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City of Irvine considering options for future use of Championship Soccer Stadium

Supporters of Orange County Soccer Club high-five the team mascot, Gnarly, outside Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
Supporters of Orange County Soccer Club high-five the team mascot, Gnarly, outside Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

When an Irvine City Council agenda initially showed plans for a study session concerning the future use of Championship Soccer Stadium at Great Park, Orange County Soccer Club rallied its base, sensing that its time in its home venue could be coming to an end.

The staff report prepared for the study session, which was pulled from the agenda Monday, had listed three potential plans for the stadium going forward, one of them entitled “transition to partnership with L.A. Galaxy.”

The proposal indicated the Los Angeles Galaxy’s reserve squad, Galaxy II, had shown interest in playing its home games at the stadium as an exclusive professional partner.

A memorandum of understanding with Orange County Soccer Club dictating stadium use and city compensation is set to renew in November for another two years, but that arrangement would end in the event of such an agreement with the Galaxy, according to the document.

James Keston, the owner of the Orange County Soccer Club, high-fives the team mascot, Gnarly, outside Irvine City Hall.
James Keston, the owner of the Orange County Soccer Club, high-fives the team mascot, Gnarly, outside Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County Soccer Club issued a call to action to have its supporters contact Irvine city officials, and dozens of fans attended the council meeting Tuesday. Many wore jerseys, and one blew a bugle horn as they approached Irvine City Hall.

To consider a partnership with the Galaxy was to “spit in the face of every Orange County Soccer Club fan,” OCSC owner James Keston said prior to the meeting.

“Right now, we’re completely focused on Irvine,” Keston said. “This is where we want to be. This is our home. We believe that the will of the people, the businesses and everyone in Orange County, and especially in Irvine, is that we continue to be a part of this community.”

For about an hour, the council listened to testimony from 26 people who spoke in support of Orange County, several expressing pride in the United Soccer League Championship title the club won last season, as well as gratitude for contributions made in the community.

Matt Simansky, who goes by Haggis, blows a bugle as Orange County Soccer Club supporters walk toward Irvine City Hall.
Matt Simansky, who goes by Haggis, blows a bugle as Orange County Soccer Club supporters walk toward Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“As president of the club, we may never have a prouder moment than seeing our community come together tonight to say, ‘Let us keep making memories,’” Dan Rutstein, OCSC’s president of business operations said. “Let us keep falling in love at Championship Soccer Stadium, in Irvine, in Orange County.”

Following public testimony, Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi said it was inaccurate for Orange County Soccer Club representatives to claim they had not been made aware of the city’s discussions with the Galaxy, and he doubled down on those comments in a phone interview on Thursday.

Chi said the city decided to table the stadium item ahead of Tuesday’s meeting when it learned of a legal matter between the USL and the MLS, which has started a new development league called Next Pro. City officials still plan to bring the item back for council review within the next two months.

“It wasn’t intended to be a decision, but really a discussion, so that we could inform the council about what the city, as an entity, is seeing,” Chi said. “What we’re seeing is the use of the stadium as a venue for a professional league is impacting the ability for community groups to access and use the stadium.”

Supporters of the Orange County Soccer Club stand in front of Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
Supporters of the Orange County Soccer Club stand in front of Irvine City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Chi pointed out the stadium is a publicly-funded project and, as such, community groups seek access to the venue.

“It spans the gamut,” Chi said of the community organizations that have contacted the city about the facility. “The stadium was built with public money for the public’s use, and right now we have a lot of concerns that have been raised from schools that would like to use the facility for championship games. There’s been concerns expressed by various community groups — lacrosse teams, soccer leagues. The facility can be arranged to have football played at the facility.

“Ultimately, I think when the facility was initially constructed, it was envisioned as a community facility for Irvine-based athletic events.”

Orange County Soccer Club has called the 5,000-seat stadium home since it was built in 2017.

James Keston, the owner of Orange County Soccer Club, and supporters of the team sit inside Irvine City Council Chambers.
James Keston, the owner of the Orange County Soccer Club, and supporters of the team sit inside Irvine City Council Chambers on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Under the current model of stadium operations, there are 40 days of use for professional teams. Orange County Soccer Club, which has priority use, gets 18 days, while the remaining 22 days are split among United Strikers FC and FC Golden State Force. There are also 80 days of availability for community groups.

City staff was also prepared to discuss the possibility of converting the stadium to an artificial turf surface, which would cost the city an estimated $1.5 million to install. Going down that path could result in year-round availability, but the staff report noted professional teams have stated a preference to play on natural turf.

The L.A. Galaxy issued the following statement on Monday: “The L.A. Galaxy are a proud partner to the local soccer community and are committed to positively growing the sport of soccer in the Southern California region.

“L.A. Galaxy are not interested in an exclusive arrangement for L.A. Galaxy II to play at the Orange County Great Park Championship Soccer Stadium and have advised all parties of our willingness to open conversations with the city of Irvine and other stakeholders on mutually-acceptable arrangements pertaining to the use of the stadium moving forward.”

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