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U.S. Open Cup Preview: Hobbling With Confidence

June 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured, US Soccer, USL

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – When the Los Angeles Blues take on the Hollywood United Hitmen as favorites in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup first round, they will once again have to find success with a shuffled starting lineup. Despite a recent three-week break from competitive play, the continuing injury woes have the team’s coaches concerned. However, another factor figured into the cautious outlook taken by Blues players and staff following Monday’s training session in Downtown Los Angeles – the opponent.

“We respect Hollywood a lot, not just the players but the entire organization,” Los Angeles Head Coach Charlie Naimo offered. “On the field, they have a lot of good, technical players who could give us some real problems if they have space and time to create. At the same time, it’s crucial that we take advantage of the opportunities we get, because there might not be a lot of them. The longer the game stays scoreless, the more it favors them.”

Blues midfielder Edwin Miranda, who played for the Hitmen as recently as in 2010, joined Naimo in warning the rest of his mates not to take the match lightly.

“We’ve got to be smart, keep the ball and not make mistakes, because they have a lot of good players and play well as a team,” he said. “I expect their style to be similar to ours. They move the ball around, but at the same time they’re always looking for that final pass. It could be a long ball over the top since their forwards are very fast, so we need to be ready for that.”

The task is not made any easier for Los Angeles by the fact that Hollywood has been known in recent years for its ability to attract big names and add them to the roster on a short-term basis. For instance, the team’s historic 3-2 upset of USL First Division side Portland Timbers in the 2008 edition of the U.S. Open Cup was helped greatly by several players with extensive professional experience, such as former MLS starter Brian Dunseth, Alex Bengard, Mike Muñoz, Derk Droze and Matt Taylor, now with German second division side SC Paderborn.

“I’m sure I’ve played against the majority of their current guys in the last couple of years, but it’s still hard to analyze them as a team because they’re so flexible and have players coming in and going out all the time,” Los Angeles defender Mike Randolph said. “No matter who they’re going to put on the field, they’ll definitely bring a quality team, so for us it’s all about playing our own game and at the same time expecting the unexpected.”

Among the impact men on the current Hollywood roster are former Ghana and Bayern Munich youth player Emanuel Bentil, former Leicester City defender Marcus Watson, former U.S. U-18 international Carlos Morales, leading goal scorer Jose Miranda as well as midfielder Rene Corona and forward Brent Whitfield, both of whom have spent time with MLS side Chivas USA.

Nonetheless, with the Hitmen competing one division below USL PRO and the Blues, Charlie Naimo did acknowledge that his side is expected to win and move on to a second-round clash with either Daxa Italia or the Ventura County Fusion.

“Our biggest advantage might be greater fitness from training more,” the Los Angeles Head Coach said. “That’s where being the team from the higher league comes into play. Our players have probably spent more time on the training field together, meaning hopefully we’re also a little bit better attuned to each other.”

However, the potential advantage is put into perspective by the Blues’ continuing struggles with injuries. Ever since the team’s USL PRO season opener at Sevilla FC Puerto Rico back on April 15, Los Angeles has seen at least one or two of its most important attacking players either sitting out or playing with knocks in nearly every single game.

The theme continues for the club, Jhonatan Bravo going down with a painful, yet to be diagnosed knee injury in Monday’s training session, which forward Cesar Rivera had to watch from the sideline in the first place after rolling his ankle while kicking the ball around with his son. In addition, attacking-minded Akeem Priestley recently had his toe stepped on by teammate Israel Sesay just as he seemed to be recovering from a nagging hamstring injury.

While the Blues’ latest signing, star striker Peter Byers, just started training with the club, his presence doesn’t help the immediate situation, as he is not eligible to play in Tuesday’s clash with the Hollywood United Hitmen. It seems the sole bright spot in the midst of the worrying injury woes is exciting young midfielder Mehrshad Momeni, who recently joined Los Angeles from Iranian powerhouse Esteghlal Tehran.

“I’m just a little bummed that we never seem to have access to all of our players and it’s been a constant changing of the formation as a result,” Charlie Naimo said. “Obviously, losing Jhonny in practice hurt us tremendously. We had our designated starters for the Open Cup game working out together and he was looking very good. With him, Akeem and Cesar hurt and Peter not eligible, we definitely have our problems now.

“At the same time, we’re still very confident not just in our goalkeeper and our defense but in our midfield as well – partly because we think Mehrshad will be great for us. Plus, (striker) Chuck (Chijindu) has been in very good form. It’s just a matter of who will get the nod as that second forward against Hollywood. Whoever we end up picking, we’re confident that he’ll do a good job.”

The cautiously optimistic outlook was echoed by Edwin Miranda.

“We’ve been very unfortunate with injuries, but I think spirits are still high and everyone is ready to play the game,” the 30-year-old Salvadorian said. “I’m sure that all the players who get on the field for us are going to work hard and believe that we can beat Hollywood. There’s no reason not to be confident. We’re a good team with a lot of good players. We just have to show it on the field.”

Mike Randolph was similarly upbeat in his preview of Tuesday’s match, as he closed by focusing on the positives of the recent three-week break from competitive play, despite the continuing injury struggles.

“It’s unlucky that people keep getting these little knocks, but I still feel like the time off was good for us,” the former Los Angeles Galaxy man offered. “It seems to me that the guys who were not injured got the rest they needed and used the break to get their legs back under them. At the same time, the three weeks took care of some of the more serious injuries. Now, most of it is just minor stuff that will keep a player out for a game or two.”

With all his experience of nearly 40 MLS appearances for the Galaxy, the 25-year-old Randolph summed up his team’s current situation with a simple, yet universally valid truth.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about getting results,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Nobody really cares if you’re injured or sick or anything like that. Being professionals, we all know that. When it comes down to it, we’ll just have to work hard and get the job done.”

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