On Saturday July 1st, Orange County SC celebrated 10 seasons in Irvine with a night full of special commemorations. Wearing special gold jerseys with a 10-year crest marking the occasion, the club hosted a sellout crowd at Championship Soccer Stadium, their home dating back to 2017. The club feted a selection of their “Icons” over that span, and there were even a couple goodbyes, with captain Daniel Pedersen returning to his native Denmark and goalkeeper Cody Cropper retiring following the match.
It’s safe to say the accomplishments of the past decade — including a full rebrand, that move into Championship Soccer Stadium, plus a public fight in 2022 to keep that as their home stadium for this season, major transfers abroad and the club’s first league title, in 2021 — came in large part due to the stewardship of club owner James Keston. The Southern California businessman is a fixture at OCSC games and he spoke to Angels on Parade about reflecting on his time as owner, which began in 2016.
“I think ultimately, it’s been a pretty incredible experience, as I always say, quite a ride,” Keston said. “Obviously, some pretty exceptional ups, as we say, relating to kind of what I wanted to do relating to player transfers, winning a championship, all those types of things, really establishing a fan base in Orange County when I bought the team seven years ago, and you know, I think we’ve achieved a lot of those things. We got a lot more growing left to do and a lot more developing but overall it’s been a success.”
Launched in the USL as the Los Angeles Blues in 2011, the club played a key role in establishing the league as a truly national endeavor, as the first team west of the Mississippi in the circuit. Over the following dozen years, the league went through plenty of changes, welcoming a slew of MLS reserve teams and a bevy of independently-owned clubs, a rebrand to the USL Championship and rapid professionalization of the lower league landscape in the United States. Orange County SC was at the forefront of that, rebranding to the current identity in 2017 after Keston bought the team from original owner Ali Mansouri, aiming to win a title, but also looking for ways to set itself apart in a very competitive local market and global soccer landscape.
Keston has honed in on trying to do a little bit of everything with OCSC, and remarkably, it appears to be working, as the club has put down roots in Irvine.
“Ultimately, what we’ve done very well is come up with an idea and a business plan, and a model that, obviously is not something that we invented, it’s something that exists around the world, which gives us, alongside the kind of traditional development of a professional sports team, which is, you know, putting butts in seats, and putting on a good show every game and keeping your season ticket holders happy, we’ve added other pieces to it, like player development and partnerships with Rangers and Feyenoord, but also things like Beerfest and ‘Touch a Truck’ and are at least kind of all that we’ve ultimately made it about soccer,” Keston explained. “And we are obviously very focused on soccer, but it’s larger than soccer. I always say we’re an entertainment company whose largest product happens to be soccer, and we love it that way. And we keep bringing in more and more people to stadium each year because we don’t really sway from that.”
Over the past few years, while OCSC have signed veterans from around the world to help push for a championship, they’ve been very deliberate about setting up a pathway to develop players. In addition to setting up partnerships with Scottish giants Rangers FC and Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord, and actually making use of them, the club have been deliberate about signing talented youth players and giving them a chance in game situations, against an ever-increasing standard of talent.
While a big-money transfer — such as the one for defender Kobi Henry in June 2022 by French club Stade de Reims — helps pay the bills, certainly, Keston said the value in such a development pathway goes well beyond just the money involved.
“I think especially being in USL and a second division, especially six, seven years ago when really no one had heard of us and very few people had heard of our league it was important to put us and USL on a pedestal and let people see us, let them see the quality of the soccer and the quality of the players, obviously, that are coming out of the United States, and especially Southern California, which is obviously traditionally a hub for U.S. Men’s National Team players and some of the top talent,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any secret to how we’ve done it, we’ve just worked very hard at it, we’ve kept up at it. And we’ve established real connections with the people that are involved in these clubs.
“And I feel like the tide has now turning a little from a situation where we were hoping that they would take notice of us and we can establish something real to obviously in the run up to the 2026 World Cup, and all the other tournaments that are going on right now, I think we have a real opportunity, the excitement about U.S. soccer and the focus on U.S. soccer is growing exponentially every year, and we put ourselves in a good position to be right at the center of that.”
There are a few different types of team owners on game days, and Keston unapologetically puts a fan’s hat on, usually wearing an OCSC T-shirt and watching the game intently from his owner’s suite at home games, unafraid to cheer and even give a subpar referee a piece of his mind from the stands.
“The game for me is why I go through all of the work of doing this. Obviously, you know, a childhood dream but it’s also a business and we’re a small business that has many of the same problems as other small businesses but at the end of the day if, for you the best time in the world is sitting outside having a beer, watching a team you actually really care about, then you’re in the right place and that’s what it is for me,” Keston explained.
When asked to sum up the past 10 seasons for Orange County SC with his own favorite memory, Keston can’t pick just one, but has a worthwhile explanation for why he picks two.
“I think, as we always say, our business model is twofold. Our technical staff has a much harder job than anybody else in soccer, I think, because they have to win games and they also have to develop players. So I think it’s the combination of the Kobi Henry transfer and the championship together,” he said. “I can’t choose one over the other. But those two things really, at their base were what we are as a club what we’re trying to build, so I can’t be more excited about any thing than that.”
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