Two years after buying the Orange County Soccer Club and finding it a handsome new home in Irvine, James Keston watched his team fall a goal short of qualifying for last week’s USL championship game.
Some might have viewed that as a crushing defeat. Keston prefers to think of it as a pretty good start.
“Our entire attitude is when things go well, as they certainly have this year, we’re obviously pleased. But we’re by no means satisfied,” Keston said. “We’ve accomplished a lot, especially on the field. But it’s a five-year plan. There’s so much more we’re trying to accomplish here.”
Like doing his part to plug the drain he said that is robbing American soccer of its young talent. An investment manager from Venice, Keston is downright bearish on the way the sport has been run in this country.
“U.S. Soccer is among the most imperfect markets you will ever see,” he said. “The amount of talent that is wasted, that never gets its opportunity, is so immense. And Southern California is literally the hub for all of that talent.”
To turn that around, Keston spent more than $5 million to buy the Orange County Blues, then changed the team’s name, expanded the payroll from three employees to 30 and moved the games from UC Irvine to a new stadium in Orange County’s Great Park. Next he signed some players that had been overlooked or underdeveloped and gave them a chance to play in the 33-team USL, a rapidly expanding second-division pro league where Keston says OCSC players play for as little as $24,000 a year.
The owner calls his philosophy the “Pathway to Professional” and following it gave OCSC one of the most eclectic teams in the USL, a kind of French Foreign Legion that included a former World Cup player from Denmark, a former English Premier League player and two teenagers from Southern California.
For Thomas Enevoldsen, who played one game for Denmark in the 2010 World Cup then bounced around the Dutch and Danish leagues for eight seasons, OCSC offered an opportunity to audition for MLS teams.
“I’ve been following the MLS closely and I think it’s a league that’s improving a lot,” said Enevoldsen, 31, who led the conference with 20 goals while playing every minute of his team’s 37 games, earning all-league honors and helping the team to the Western Conference final. “So that was my main thought, to come over here to play a really good season and hopefully get picked up for next season by an MLS team.”
For OCSC, the idea of losing its leading scorer to another league over the winter is … well, a good one.
“We have multiple players that we know will have offers from MLS clubs,” general manager Oliver Wyss said. “We’re not the final piece, we’re not the final stage of the player. We want to just play a very important role in the player’s development.”
Richard Chaplow, 33, played for seven teams over 13 years in England before coming to Orange County in 2016. His goal was to begin building a bridge to a post-playing career.
“The grand plan coming over was to play for as long as possible, secure a green card, get a firm understanding of what makes an American soccer player tick and then go into the coaching side,” he said. “I wasn’t really looking anywhere further than Orange County.
“I wanted to give myself to them and take as much from them as I could. For everyone it’s a little bit different.”
For 17-year-old forward Rafael Espinoza and 16-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes, OCSC provided a first taste of the demands of a professional career, while for 22-year-old forward Michael Seaton it provided a second chance.
If there was a poster boy for what Keston is trying to do it would be Seaton. A highly touted prospect when he made his MLS debut with D.C. United as a teenager, Seaton played in only four more games for United, failed in a short trial with the Portland Timbers, played for two USL teams and then dropped off the edge of the Earth.
Orange County found him playing in Israel and invited him back, then watched him score 15 times in 29 games this season.
“He just kind of fell through the cracks. He didn’t get a shot,” Keston said. “And that’s part of what we’re creating.”
Together, the mix of veterans like Enevoldsen and Chaplow, who have been there and done that, the kids like Espinoza and Cervantes, who hope to someday go there and do that, and others like Seaton, who fall somewhere in between, makes the perfect paving stones for the owner’s Pathway to Professional.
“This is a puzzle and we’re putting this puzzle together. Not only this year, but every year,” Keston said. “There are obviously easier ways to spend your time and easier ways to make money. But this is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid.
“There are exceptional amounts of talent and exceptional amounts of success to be had by people who look at it slightly differently, are a little more innovative, a little more creative.”