In December, the Orange County Soccer Club will celebrate its 11 year anniversary in the city of Irvine.
In recognition of this milestone, Irvine Weekly spoke with Oliver Wyss, president of soccer operations and general manager for the Orange County SC about the club’s decade of growth in Irvine, the nuances reaching overseas markets locally, and how the city has established itself as the perfect incubator for Orange County’s continuously peaking soccer fever.
For Wyss, who has been with the club since 2014, growth has come in stages. During his first year as general manager, the club defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy on a pop-up pitch, due to the fact that the home field was previously at UC Irvine.
Now, nearly seven years later, the Orange County Soccer Club regularly sells out home games at the 5,500 seat Championship Stadium inside the Great Park in Irvine.
Currently, OCSC is just two victories away from claiming its first United Soccer League Championship title in club history.
In a phone interview with Irvine Weekly, Wyss spoke about the role of OCSC in the Irvine community, and within the soccer industry at large.
“Some of the most successful youth soccer clubs historically have been in Orange County,” Wyss said. “When we looked at building a soccer club – a brand – that we could really be proud of, the Championship Stadium in Irvine was obviously a perfect hub. Specifically, also with the 24 soccer fields around it.”
While Orange County seems to host an ideal environment for soccer – it wasn’t always like that, according to Wyss. Wyss suggested that the increasing surge in soccer enthusiasm could be a sign that the sport is evolving into a staple of American sports culture.
While other sports like basketball and baseball might follow the more traditional path toward the professional level, by way of college, Wyss explained that soccer differs in the sense that overseas it’s common to have the ability to reach the professional level as early as 15 years old.
“Everywhere else in the world, the most talented players sign professional contracts at age 15, 16 and 17,” he said. “Where historically in the United States, the best young soccer players will still be amateur players, play local youth soccer clubs, play high school, go on to college – and maybe reach the pros in their 20s.”
Wyss says this methodology is outdated. With that, he added that OCSC is working to create pathways locally for the most talented soccer players to reach professional distinction – without the caveat of college.
“For the best young, talented players in Orange County, and the United States, there has never been a clear pathway into a professional setting at a younger age,” Wyss explained.
Through this approach, Wyss added that players also have access to the global transfer market, which generated more than $3.7 billion in the most recent transfer window between June and August, according to the most recent FIFA report released in September.
“What we have built with our club here, is that when we do have the right professional player, we are willing to sign them, set their college education aside, and really give them the opportunity to be a professional player,” Wyss said.
This strategy is already being put into action. In June 2020, at 16 years old, defender Kobi Henry signed with OCSC. Now 17 years old, Henry is in his sophomore season, tallying more than a dozen appearances in OCSC’s starting lineup.
“[Henry] signed with us because he felt his chances of being transferred to Europe at 18 would be bigger, and he’s actually starting today in the U-20 against Mexico,” said Wyss.
Over the last decade, Wyss said there are heaps of impactful moments in OCSC history, adding that the completion of Championship Stadium in 2015 began to ignite the soccer fever in Orange County.
Wyss said he remains steadily impressed by growth the club continues to demonstrate year after year, not just in terms of transfer ability, but also at the level of performance.
“Fast forward into this season, being back in the Western Conference Finals, being one of the only four teams left in the entire league that has grown so dramatically from the last 10 years,” Wyss said. “It was actually Division III, when it was just eight teams, to now being Division II with 34 teams – it’s the fastest-growing 2nd Division in the United States.”
Looking ahead to the next decade, Wyss said the goal is to continue to build a soccer club that the Irvine community can recognize and identify with, but added that it starts with building a foundation on a well-rounded and respected club history.
“We are in full swing of building this. We’re starting a full-time reserve academy for our boys, and the plan is to do the same for girls in 2023,” he said. “I think we have made tremendous progress but we are definitely not resting our laurels.”
As the OCSC prepares to continue its playoff winning streak in the Western Conference Finals match against San Antonio, Headcoach Richard Chaplow said this was an exciting time for soccer in America.
“What we’ve seen materialize across the nation is a bit of soccer fever, I suppose. It’s really starting to take off now,” he said.
Chaplow reflected on the growth of the sport in Orange County, which he said is now being recognized globally, and suggested the impact is having a huge influence on the younger generation.
“I think the most pleasing thing for any American soccer fan is that we’re starting to see top talents from America in some of the best leagues in the world,” Chaplow added. “They’re bringing that back now to the U.S. National Team, which will only make us stronger on that front.”
Within the next seven years, two of the world’s largest soccer events – the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics – will be held in Los Angeles.
For Wyss, that will only increase means one thing.
“Soccer fever is here and it’s only getting hotter,” he said.
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