LOS ANGELES, Calif. – After an emotional U.S. Open Cup first-round win over the Hollywood United Hitmen, the Blues players and coaches are looking ahead to today’s second-round meeting with home side Ventura County Fusion with confidence. However, with the winner moving on to a mouth-watering matchup against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the common theme in all of the pregame interviews was a word of caution not to take the game against Ventura, one of standout teams in PDL, lightly.
Blues Head Coach Charlie Naimo has two reasons for concern ahead of tonight’s road match. In addition to the quality of the opponent, whom he had a chance to analyze in two regular season matches against Los Angeles’ second team, the Blues 23, his side has been dealing with injury issues throughout the first two months of the campaign. On top of that, the Blues will be without defender Leonard Griffin and midfielder Josh Tudela, who were both ejected from the second-round match against the Hitmen.
“Obviously, trying to choose eleven healthy players for a lineup that has some rhythm to it is the hard part for us,” Naimo said. “Besides that, I think focusing on ourselves is the most important thing. Having seen Ventura play a couple of times, we really need to take them seriously. They’re technical and athletic enough to play direct attacking soccer, and that’s what they like to do. After a few good passes, they look to get the ball to their dangerous wide players, who have a lot of pace.
“We’ll just have to be on our toes and put good pressure on them when they have the ball, and we need to be better than we have been when we have it,” he continued. “In recent matches, our possession hasn’t been what it can be, which might have been a result of the constant changing of our lineup. That’s really distracted us from playing the way we started out the season.”
While acknowledging the absences, Blues defender Cameron Dunn declined to take them as reason to expect any less from himself and his teammates in tonight’s game.
“The big thing for us is that we have a lot of capable players,” the 27-yeard-old offered. “If one guy goes down, we have another guy that can come in and take his spot. No matter the team we end up putting on the field, we’ll have confidence in it. Injuries are going to happen all year long and other teams are probably dealing with similar situations, so we’re not going to make any excuses. We’ll just have to go out there and win the game with the players we have available.”
The cautiously optimistic outlook was shared by Israel Sesay. The attacking-minded Sierra Leone native focused on his impression of the training session following the encouraging 3-1 win over the Hollywood United Hitmen
“Practice has been good since the Hollywood game,” he said. “Everyone has been working hard and the chemistry has been encouraging. You can see that there is a lot of confidence going around and that the players believe we’re going to get the win at Ventura.”
Cameron Dunn had more encouraging words to offer to Blues fans, as he reiterated his belief that his side should have the quality and depth to beat a fired up Fusion team, just as it defeated another highly motivated lower-division side in the Hitmen last week.
“We’re going to take the match as seriously as a regular league game,” Dunn said. “If we do that and just focus on the things we’re good at, I think we’ll be victorious. We really shouldn’t put too much emphasis on what the other team brings to the table. It’s about whether we bring our ‘A’ Game. We know that Ventura is very good team, but at the same time we also know our strengths. If we can utilize those in the game, we should be just fine.”
Israel Sesay, who was signed by the Los Angeles Galaxy as a teenager in 2007 and spent nearly three years with the MLS club, stressed the quality of tonight’s opponent but ultimately agreed with Dunn. The Ventura County Fusion is undefeated with a record of 6-0-4 in PDL play this season.
“I haven’t seen Ventura play, but the Blues 23 guys tell me that they’re a pretty good team,” the 20-year-old remarked. “That means we have to be organized and work hard to try and get the win at all cost. Obviously, we’d all love to play the Galaxy in the next round, especially myself and all the other ex-Galaxy players on our team.”
In addition to the Sierra Leonean, Leonard Griffin, Mike Randolph and Blues captain Josh Tudela all have spent time with the MLS standout club.
“For me personally, it would be a very emotional game,” Sesay continued. “That’s why even though it’s only the second round of the tournament, I look at the match at Ventura as a semifinal standing in the way of a final against the Galaxy. All of us want to play against the big guys. Ventura is a hurdle that could keep us from getting there, so we have to go out and take care of business.”
Charlie Naimo acknowledged the importance of a possible clash with Beckham and Co. for the entire Blues organization, as his first-year club is still building brand-name recognition in a hotly contested market that also boasts another MLS side in Chivas USA.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” the Blues Head Coach said. “One, there’s the marketing side of it, the opportunity to tap into the pool of people who follow MLS and let them know that there is another quality team in the area. Then there’s the competitive side, which is fairly self-explanatory. As a player or a coach, you love the opportunity to play a game against an outstanding team and a classy organization like the Galaxy to see where you stand.”
In the midst of all the excitement over a possible mouth-watering matchup between the two Los Angeles area sides, Cameron Dunn closed his preview on the appropriate professional note, reminding his teammates not to get ahead of themselves.
“Right now, I’m not thinking about the Galaxy,” the veteran defender remarked. “It’s one game at a time. We have Ventura in front of us and that should be our main focus at this point. Of course the Galaxy would be a fun game, but that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get there. So let’s focus all of our energy on beating Venura first, and then we can think about the next round.”