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Quick Study : Splash’s Valdivia Makes Smooth Transition to Indoor Soccer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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

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 Continental Indoor Soccer League and the Anaheim Splash.

Valdivia 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,” said Valdivia, 23. “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.

All three have had to adjust to the indoor game, with differences such as teams of six players rather than 11; 15-minute quarters instead of 45-minute halves, and a smaller ball.

“It’s like black and white compared to outdoors,” Valdivia said. “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.”

Running has been a problem for Valdivia lately, though. He sprained his knee last week and has missed two games; the Splash embarks on a three-game eastern trip tonight, and the team is hopeful he can return to the lineup for an Aug. 27 game in Las Vegas or the next night at home against Sacramento.

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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 has 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. “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.

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.

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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, the outdoor league that is scheduled to 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.”

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.

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“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 he had 17 goals for 54 points. He was chosen MPSF Pacific Division player of the year after leading Northridge 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, Mexico, 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.

“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.”

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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 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 Fullerton-based Salsa of the APSL came knocking. But 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.

“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.”

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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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