Orange County SC's transformation this season into one of the major contenders for the USL Cup has continued to change the narrative around the club in its local region and nationally. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
IRVINE, Calif. – When James Keston purchased what is now Orange County SC a little over two years ago, the goals for what he wanted to achieve through the club were clearly laid out.
“It’s a chance to make the only professional soccer team in Orange County a truly local team focused on the fans, players and youth clubs of Orange County,” Keston said in the press release announcing the deal. “We will put a winning team on the field full of exciting young talent, initiate a cutting-edge youth development academy and create a fan experience worthy of one of the largest and most dedicated soccer markets in the United States.”
As the club prepares for this Saturday’s Western Conference Semifinals clash with Reno 1868 FC at Champions Soccer Stadium (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), Keston is well on the way to accomplishing his goals.
Almost everything about Orange County, which had been part of the USL since the start of its modern era in 2011, has changed. From the new brand, to the club’s new permanent home in Irvine, Calif., increased staffing off the field and recruitment of players that have produced a club-best season to date, OCSC has been transformed in the manner Keston envisioned when he took over the club.
For those that had been with the club since prior to Keston’s arrival like current Head Coach Braeden Cloutier, who was an assistant at the club for three seasons before making the move into the top position this offseason, the success the club has been able to accomplish this year as a result of the work done off the field has been the payoff for the course the club set.
“To say I'm shocked or surprised [by our success], I'm not,” Cloutier told the Los Angeles Times’ Scott French recently. “From day one, I knew what we were capable of doing, but it has been a special season so far.”
The success on the field led by the attacking trio of Thomas Enevoldsen, Michael Seaton and Aodhan Quinn has certainly changed the narrative about where Orange County stands in the pecking order in the USL’s Western Conference, and the league overall. Tabbed as a dark horse contender in preseason after the addition of those three players and other USL veterans like Christian Duke – who had led the Swope Park Rangers to back-to-back Western Conference titles in the past two years – Orange County has been one of the more complete teams in the league this season.
Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Seaton have combined for 35 goals this season, making them the second-highest scoring duo in the USL behind Louisville City FC's Cameron Lancaster and Ilija Ilic. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
With the recent announcements that both Quinn and Seaton had re-signed with the club, that shows no sign of changing anytime soon. While this season isn’t the first time Orange County has finished top of the Western Conference, the feeling around this side compared to the 2015 team that accomplished the same feat is very different.
“We've got good players, we've got leaders, and we know how to win soccer games,” English midfielder Richard Chaplow told French. “You've also got to get the rub of the green, and I'm a firm believer you make your own luck. We'll take it every game as it comes, and hopefully we'll put it to the sword and go as far as we possibly can. That's all we can do.”
If the retention of players like Quinn and Seaton is one significant element of the vision that Keston has brought to the club, it was a signing earlier this year that marked another element that the organization believes is going to set up OCSC for long-term success. The addition of 16-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes – a recent selection to the United States U17 National Team – is the longer-term element of the project where Keston and Oliver Wyss, the club’s General Manager and Executive Vice President, believe the club’s future success and growth will emerge from.
“The basic business for MLS and most USL clubs is put butts in seats, build the brand, sell hot dogs, sell merchandise, and then go out and win a championship,” Keston told French. “One-half of our business is fully aligned with that, and on the field, we're doing a spectacular job. But the future of our business is player development. That's really the part that is just starting to take off.”
For now, though, the focus for the club is overcoming a side in Reno 1868 FC that has been arguably the most challenging opponent Orange County has squared off against in the past two seasons. In five meetings, 1868 FC has claimed three wins, including a 3-1 victory in the final game of the regular season two weeks ago at Greater Nevada Field.
Overcome that obstacle, and the team sitting second-in-line to host USL Cup could be on its way to a dream ending to the best season in the club’s eight-year history.