LOS ANGELES, Calif. – When asked about their emotional win over the Hollywood United Hitmen in the U.S. Open Cup recently, the Blues players and coaching staff were all smiles. Despite being reduced to ten men due to a 19th-minute red card to defender Leonard Griffin, the USL PRO side scored the day’s first two goals and ended up taking a 3-1 victory in a match that was perhaps the most entertaining of the club’s 2011 season so far.
With both organizations having been a part of the local soccer scene for many years, the electricity was clearly palpable from the beginning, and it would turn out an indicator of things to come. Ninety minutes full of physicality and attacking soccer, four ejections and four fantastic goals later, the Blues players were able to raise their arms over their heads, proud of prevailing against an opponent determined to leave it all on the field for a possible upset.
“The game against Hollywood was probably as close to a derby as we’re going to experience,” Los Angeles Associate Head Coach Shayon Jalayer said. “Obviously, there is a history between the two organizations. It’s not a bad history, but a lot of the players have played each other in the past. I think that added to the intensity of the match. There were a lot of emotions and the game swung back and forth.
“I think credit has to be given to the opponent,” he continued. “They had stretches when they kept the ball quite well, and we were fortunate not go down a goal early. However, I think we recovered well and showed why being a full-time professional group does give you an advantage. It means that you’re a little fitter and probably a little more organized, and the chemistry and camaraderie amongst our group helped us as well.”
Midfielder Gerardo Bravo, who scored a stunning goal for the Blues to seal the deal in second-half stoppage time, joined Jalayer in acknowledging the performance by the Hitmen.
“It was a tough game against a tough opponent for the entire ninety minutes, which we were prepared for,” he said. “After we scored the second goal early in the second half, we were able to settle down and control the game a little more, but they never gave up and made it difficult for us. Luckily we got the third goal after they scored, which decided the game.”
The task of defeating a pumped up Hollywood United group was made more difficult by the fact that the match came on the heels of a three-week period without any competitive matches for the Blues. While the coaching staff welcomed the opportunity to see some of their injured players return to the field, Shayon Jalayer did acknowledge the downside.
“Although a lengthy break lets you rest the body, it also means you’re not quite prepared for the next game the way you’d like to be,” he offered. “We’ve had three great weeks of training, but the match against Hollywood might have been as good of a game as we could have asked for to get us back into the flow of things.
“I think it took us a while to get used to the speed of play of a competitive match again. Hollywood played well and looked very sharp early on, but we found a much better rhythm after about the first quarter-hour. The win came on the back of a great individual performance in front of goal by Mehrshad Momeni, but also as the result of a good team performance defensively.”
Momeni, a 23-year-old midfielder out of Iran who recently arrived in Los Angeles and made his debut against the Hitmen, scored on two right-footed long-range efforts, one on either side of the break.
Chukwudi Chijindu, who started up top for the Blues, admitted that the Hitmen were the better side early in the match but refused to put too much emphasis on the recent three-week break as a possible explanation.
“We don’t want to make any excuses,” he said. “Obviously we would have loved to have an official match in those three weeks, but we didn’t and as professionals you have to deal with that. Hollywood came out and put pressure on us right away, but at the end of the day we didn’t fall. That’s what’s most important.
“I’m really proud of the guys for the way we responded after the red card. Playing over sixty minutes with a man down and still going up 2-0 is pretty impressive. Looking back, we obviously could have been better in the first ten minutes, but overall we can be very happy with the effort we put in.”
Chijindu was sure to also praise Momeni’s individual performance.
“It’s tough when you join a new team and you’ve only had a few training sessions, but Mehrshad responded very well to that,” the 25-year-old forward offered. “We’re still learning each other’s tendencies, but at the end of the day he scored two quality goals that put us in a position to win the game. With certain key guys out with injury, we really needed a spark and he was able to provide that. Judging by his performance against Hollywood, the more we get to play with him, the more beneficial he will be to us.”
Shayon Jalayer explained what factors contributed to the young Iranian being able to find instant success in his first game for the new club.
“Mehrshad has done a very good job of acclimating himself both to the culture and the soccer culture,” the Blues Associate Head Coach said. “He has worked extremely hard in training and never put himself above the group. I think that has really helped him because the guys accepted him very quickly as a result. On the surface they saw that he can play, but when you’re also willing to be giving of yourself and complementary of your teammates, it brings you into the group much quicker.
“There’s no question that he’s got ability, and the two goals against Hollywood showed that. But he brings more than that. A lot of players in the soccer world are crafty and skilled, but maybe some of them lack the work rate or the humility a little bit. He seems to have all those things.”
Momeni’s humility showed after the final whistle, as he thanked his teammates for making his goals possible as well as the coaching staff for the opportunity to start in the match. The former Esteghlal Tehran member went on to address the prospect of a possible U.S. Open Cup third-round clash between the Blues and MLS giant Los Angeles Galaxy.
“We should take the Open Cup game by game,” he remarked through a translator. “We don’t think about the big teams that we could potentially face in the tournament. All we care about right now is the next game against Ventura County. That’s the kind of mentality we need if we’re hoping to win the title.”
Another impact man in the game against Hollywood, who shares with Momeni his sense of humility and dedication to the team, was midfielder Gerardo Bravo. The Peruvian came on in the second half of the first-round clash and hit a jaw-dropping shot from nearly 50 yards out to catch opposing goalkeeper Raul Calderon off his line and seal the deal in stoppage time.
“Whenever I’m on the field, I’m always a hundred percent focused, whether it’s as a starter, as a halftime sub or as a second-half sub,” Bravo said through a translator. “My mentality is always to do whatever I can to help the team keep its rhythm or add a spark if needed.”
The 29-year-old’s eyes lit up as a he thought back to the goal that put the match out of reach.
“I was aware that Izzy (Sesay) was there and that I could have passed the ball, but I also saw that the goalkeeper started to cheat towards him and that he might have intercepted it,” he recalled. “At the same time he opened up the goal by doing that, so I just waited a little longer and hit it long once I thought he was far enough off his line. It felt amazing because I think it caught everyone completely by surprise.”
Chukwudi Chijindu closed his postgame analysis on an optimistic note, as the USL PRO side travels to take on the PDL’s Ventura County Fusion Tuesday in a match whose winner will move on to face the Galaxy on June 28. The month of July will then be the busiest of the season for the Blues, with no fewer than nine league fixtures.
“I think we’re on an upward slope,” Chijindu analyzed the state of the team ahead of the crucial stretch. “Everyday we’re getting better and learning new things about each other. Part of that is getting closer as people, which translates back into chemistry on the field. I think if we keep a good attitude and keep working hard in training, we’ll just continue to improve. That might work out very well, because no team wants to peak twelve games into the season and then drop off when it matters most.”