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How Orange County SC fought an existential threat – and won

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/22/24, 4:00PM EDT


Threatened with the potential of losing its home stadium two years ago, OCSC is now thriving with more community support than ever before

Orange County SC will open its eighth season at Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday night and welcome another sellout crowd as it hosts Miami FC. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

It had the potential to be the darkest moment in the history of Orange County SC – and maybe even the end of the club as people had come to know it.

What it turned into was a galvanizing moment for the club and the fans that had embraced it since it first kicked off at Championship Soccer Stadium in 2017.

“We came within a week of losing our stadium,” OCSC President Dan Rutstein told me this week. “And if we had, possibly the club, because we just don’t know what that would have looked like. I think for the front office, there was this realization of what this club means to the fans.

“Sometimes you don't realize what you’ve got until somebody threatens to take it away from you.”

On Saturday night, Orange County SC will host Miami FC in its home opener on CBS Sports Golazo Network (10 p.m. ET) before a sellout crowd. It will be the eighth consecutive Saturday night sellout the club has welcomed to a venue it was almost forced to depart less than two years ago.

At the center of the moment was a planned potential agreement that would see the LA Galaxy II move into the facility and leave Orange County out in the cold. When news of the potential move became public in August of 2022, local fans were quick to rally around their club.

They showed up in their droves to city council meetings when the matter was on the agenda to voice their support for a club they had become part of, patiently waiting for their chance to speak.

For County Line Coalition supporters group member Carlos Reyes, it was a sign of the community that had been built year-by-year around the club.

“I want to say it was a testament to our entire coalition, but more importantly the members, and the season ticket holders, and supporters and fans of the club that we rallied together, we came together to try to fight for our right to play in what we believe is our stadium,” said Reyes. “We understand that the City of Irvine owns that stadium, but we felt because we had been there for quite some time – it was five years at the time – that we had built a kind of rapport with Irvine and would be first in line to make that deal with them.

“When that challenge by the LA Galaxy came about, I thought we rallied very well. There were some City Hall meetings planned and we came out in full force. We had a large turnout of people come out to show the support for the club and for the community.”

What’s important to understand about Orange County is that for the people who were born and raised there, it has its own special identity.

While most people in the United States might consider it as being part of Los Angeles’ sprawl – something that’s played into by Anaheim-based Major League Baseball organization the Los Angeles Angles’ branding, for one – for someone like Reyes there’s something different about the OC.

A native of Anaheim himself, Reyes has been a supporter of OCSC longer than it’s had its current branding, introduced in 2016 following the acquisition of the club by owner James Keston. The diversity of the county and the way those communities come together and interact has been reflected in the group, which has grown in number each year and now provides a vociferous presence at the north end of the stadium.

According to Reyes, the organic nature of the group has seen members develop strong relationships away from gameday, and even resulted in marriage and children among its members. That community was reflected before the City Council meetings, where familiar faces packed into the council hall to let their voices be heard.

For Rutstein, who admits it’s strange to think about now, the meetings when the club’s future was in peril was in some ways the launching point for where OCSC is now as an organization.

“The outpouring of love and support and that feeling of real strength in the community came from our fans during the period when we were fighting to save the club,” said Rutstein, now in his fourth year with the organization. “Hundreds of them were turning up to sit through council meetings, people were bombarding politicians on social media, the fans really came out – in fact, they did all over the country – but particularly our fans, they really came out and told us what the club meant to them.”

Led by the County Line Coalition, the growth of Orange County SC's support has bolstered the club and provided a platform for its growth in the greater Orange County community. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

Since then, the club has gained momentum. After securing a one-year extension on its lease initially, Orange County SC last October announced its had secured a 10-year-agreement to call Championship Soccer Stadium its home. That has increased the opportunity for more sponsorship agreements, including a recent five-year extension of the partnership the club holds with local healthcare provider Hoag as its front-of-jersey sponsor.

On top of being able to call Championship Soccer Stadium its home, under its new agreement Orange County SC can add its own branding to the venue, adding visibility for the thousands that visit the Great Park each week. When it faces Miami, the stands will be filled by fans in their new merchandise, including the County Roads design the club released earlier this month in tribute to and collaboration with its supporters.

Jersey sales have already tripled from a season ago according to Rutstein, with its new blue goalkeeper jersey getting an unexpected marketing boost from Colin Shutler when he scored a dramatic late equalizer against Sacramento Republic FC on the opening day of the season, the first goalkeeper goal in club history.

Maybe most significantly of all, this offseason the club offered a chance for fans to buy an equity stake in the club. More than 1,500 people elected to do so, something that Rutstein believes will strengthen the bonds between the club and its community and give Orange County something different it can offer when it comes to selling the story of the club to local partners and media.

“We’ve got such a great story to tell now,” said Rutstein. “Between winning the USL Championship in 2021, between the fan ownership, the battle to save the stadium, and what we’re doing in terms of helping the next generation of young American players break through and give them a chance to live out their dreams in Europe, I think we’ve finally managing to get that cut through.

“Through things like the new stadium agreement, the ability to brand the stadium, the local media deals that we’re doing, that’s going to give us more visibility, and I think that’s going to start making a real difference.”

With Saturday’s home opener already sold out – and the expectation of more to come this season – the brightest days in Orange County SC’s history seem yet to come.

“We just sold-out our season opener,” said Reyes, “and if you had asked me if that had been possible when we first opened up [at Championship Soccer Stadium], or even 10 years ago at Fullerton College and UC Irvine, it’s just really great to see.

“It’s really a reflection of just how far we’ve come.”

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