championship to take place soon after.

Rules: FIFA Laws of the Game (including a limit of two substitutes per side per game).

Tie-breaker: 15 minutes (two 7 1/2-minute halves) of sudden-death overtime, followed by a shootout, if necessary.

Points: Six points for a victory; one point for either team for each goal scored in regulation, up to a maximum of three. In matches decided by shootout, winner gets four points, loser two.

Citizenship: On an 18-man roster, 11 players must be from the country where the team is located. U.S. clubs allowed a maximum of two non-resident alien players; Canadian clubs allowed three. Americans count as non-resident aliens in Canada, and vice versa.

Salsa home tickets: Adults, $9, $7, $5; student/senior, $8, $6, $4; youth (14 and younger), $6, $4, $3. Call (213) 887-2572 or (714) 547-2572.

SALSA SCHEDULE May 1--Toronto, 4:05 p.m.; 9--at Vancouver, 6:35; 14--Montreal, 8:05; 21--Ft. Lauderdale, 8:05.

June 5--at Colorado, 5:05; 13--Vancouver, 4:05; 26--Tampa Bay, 8:05.

July 2--at Ft. Lauderdale, 5:05; 3--at Tampa Bay, 4:05; 10--Fort Lauderdale, 8:05; 11--at Colorado, 5:05; 17--Tampa Bay, 8:05; 25--Toronto, 4:05.

Aug. 1--Colorado, 4:05; 6--at Montreal, 5:05; 8--at Toronto, 11:05 a.m.; 15--Colorado, 4:05; 22--at Montreal, 4:05; 23--at Toronto, 4:35; 27--Montreal, 8:05.

Sept. 4--Vancouver, 8:05; 8--at Vancouver, 7:05: 11--at Tampa Bay, 5:05; 12--at Ft. Lauderdale, 4:35 p.m.

Salsa home games at Titan Stadium on the campus of Cal State Fullerton. All times Pacific.

Sources: Salsa, American Professional Soccer League.


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