LOS ANGELES, Calif. – On a Blues roster recently dubbed “the United Nations” by Fox Soccer Channel’s Kenn Tomasch for featuring eleven different nations, recent signing Mehrshad Momeni represents what is currently the largest fraction, that of players from Iran. The 23-year-old is testament to the continued commitment of the club’s owners, Ali and Maryam Mansouri, to bringing in top talent from their native country.
Momeni most recently spent time with Esteghlal Tehran, one of the premier clubs of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) region, where he showed a lot of promise but couldn’t quite break through as a regular first-team player. While a move to a smaller Iranian club surely would have resulted in significant first-division playing time for the versatile midfielder, conversations with the current assistant coach of the Iran national team, Omid Namazi, led him to choose a much different path.
Namazi, an Iranian-American, had an extensive playing and coaching career in the United States. In 2010, he was named Head Coach of the WPS’s Chicago Red Stars, where he worked together with current Blues Head Coach Charlie Naimo. Upon his move to Iran, where he first served as an assistant coach with Steel Azin and then with the country’s national side, Namazi stayed in touch with his former Red Stars colleague and ultimately established the connection to Momeni.
“Although I was in a good position in Iran, under Omid’s advice I concluded that the U.S. has a better track record as a springboard,” the former Esteghlal Tehran man said through a translator. “Sometimes you have to give up a little to gain something bigger. Then, talking to (Blues owner) Ali Mansouri reassured me that coming here and getting used to a different system would be a good step for my ambition of playing abroad.”
Momeni did not take long to find success with the new club, as he has been a regular contributor ever since his arrival and has scored some timely goals in both USL PRO and U.S. Open Cup play.
“Mehrshad has done a very good job of acclimating himself both to the culture and the soccer culture,” Blues Associate Head Coach Shayon Jalayer offered. “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.”
Momeni himself credited a lot of his success to the environment into which he entered.
“It has helped immensely that there are Persian players and a Persian coach (Jalayer) here, but in general the personality of the group has just been very welcoming,” he said. “Because of that, my adjustment has been a lot more comfortable than I thought it might be.”
One aspect in particular came as an upside to the midfielder compared to playing in his native country.
“In Iran, there was a clear line between coaches and players, and the coaches really weren’t approachable,” he explained. “One of the things I enjoy most here is the difference when it comes to that. There’s much more of a team mentality from top to bottom – from the players and the coaches to the medical staff and the front office. Everything is easier because everyone is approachable.”
However, the more informal atmosphere hasn’t taken away from Momeni’s overall impression of the Blues’ as a professional and ambitious organization. In fact, the one aspect he struggled with most following his arrival in Southern California had nothing to do with the club’s inner workings, but with the Blues’ training field in Downtown Los Angeles.
“There’s no question that it’s a professional environment and mentality,” the Iranian said. “The coaching methodology is very similar to that of some of the best coaches I’ve been around in Iran. Perhaps the part that was most difficult getting used to was something so simple as being on an artificial surface as opposed to real grass.
“First of all, the training field is smaller than a real grass field. Then, if you want to put in flags or polls to do some sort of physical work, you really can’t. The coaches have shown some good ideas to solve this problem, but it still makes matters a little more difficult. Finally, the warm weather here presents an additional challenge because the turf really conserves the heat and makes you feel even hotter.”
Momeni admitted there is another factor he has been struggling with since joining the USL PRO side, one that even presents a challenge to veterans of the American game.
“I’m only slowly becoming accustomed to the scheduling and the travel here,” he said. “I’ve never been anywhere where you frequently play two games in three days, or where you spend hours at the airport before you get on a bus to reach your final destination. Those kinds of things are extremely rare in international soccer.”
The Los Angeles coaching staff showed just how much faith they have in their midseason signing, trusting him to play several different positions, including right back, immediately upon his arrival. Commenting on the versatility asked of him in addition to the challenges provided by the schedule and the travel, Momeni provided a first taste of his maturity and competitive fire.
“At the end of the day, it’s the coaches’ job to implement the style of play and the players’ job to adapt, so I’m happy to play whatever position is assigned to me,” he offered. “Having said that, I can’t be satisfied right now. I feel like I need to be better individually and we need to be better as a group.”
Despite having shown flashes of their quality throughout the season, the Blues find themselves with slim chances of accomplishing their regular-season goal, winning the USL PRO National Division, after several disappointing results in recent weeks. Momeni expressed his disappointment in the team’s performance of late, especially in light of its promising play in one of his first matches with the Blues, the unfortunate 2-1 U.S. Open Cup defeat to MLS giants Los Angeles Galaxy back in late June.
”We have a very strong team, which really showed against the Galaxy,” the Iranian recalled. “I was very disappointed after the game because I felt like our soccer was of a high enough quality that we could have advanced. That’s no disrespect to the Galaxy. Having led in the second half, if we had kept our heads little more, I feel like the result was there for us to take. And with a confidence boost like that, I’m convinced we could have gone even further in the competition, even against other MLS teams.”
However, the Blues’ current reality sees them eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup and in need of six points from their last two home games to have an outside shot at snatching the National Division crown away from the Rochester Rhinos. The goal seemed a lot more attainable only about two weeks ago, when the Los Angeles camp was brimming with confidence and the training sessions had noticeably picked up in intensity.
Momeni pointed back to that stretch of the campaign as an example of what it will take for his side to be successful in the playoffs after having already secured a berth, and he looked to the world’s greatest club team for inspiration.
“If you look at a giant like Barcelona, after a win there’s always that instant mentality of having to get ready for tomorrow,” he said. “That needs to be us. When we do play well, we can’t be satisfied. We have to go back to the office and work harder. We need to have the same mentality as the best in the world if we’re hoping to win the championship.
“The coaches’ mindset should be, ‘I have to get my players improving physically, technically and tactically.’ As players, we have to share that attitude. Everyday, we have to work on becoming better soccer players.”
To anyone familiar with the way Momeni handles himself on and off the field, his ambitious approach to the game doesn’t come as a surprise. While the 23-year-old enjoys being roommates with 18-year-old Blues goalkeeper and fellow Iranian Amir Abedzadeh, there is no need for concern that the duo’s professionalism might fall victim to the potential distractions of a city as vibrant as Los Angeles.
“Honestly, I’m a soccer fanatic and pride myself on being very serious about my job,” the midfielder remarked. “I’m not caught up in a social lifestyle, nor do I even have the itch. If anything, I’ll relax by watching a soccer movie from time to time. My time is dedicated to the game and I’m consumed by it.”