The United States National Arena Soccer Team (USNAST) is the world champion of its sport thanks to its victory in the 2015 WMF World Cup, but it faces an uphill climb to establish itself as a viable entity as it prepares for the 2017 WMF World Cup this August in Tunisia.

Towards that end, the USNAST has hired Bernie Lilavois as the team’s new General Manager.  Lilavois is no stranger to the team, having been an original member and its first Head Coach, in 2008.  Current coach Phil Salvagio will stay on as bench boss.

The Lilavois-Salvagio alliance may seem like an odd pairing as the two have famously enjoyed a heated rivalry on the field for the last eight years, but Lilavois insists there is no strain on their ability to work together.  “It’s been great working with Phil,” Lilavois says. “We are both on the Executive Board for the MASL so we’ve been working together already behind the scenes for a while now and when the fans see me and him going at it, screaming and yelling, it is just two very competitive guys trying to win. I can tell you that once the game is over, everything that happened on the field is over as well. We don’t dwell on it or let it affect the business side of our relationship. Having both of us on the same team should be a great combination.”

Lilavois has paid his arena soccer dues like few others have.  He played in over 400 games, scoring over 500 goals from 1994 to 2016.  He coached the California Cougars and was a key figure in the formation of the Professional Arena Soccer League.  He then coached and co-owned the PASL’s Anaheim Bolts and Ontario Fury.  The Fury have become one of the MASL’s flagship franchises.

Here’s a crash course on the hierarchy under which the USNAST operates.   The World Minifootball Federation is the governing body for arena soccer, minifootball (6-a-side with no boards), and Futbol 7 (7-a-side with no boards).  The regional governing body is the Pan-American Minifootball Federation.  The national organization is American Soccer 5-6-7, which directly oversees the USNAST.  PASL founder and current MASL Vice President of Business Development Kevin Milliken is the President of American Soccer 5-6-7.

International arena soccer got off to a great start in 2008 and 2009 with tournaments in Montreal and Monterrey, but the sanctioned tournaments were replaced with a series of exhibitions that were essentially PASL and MASL all-star games.  The USNAST made a big comeback when the US hosted and won the 2015 WMF World Cup.  Last year the MASL hosted a series of games with league all-star teams representing the US, Mexico and Brazil.

“Those games were part of the MASL International Challenge we started in Ontario last year with the cooperation of the MASL and not through the Federations,” said Lilavois. “They were MASL ‘showcase games’ with the rosters being mostly players from the teams close by. So it wasn’t the true USA or Mexico or Brazil teams but rather MASL stars that were from those countries. I thought it was great exposure for the players, the MASL, and our sport in general. The more Arena Soccer the better in my opinion! But, in the future there won’t be any unsanctioned USNAST games anymore.”

Lilavois’s job is to help Salvagio identify players. “We will be announcing a large player pool starting with primarily current MASL and PASL players.” Lilavois said. “Then we will hold player combines throughout the country to identify amateur players that may not have been seen before or may not know about the USNAST.”   Lilavois will also look for sales and marketing opportunities and cultivate relationships with the other federations.

Even if the USNAST were a thriving enterprise, it still needs other countries willing to travel to and host the US.  The US and Mexico have been traditional arena soccer rivals. The Mexican National Futbol Rapido team has been the primary opponent of the USNAST and Mexican pro teams have been competing in US indoor leagues since 1993. The two national teams met in the finals in 2015, with the US prevailing.

“We are working within our federation to play other countries and the interest is definitely there,” said Lilavois, who got 7,198 fans to turn out to Citizens Business Bank Arena on a Monday night for an MASL International Challenge game last June. “But for now USA vs Mexico is an obvious rival game that is a great start to showcase the sport and hopefully spur more interest from other countries. Plus both countries have secured a spot in this year’s World Cup so it makes sense we both prepare as much as possible.”

Now the two teams will square off three times in three days as part of preparations for Tunisia.  More USNAST games will be announced later, but the three California games on the books for May 11-13 will see US and Mexico go head to head in Ontario, Turlock and Bakersfield.

The game in Bakersfield will be the first arena soccer game played at Rabobank Arena since a World Indoor Soccer League exhibition game there that took place around 1999. Lilavois is teaming up with Monterrey Productions and the arena to promote the game. A new Bakersfield Pro Soccer Facebook page and website sprung up touting, “Bakersfield will be an expansion team in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) in the upcoming 2017-18 season,” but Lilavois is tight lipped about that for now, except to say “Bakersfield was selected to host a USA vs. Mexico exhibition because we feel it’s a great soccer market with many passionate soccer fans and the community and surrounding areas in general are avid sports fans. The initial response has been great and it should be a greatly supported event.”

Competition-wise the US and Mexico had an advantage in 2015 due to their familiarity with the boards.  In Tunisia, the US will have to acclimate to a totally different style. “We will play as many exhibitions – both with boards and without boards – as possible this summer as well as hold several training camps to prepare,” said Lilavois.

How will that affect the selection process? “We will be looking for players who are individually good on the ball, possession oriented, and obviously fully focused on the task at hand to repeat as World Cup champions.”