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After fourth USL W-League title, what does future hold for LA Blues?

The Los Angeles Blues won their fourth USL W-League title in franchise history in 2014. (Photo Courtesy USL W-League)

The Los Angeles Blues won their fourth USL W-League title in franchise history in 2014. (Photo Courtesy USL W-League)

The Los Angeles Blues won their fourth W-League championship on July 27, defeating the Washington Spirit Reserves 6-1 in the final in Bradenton, Fla. The L.A. (formerly Pali) Blues have won W-League titles in 2008, 2009, 2013 and now 2014, and lost another final on penalty kicks to the Ottawa Fury in 2012.

The Blues romped through the regular season with a 12-0-0 regular season record, scoring 50 times while allowing only four goals. They went on to win three straight playoff games for their second championship crown in a row. Experienced forward Mele French (who played at the University of Oregon and briefly with Sky Blue FC in 2009 before joining SC Freiburg in Germany) was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, finishing the regular season with eight goals and eight assists for 24 pts., second to Danica Evans of Colorado Rush (29 pts.), who plays at the University of Portland.

Sarah Killion, who won a collegiate championship last season at UCLA and the U-20 Women’s World Cup title with the U.S. side in 2012, was named the MVP of the W-League Championship Game. Killion is currently with the U.S. U-23 national team, along with Wake Forest’s Katie Stengel, who scored 50 goals in 75 games over four seasons and also won the U-20 World Cup in 2012. Stengel did not participate in the NWSL’s 2014 draft and has signed for Germany’s Bayern Munich for this upcoming Frauen-Bundesliga season. Stengel had eight goals and one assist for the Blues in 2014.

The Blues, coached by Charlie Naimo — who also directed the New Jersey Wildcats to a W-League title in 2005 and was general manager for the L.A. Sol in WPS’ first season in 2009. when they lost in the final to Sky Blue FC — talked with The Equalizer about the unique aspects of this season’s team, which he called his most satisfying season ever.

“All the stars aligned,” Naimo said. “There was a lot of professional behavior in our young players and the college players were very mature. Our senior leadership — Mele French (who has been a member of three Blues W-League championships), Sasha Andrews (former Canadian international defender) and Kandace Love (formerly Wilson, who won two WPS titles with FC Gold Pride and the Western New York Flash) — were really acting as an extension of our staff.

“It was a perfect storm in a good way with how the team behaved, acted and cared. Players don’t realize that they have a responsibility to inspire coaches. Players are hungry for information from coaches and leaders, and when they heed advice and demonstrate by their action that they do good with it, it inspires us to give more. That was truly the case this year. You never stop trying to help them on and off the field….It was a great experience this season for me. Not being full-time in the game anymore and a big reason why I got out of it was you didn’t have that connection with the players and your team and it often felt like I was working by myself; this year was a total team effort.”

Naimo used his extensive international contacts to help forward Shawna Gordon secure a contract with Umea of Sweden for this fall. Gordon scored five goals and five assists this season with Los Angeles and turned down an opportunity mid-season to sign for the NWSL’s FC Kansas City, which was a testament to Naimo, his coaching staff and the high-quality organization that the Blues have developed. Gordon played at Long Beach State and with Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia’s W-League

NWSL in Los Angeles?

Naimo, one of the most successful coaches in the American women’s game, talked about the professional National Women’s Soccer League. The Blues organization had applied to be a founding franchise in the NWSL, but the league bypassed the side and began the 2013 season with eight clubs.

Naimo explained: “We have not been discussing it here. I don’t know if this is the year. I almost feel that we have done enough as a franchise over the years to deserve a call from Cheryl [Bailey—NWSL Executive Director] or Sunil [Gulati-U.S. Soccer President]. We gave everything we had [for] the opportunity two years ago in the inaugural season and by no means do I plan to put that much work and energy into anything that is not a sure bet. I don’t have the time and we’re happy where we are [in the W-League]. We have a franchise that is consistent and building a little bit of a dynasty; everyone enjoys being a part of that.”

The coach feels that his W-League franchise—which plays approximately a two month season during the summer so that the college players can return for preseason camps—would perform quite easily in NWSL: “Our team was as good as probably any NWSL team. If you let me select two international players of my choice and we train every day [from March] until now, with no U-23 or college interruptions, our roster is as good as six of those nine teams and we would compete.”

Los Angeles is happy with the W-League, Naimo emphasized. The league just celebrated its 20th season in 2014. Already, Naimo is in initial squad planning for 2015, when the team will attempt to win the league crown for a third season in a row, which has never been done before. Naimo would be interested in a NWSL franchise for Los Angeles but feels that, due to the history with the initial franchise bidding, league officials should make the first move.

“Whether NWSL happens for us or not, we are very content,” Naimo said. “Would we want an opportunity? Sure, if they came knocking. We’re frustrated with the last go around—we were ready to spend money to be the third West Coast team [along with Seattle and Portland] and [then had] the league turn their back on us when we operate as good as some franchises that are in the league. I support the league [NWSL] and hope it does well but we do our own thing and you can’t argue with the success that we’ve had.”

Blues technical director Tracey Kevins echoed those thoughts in a recent interview, saying “that’s up to U.S. Soccer,” as to whether they want to add L.A. to the fold.

As some PDL franchises are poised to take the step up to the USL Pro League (Austin Aztecs most recently) and even USL Pro teams have moved to MLS (Orlando City for 2015 and Seattle, Portland and Montreal in the past), one has to wonder if part of NWSL’s future expansion criteria includes W-League clubs moving up.

If so, the league should look west, to Naimo and the Los Angeles Blues, as their first choice for a club that can compete on the field and be fully operational off the field. There is precedent for the women’s game–the Buffalo/Western New York Flash stepped up from the W-League as champions in 2010 to WPS in 2011, winning the last WPS title. Will we ever see the L.A. Blues promoted to the top professional tier? Time will tell.


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