FULLERTON, Calif. – The Blues face two of the most important matches in their history this coming Friday and Sunday when they take on current USL PRO runners-up Harrisburg City Islanders. Sitting four points outside the playoff picture, the Fullerton-based side needs two wins against their fellow contenders to leapfrog them in the standings, as well as help by others to grab the sixth and final postseason berth.
The Blues are in their current position as a result of failing to earn two home wins in the recent back-to-back meetings with bottom dwellers Antigua. After dropping the first match 2-1, they bounced back with a crucial 1-0 win two days later to keep their hopes of reaching the knockout stages alive. Despite the pressure of needing six points this time around, the Blues players and coaches appeared loose and optimistic in training all week.
The presence of an attacking-minded midfielder has done its part in contributing to the positive atmosphere, with former Iranian national team playmaker Dariush Yazdani having put pen to paper after feverishly working on his fitness for the past two weeks. Associate Head Coach Shayon Jalayer hopes the 35-year-old veteran can add to an overall trend he has identified in his side’s offensive efforts.
“In both Antigua games, I felt like we were at times lacking tactically,” he conceded. “That said, we set out to have a positive, attacking mindset and we did take the lead in both matches, even though we were unfortunate to only grind out one win. I felt like there were stretches in both games that reflected our ambitious approach and the fact that we wanted a win and weren’t playing for a draw.
“We’ve removed the tactical shackles off the guys a little bit, which seems to be putting them more at ease. We’re starting to see them improvise more and play with greater creativity. That obviously makes us lose our defensive shape here and there, but I think it gives us a better opportunity to push forward. We saw glimpses of that against Antigua and hope that some of it will spill over into the Harrisburg game.”
The Blues’ latest acquisition may well be called upon to help make that happen. Jalayer is impressed with Yazdani’s hard work in training and believes that his newest star is already fit enough to provide some added punch off the bench. Being himself of Iranian decent, the team’s Associate Head Coach has been following his fellow countryman’s career closely and holds him in high regard.
“Dariush is very clinical with his final pass and with his finishing, but perhaps his biggest assets are his confidence and experience,” Jalayer offered. “Having played at a high level for so many years, crucial games like the ones we’re facing don’t put him in a state of shock or anxiety. He’s able to solve problems under pressure and moves the ball forward very well.”
In addition to having played for some of the biggest clubs in Iran, Yazdani landed a contract with Bayer Leverkusen in 1998 but found himself unable to break into the starting lineup with the German Bundeliga giants. He subsequently returned to his home country for a year before enjoying perhaps the most successful stretch of his career with Belgian first division outfit Sporting Charleroi, for whom he suited up 72 times between 2000 and 2003.
Jalayer is excited to have a player of Yazdani’s caliber at his disposal.
“The good thing about Dariush working to get in shape for a couple of weeks is that he’s acclimated with the team and has been able to develop a bit of chemistry with them,” he said. “He’s probably still not as fit as he can be, but he’s the kind of guy who can play that killer pass out of nowhere or put the ball in the back of the net if you give him a bit of space. That quality could be extremely valuable against Harrisburg.
“One of the best things about guys who have played at a high level is how they influence the dynamic on the whole team. It’s interesting to see that although Dariush is not in his best possible form yet, there are things he does in training that garner him the respect of the other players. Sometimes you’ll see them apologizing for not making a run, because they realize that he saw something they didn’t see.”
In the must-win meetings with the City Islanders, a lot will depend on whether Jalayer’s men are able to elevate their game and produce a handful of special plays, be it with or without Yazdani on the field. Harrisburg is known for its team unity and fighting spirit, qualities that saw them reach the USL PRO Championship game last year and forcing victorious Orlando City into penalty kicks.
The Blues last faced Head Coach Bill Becher’s side on the road on July 28, their opponents taking a 2-0 victory behind goals by Morgan Langley and Lucky Mkosana. Team top scorer Mkosana has registered an impressive six goals and one assist in only 678 minutes played in 2012.
While needing two wins against the City Islanders this time around, the Blues must also hope for things to go their way in the back-to-back meetings betweenWilmington and the Charlotte Eagles, with the most straightforward solution being consecutive road wins for red-hot Charlotte. However, Jalayer has been stressing the importance of focusing on themselves and on the matches whose outcome they can control.
“Harrisburg is a very industrious team that is strong everywhere on the field, but I also believe in our group and that we have what it takes to beat them,” the Blues Associate Head Coach offered. “The result in July was deceiving, because it came the day after we played Rochester. We traveled five and a half hours to get to Harrisburg and arrived with about 45 minutes left before we needed to be at the stadium, so we were definitely far from 100 percent.
“I think Harrisburg will see a different team when they come here. We have great quality on the roster and have everything to play for. I firmly believe that we can get six points from the two matches and make the playoffs.”
During Friday’s and Sunday’s meetings with the City Islanders, the Blues will be raffling off bigger and better prizes than ever before in their history, including a $499 voucher for the Auto Tint Specialist and a $99 voucher for Rhino Custom Detailing as well as plenty of gift certificates for select partners (CaliFire Grill, 300 Anaheim, UltaLuxe Anaheim Cinemas, Sport Clips Fullerton and the Cornerstone Family Wellness Center).
Tickets to Blues matches are $10 and may be purchased by calling 714-738-8011 or by visiting www.labluesprosoccer.com.