The journey has been long but it’s an occasion to savor.
Every time I have talked to Oliver Wyss, the same clear goal was in mind for Orange County SC: We want to win a championship.
Dating back to 2015, when Wyss was appointed head coach of what was then the Orange County Blues, up through his move to the front office, a major ownership change, a venue change, a full rebrand and the increasing professionalization of lower league soccer, the aim was always crystal clear on the field.
And on Sunday, they did just that, as Orange County SC beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies 3-1 in the 2021 USL Championship Final in St. Petersburg, Florida.
From a league that was just 12 teams in 2011, when the then-Los Angeles Blues launched in USL Pro, the only team west of the Mississippi and the pioneer that turned the league into a truly national entity, to 2021, when Orange County SC became top of the pack in a league with 31 teams, the landscape has totally changed, and in many ways, so has the club.
I remember trekking out to Anteater Stadium on the campus of UC Irvine in Sept. 2015 to watch the OC Blues beat LA Galaxy II for the first time in club history. While the “405 Derby” never really took off with Galaxy II being an MLS2 team, albeit a very good one historically, and Orange County being an independent team, the first true derby in the league was something that helped drive the storylines around the league. The accommodations were totally spartan at Anteater Stadium — concrete bleachers on one side, no real press box to speak of, and spectators could easily wander in from another direction and sit down without paying for a ticket (although I doubt that happened very much).
The club’s original owner, Ali Mansouri, was known to be looking to sell a majority stake in the club for some time, and after some fears in 2016 the team may need to move out of Southern California or fold altogether, James Keston came aboard as the new managing owner late in 2016.
Keston’s arrival rang in the changes. The club rebranded to Orange County SC in 2017, moved to a pop-up stadium for a few months at Orange County Great Park that same year, and then inaugurated Championship Soccer Stadium at the Great Park late in the season. The 5,000 seat stadium is intimate but has actual accommodations now, including seats, permanent restrooms, shelter from occasional rain, and premium spaces.
Beyond that, the club has worked and tried stuff, on and off the field. They’ve staffed up and over the past few years, have come up with a full slate of theme nights, complete with food and drink trucks, to bring people out to the stadium, seeing which themes hit and which are misses. They’ve worked to really reach out in the community, getting involved in various initiatives, supporting Orange County in myriad ways during the pandemic, and trying to connect to various underserved populations in the area. On the field, they had an affiliation with LAFC, that didn’t really seem to move the needle on either side, and then they entered an affiliation with Rangers FC. Such partnerships are ultimately fleeting one way or another, but the work done with Rangers appears to have bore some fruit over time. Next up, a venture into women’s professional or semi-pro soccer?
In a league, and in particular, a Western Conference that seems to become more competitive each year, OCSC has remained competitive nearly every season and and have reached the playoffs seven of 11 seasons. They’ve kept pace with teams that have bigger budgets by making savvy signings, mixing veterans with experience in MLS or abroad with young prospects who they hope have a bright career ahead of them.
I’ll be honest, when the club really ramped up their efforts to sign young players a few years ago, I wondered if they were going to give up some of the competitiveness of the roster in order to go all-in on player development. Instead, they’ve tried to do both, while finding the success to win the league title this year. It can be done.
In August, I attended an Orange County SC game for the first time in a year and a half, and it was like seeing family. The press box remains intimate, but it’s turned into a legit press box over time. Keston, always quick with a smile and in the old days, a handshake when he sees you, took his usual place in the owner’s perch at the stadium and spent the night cheering the team on and occasionally offering a few choice words to the officials. Wyss buzzed around, saying hello to dozens of people throughout the night and asking after one’s family, while always reiterating the commitment to winning a championship.
The game that night wasn’t stellar for OCSC, as they got worked 3-0 at home against Tacoma Defiance. Although the club was in a solid spot heading for a playoff berth, the front office didn’t want to leave anything to chance and surprisingly fired head coach Braeden Cloutier the next day. In hindsight, it was the right call for the team, as they surged under new manager Richard Chaplow, who had himself been part of the organization dating back to the 2016 season, first as a player and then a member of Cloutier’s coaching staff.
One moment outside of the game itself struck me from that night in August. Walking back to my car, I encountered a boy of about 12 and his mother heading out of the stadium. The boy was frustrated by the loss and the mom was trying to comfort him after a chastening defeat. “Hopefully they can figure things out this season,” I heard her tell him, and it drove home how important games and teams can be to those who watch them. We turn a child’s fandom into a terrible cliché far too often, but when a team I cover weekly, or a team that I follow as a fan, has an awful game, I sometimes feel bad but pretty quickly turn my attention to something I need to do for work, or taking care of my household. For a kid, the losses can sting worse, with the coping mechanisms adults often use in such situations unavailable to those underage.
I certainly think of that kid now. I hope his parents let him watch the title game on Sunday and revel in the three-goal outburst in the first half that OCSC rode to the title. I hope he goes to school on Monday with his head held up a little bit higher, his spirits brighter for a few days or weeks or months, and I hope he savors this. He may not realize the long road it’s taken Orange County SC to get to this title, but it’s certainly an occasion to cherish for all who love this club.
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