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Why Ethan Zubak’s OC homecoming was the ideal launching pad for his next chapter

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 02/29/24, 5:41PM EST


SoCal native’s arrival at Orange County SC this offseason filled a need for both club, player that each have an eye on the bigger picture

SoCal native Ethan Zubak joined Orange County SC this offseason, making his return to the USL Championship after starring in the league as a youngster for the LA Galaxy II. | Photo courtesy Orange County SC

As it entered the offseason, Orange County SC knew it was going to need to replenish its attacking corps after its transfer of standout Milan Iloski to Danish Superliga club FC Nordsjælland.

At the same time, Southern California native Ethan Zubak was looking for a fresh start after two seasons with Nashville SC where opportunity had proved hard to come by.

Sometimes, it really can be that simple to make a deal.

“[OCSC President of Soccer Operations & General Manager] Peter Nugent knew the history of Ethan, especially with the Galaxy,” said Orange County Head Coach Morten Karlsen. “To get a player like Ethan to come to us would be a perfect fit, we thought. So, the process speaking to us and persuading him to come here was actually pleasant.”

“It was a logical move,” added Zubak. “There’s obviously a process that goes into it. I talked a lot with Morten before I came in, and all the conversations we had were very good. I just think that it was a move that made a lot of sense.”

A native of Corona, located east of downtown Los Angeles, Zubak became a rising star in the LA Galaxy’s Academy a decade ago. He made his debut in the USL Championship for the LA Galaxy II as a 17-year-old and scored his first goal in just his third appearance early in the 2016 season.

Ethan Zubak became a standout for the LA Galaxy II before making his move to the First Team in Major League Soccer. | Photo courtesy LA Galaxy II

Electing to turn pro with Los Dos, he set a USL Championship record for the fastest goal in a USL Championship game thanks to his strike after nine seconds against Sacramento Republic FC in 2017, a record he is still co-holder of. The following year he broke through and went on to record a combined 20 goals across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, teaming with fellow young star Efrain Alvarez as part of a bright attacking combination.

Zubak’s upward path saw him sign as a Homegrown Player, and after making his MLS debut in 2019, his first goal in the top flight proved a memorable one – even if no-one could be present. Facing crosstown rival Los Angeles FC in August, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zubak’s 26th-minute header paved the way to a 2-0 victory and introduced him to a national audience.

“We had just come out of the bubble, and it meant everything,” said Zubak, “Playing for a club that represents where you’re from is a very big deal. That first goal is just something that everyone’s always searching for when they get those kinds of opportunities. I was stoked about it. I think it’ll always be a moment that I remember.”

Zubak remained with the Galaxy through the 2021 season but before the 2022 season was traded to Nashville SC for a First Round pick in the MLS SuperDraft. In the Music City, playing time proved scarce. He logged only 341 minutes in the top flight over two seasons, and although he scored two game-winning goals for the club in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play – including the finish that lifted Nashville past San Antonio FC a season ago – he departed the club as a free agent this offseason.

“I think if you go anywhere, if you have any job, where you feel like you’re not getting opportunities or you’re not getting a chance to prove your worth, it’s very tough,” said Zubak of his experience in Nashville. “Then it becomes a daily thing to where you could be coming in and training as hard as you can, but unfortunately, as a part of this world, sometimes you don’t get the opportunities you think that you deserve with it. So, that was tough, especially this last season, but I think in the end it'll help me in the long run.”

While with Nashville SC, Ethan Zubak saw regular action in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and scored twice for the club in the competition. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Enter Orange County, which Zubak previously played against for Los Dos and now offered an opportunity he was eager to take on.

Including the transfer of Iloski this offseason, OCSC is a club that has made its reputation in earning both on-field success and offering players a chance to advance their careers. In Zubak’s case, Karlsen is hoping for a similar success story to that of Iloski, who arrived in similar circumstances two years ago from Real Salt Lake and made a major impact before his move overseas.

“The goal of coming here is definitely to win games, first and foremost, and to have a successful season with the team,” said Zubak. “But beyond that, I think having ambition and having ambition level up your game is part of the process. I think that if things were to go well, it would be great to be getting more opportunities after this season, or after whatever it may be.”

“My plan is not to look at him for more seasons [than this one],” added Karlsen. “I think as a club, we also want to give the opportunity and also understand that is one part of our model, and also a reason why Ethan chose us as well. For me as a coach, I’d like to see players take the step. I also know the club has the same vision, so that’s definitely the plan.”

The plan is also to try and bring a new focus to Zubak’s game. The 25-year-old has always aimed to be a team-first player, showing diligence in the defensive side of the game as well as a finisher, but for Karlsen it also means there have been times where he has tried to do more than is necessary for the role he’s aiming to play.

“He has so much energy, such a good heart, that he wants to do everything for the team to win, which is also a good thing,” said Karlsen. “[We want him to] sometimes be a little bit more composed, to trust his teammates so that we can keep Ethan in the box for a longer period of time, rather than by the corner flag and doing the cross.

“It’s adjustments, and then it’s, of course, being a First Team player and logging consistent minutes, getting that rhythm going, which I believe is also a big part of his progression from last year.”

Joining Orange County SC this offseason, SoCal native Ethan Zubak is aiming to deliver success on the field for the club and give his career a new lease of life. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

There will at least be some familiar faces for Zubak to link up with as he tries to hit the ground running at his new club. Players like Seth Casiple – who will enter his fifth season with OCSC this season – and Kevin Partida were once on the other side of the field when Zubak was suiting up for Los Dos and have built notable careers of their own.

Alongside them are players like teenagers Bryce Jamison and Ben Barjolo, both of whom are set to be in the spotlight this season as part of OCSC’s next wave of talent. In comparison to when Zubak was coming up through the Championship, the number of teenagers earning significant minutes across the league’s current group of clubs is a notable difference, and one he’s impressed by.

“It’s amazing to see, especially with Orange County, that young players are really playing significant roles,” he said. “Every day in training, you can see the quality of these guys bring like Bryce, Ben, these are good players in training and during the games that I’ve seen so far. I think that’s a testament to the club and a testament to the direction that the club and the league are going.”

For his part, Zubak is prepared to take on what the year has in store head-on.

There could be no better place to begin his next chapter than home.

“I feel very ready for it,” said Zubak. “I think that in everything that I’ve done so far in my life, and then my soccer career, I’ve always come in prepared. There’s a lot of work for me to do, as you know with any year there’s still preseason ahead. No year is perfect, I’m sure there’ll be ups and there’ll be downs, but I feel that I’ve prepared right for this year and the club itself is prepared for the season.

“I think it’s going to be an exciting year ahead, and I think the team – hopefully including myself – will be successful.”

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