Orange County Soccer Club's defender Ashton Miles of Fullerton, Calif., and forward Nico Ruiz of Huntington Beach, Calif. (Courtesy of Orange County Soccer Club)
Casual fans attending the Orange County Soccer Club’s (OCSC) 7 p.m. Sept. 15 United Soccer League match against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Great Park in Irvine might not realize everything they are witnessing.
Action on the field at Championship Soccer Stadium is the primary attraction, of course, but a deeper look reveals a delicate juggling act being performed by the home side.
Winning and player development are generally mutually exclusive concepts in professional sports. Orange County SC, however, is striving to do both simultaneously.
“From Day 1, we wanted to make sure that the goal of our club is dual visions of competing for championships but also developing a clear strategy for a player pathway,” OCSC President of Soccer Operations Oliver Wyss told The Epoch Times. “… It’s a very fine balance between being able to compete in an ever-developing league that gets better every day, and still developing young players.”
With an 8–0–1 unbeaten streak and six regular-season games remaining before the league playoffs begin in mid-October, OCSC owns a 14–9–5 record. That is good for third place in the Western Conference of the USL, a 24-team Division II league a notch below Major League Soccer. Over the past three years, meanwhile, the club has transferred six players to high-level European teams.
While OCSC won a league championship in 2021 and has made five playoff appearances since majority owner James Keston purchased and rebranded the former Orange County Blues in 2017, there have also been tough times. A 7–14–13, last-place finish in the West last season and a slow start this year led to the removal of championship-winning Coach Richard Chaplow and the hiring of Interim Coach Morten Karlsen in June.
“You don’t get it right all the time,” Mr. Wyss said. “What is very important is you cannot deviate from the plan you’ve laid out simply based on some results that maybe don’t go your way, where you feel you have to abandon everything to win at all costs. We instilled it in the DNA of our club … Our head coach has to believe that when a young player is ready, he plays, and really create the environment where a young player can succeed.”
The latest individual success story for OCSC is former UCLA forward Milan Iloski, the team’s all-time leader with 38 goals. OCSC announced Sept. 12 that Iloski, a native of Escondido in San Diego County, will be transferred to FC Nordsjaelland of the Danish Superliga after this season.
Iloski follows in the footsteps of former OCSC players Korede Osundina and Kobi Henry.
Milan Iloski (23) of Real Salt Lake fights for the ball with Valeri Kazaishvili (11) of San Jose Earthquakes during a round of 16 match of the MLS Is Back Tournament between San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Reunion, Fla., on July 27, 2020. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
A 19-year-old forward who is a candidate for next year’s U.S. Olympic team, Osundina completed his transfer to Feyenoord, a top-tier club in the Netherlands, last month. Henry last year transferred to French top-flight side Stade de Reims.
“Let’s face it, the way to make money all around the world in soccer is through player transfers,” Mr. Wyss said. “In the United States, professional sports are more based on franchise value and sponsorships and ticket revenues. That’s an important piece for us, as well, but we feel strongly that through the USL, we can take advantage of the player-transfer market that is obviously worth billions and billions every single year around the world.”
Part of OCSC’s development program is an “academy” team that offers younger players the opportunity to train with the USL entry while also gaining playing experience in lower-level games.
Already this season, goalkeeper Juan Santana of Corona, who is just 18, has stepped up to appear in two games for OCSC, recording shutouts in both. Midfielder Ben Norris, a 16-year-old midfielder from Poway in San Diego County, has played in three USL games, while 16-year-old forward Nico Ruiz of Huntington Beach High School, 17-year-old winger Bryce Jamison, and center backs Ashton Miles of Fullerton, 18, and Joey Buckley, 17, have also appeared for OCSC.
Orange County Soccer Club's midfielder Ben Norris, a 16-year-old from Poway in San Diego County, Calif. (Courtesy of Orange County Soccer Club)
Orange County Soccer Club's winger Bryce Jamison. (Courtesy of Orange County Soccer Club)
Orange County’s soccer fan base has responded relatively well, producing sellout crowds of approximately 5,500 for each of the past five Saturday night home games. With ticket prices ranging from $10 to $42, weeknight games, especially, can still be a hard sell.
“We’ve grown quite a bit over the last several years, but we definitely have a lot more people in the area to reach,” Chad Romiti, OCSC’s public relations director, told The Epoch Times. “It’s still a grind every night to bring in people.”