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Inside Job : Valdivia Adapts to Arena Soccer, Though Real Money Is Outdoors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Armando Valdivia felt he had a future in professional soccer when his playing days at Cal State Northridge ended.

But he never expected his livelihood would depend on his ability to bounce balls--and opponents--off plexiglass walls in arenas throughout the country. Welcome to the Anaheim Splash of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.

Valdivia, however, has proved a quick study to the high-paced, frenetic game. Despite playing indoors for only two months, the first amateur selection of the Splash has made the transition well enough to become a contender for the CISL rookie-of-the-year award.

“This was the furthest thing from my mind,” Valdivia, 23, said. “I was never really interested in indoors at all until this year. I’ve watched it on TV before, but I never pictured myself playing it at all.”

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The Splash, for the moment, is a good fit for Valdivia, one of three former Northridge players on the team. Steve McKenzie and Bobby Reyes are reserves.

The CISL, in only its second season, has grown into the country’s largest professional soccer league with 14 franchises. The Splash, formerly L.A. United, is one of the league’s seven charter teams.

Matches are played on an artificial turf field with dimensions similar to an ice-hockey rink--200 feet long and 85 feet wide--and surrounded by boards topped with plexiglass.

Unlike outdoor soccer in which teams consist of 11 players, indoor squads field six players. The game consists of four 15-minute quarters, and unlike traditional soccer that uses running time, the clock stops much like in a basketball game. The CISL ball is also smaller and lighter, measuring 25 inches in circumference, about three inches smaller than a traditional ball.

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“It’s like black and white compared to outdoors,” Valdivia said about the indoor game. “I still have tons of learning to do. The touch on the ball is different; you can’t really kick it and you have to keep it close to you. There’s a lot more individual defense and running nonstop.”

The 5-foot-8, 160-pound midfielder from Ridgecrest Burroughs High has 16 goals and 12 assists for the Western Division-leading Splash (15-6). He leads the team with two game-winning goals and three game-winning assists.

“Some players are better suited for indoors and I think he is,” Splash Coach George Fernandez said about Valdivia. “He’s got speed, skill and vision and he has a little bite in him--the whole package. I believe he can be a superstar in the indoor game. It’s just time, that’s all it is.”

And money.

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The highest-paid players in the CISL earn between $2,000 and $3,500 per month for a 28-game regular season that runs from June through August. Reserves fare even worse, making as little as $75 per game depending on playing time. Valdivia, who has signed a one-year contract with the Splash, declined to reveal his salary.

In the outdoor American Professional Soccer League, players can earn as much as $60,000 for a 20-game schedule that runs concurrently with the CISL’s.

Salaries in Major League Soccer, a newly formed outdoor league that will make its debut in April with 12 teams, are expected to be higher than any previous professional league in this country. Valdivia, who is living in an apartment in Anaheim, said he is biding his time in the CISL in hopes of attracting an offer from the MLS.

“My main goal is to get to the MLS, but I’m comfortable right now and not complaining at all,” Valdivia said. “There are a lot of doors that will open up if I continue to play well. There is tremendous talent in this league. Our team would make a great outdoor team.”

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Valdivia had offers from three professional teams in Mexico after his junior season at Northridge in 1992, but decided to return to Northridge at the urging of his father and Northridge Coach Marwan Ass’ad.

“I don’t regret it,” Valdivia said. “I stuck it out and that extra year of experience helped make me a better player.”

Valdivia led the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation last fall with 20 assists--ranking him second in the nation--plus 17 goals and 54 points. He was chosen MPSF Pacific Division player of the year after leading Northridge (12-9, 5-2) to its first Division I playoff berth.

Valdivia, who is still a year away from a degree in kinesiology, left school after last season and moved to his birthplace of Guadalajara to pursue a professional career. He trained in Guadalajara with a club team for nearly two months without pay and wasn’t offered a contract.

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“It’s a great team and it’s hard to get into,” Valdivia said. “Most of those guys will be playing for the national team but I arrived in the middle of the season so they were reluctant to sign me.”

Valdivia returned to Northridge in January after receiving an invitation from the U.S. National “B” team. He didn’t play for the team, though, after it was learned that he is not a U.S. citizen. Valdivia moved to the United States with his family when he was 5 but only recently applied for citizenship.

“I was born in Mexico but I love this country and I would rather play here, indoor or outdoor,” Valdivia said.

In February, the Los Angeles Salsa of the APSL came knocking. However, the Salsa offered a two-year contract, and Valdivia, on the advice of Ass’ad, insisted on a one-year deal. Negotiations soon broke off.

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“This kid is great and the bottom line is he can do things very few players in the U.S. can do,” Ass’ad said. “God willing, everybody is going to see it. I told him don’t tie yourself down or it will explode on you. It’s a business and give yourself the freedom to look around after the season ends.”

The Splash had no objection to a a single-season contract and Valdivia’s professional career began. His plans when the season ends?

“We’ll sit down and talk,” Valdivia said. “I love outdoor soccer, but indoor soccer has grown on me. I really didn’t like it at first but I’ve tried to keep an open mind about it. It’s been a lot better experience than I thought.”


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