USL Championship Side Orange County Connects With Players And Fans Via Ownership And Investment

The second division of United States soccer kicks off this weekend as the 24 teams of the USL Championship begin their 2024 campaigns.

Unlike the single-entity structure of the country’s assigned top division, Major League Soccer, whose 2024 season is already underway, USL franchises are afforded more individuality both in terms of team culture and team setup

Orange County FC of the USL Championship’s Western Conference is one team that has forged its own way in soccer.

It had a good reason for choosing its particular pathway and, as with an increasing number of US soccer clubs outside the top division, its focus as a club is geared towards stability, growth, and community.

After winning the USL Championship final in 2021, defeating Tampa Bay Rowdies of the Eastern Conference, the club was threatened with the loss of its stadium. It emerged that the Carson-based MLS side, LA Galaxy, wanted to secure exclusive use of the facility for its reserve team, LA Galaxy II.

Orange County won the battle to keep the Championship Soccer Stadium, located in the city of Irvine, California, as their home, but it was during this fight the club became even more aware of the sometimes perilous existence of lower league soccer teams, and realised external threats can emerge when you least expect them, even from fellow soccer teams.

“You only realize what you’ve got when someone tries to take it away from you,” says Orange County SC president Dan Rutstein.

“We realized the bond that had been created between our fans and the club.

“We were only a 10-year-old club, but people stood in council meetings in tears, explaining why this club meant so much to them.

“People were up there with their kids talking about how welcome they felt, an LGBTQ+ couple was talking about how they felt included, and I think it was a watershed moment for us as a front office to really understand what the club meant to people.”

The perfect way to give something back to these fans who had grown so attached to the team, and to ensure the future stability of the club, was to open Orange County SC up to fan ownership.

Fans were able to buy a stake in the club through investments that have since ranged from $100 to $50,000.

Those investing large amounts are betting on the future of soccer in the region, and in the U.S. as a whole, while those investing lesser (but still significant) amounts of money are strengthening their bond with the club and becoming part of the fabric of their team.

Some of these supporters become known by the players, just as the players become known to the fans, creating a community environment where everyone is pushing in the same direction.

“The day after we announced the 10-year stadium deal, we announced the chance for fans to become owners of the club,” adds Rutstein.

“It was partly about raising capital in order for us to continue our model of developing young American players and selling them to European teams.

“But it was also about giving people a chance to have that unique opportunity to be an owner which makes your relationship with the club so different from being a normal fan.

“I think it’s achieved a lot of what we wanted. We know people love soccer in this country. It’s growing, and we wanted them to have a chance to have a stake in it both emotionally but also financially.”

The player development pathway is also an important part of what Orange County SC does.

It helps them financially but also gives the club a model of working and provides a pathway for young players to progress as professional soccer players.

One of Orange County’s aims is to improve US soccer by giving young players a chance to play senior football which helps them develop their game and attracts interest from teams in Europe as a result.

These players become accustomed to the day-to-day life of playing football at a senior professional level, which prepares them for potential moves abroad or to other leagues in the future.

“Players are joining us from MLS academies to come and play,” Rutstein explains.

“European teams want players who’ve played men’s football. They want a 17-year-old who spent a year with some 30-year-old standing on his toes at a corner and playing in front of crowds in the thousands.

“Korede Osundina is a great example. We signed him from the Barcelona Academy over here, he played for us, he scored some goals, and Feyenoord picked him up and put him in their partner team in the second division over in Holland.

“He’s having a great season, scoring and assisting, and is doing really well.

“If it works out for him, he could be playing Champions League football with Feyenoord within a couple of years and I think he had the right start over here.”

Orange County SC was already a club with a clear idea of its way forward and its role as a USL club within the wider American soccer landscape, but another club threatening their home and possibly their existence provided an awakening for them to take things to the next level.

Fan ownership and fan investment, both locally and from across the world, has given the club more focus, more stability, and more of a connection with the global game as well as the national one.

These Orange County SC fans, whether investors or not, get to see their team compete at a high level in one of US soccer’s most attractive and fast-growing leagues.

They also get to see players develop. As the player pathway continues to be trodden by talented young soccer players you can bet, as some of these investors have, that in the future some of them will reach the top level, whether in the UEFA Champions League or the US national team.

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