Orange County Soccer Club (OCSC) will host Sacramento Republic FC in their 2021 United Soccer League (USL) Championship Home Opener on Saturday, May 22 at Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine. OCSC is Orange County’s only professional soccer team competing in the USL Championship, which is the world’s fastest-growing second division professional soccer league. 

During the team’s Media Day on May 14, OCSC front office members, coaching staff and players announced their plans for the upcoming season. President of Business Relations Jeff Garner talked about reopening the 5,000 seat Championship Soccer Stadium to a limited 30% capacity, which allows the team to play in front of fans for the first time in over 440 days. 

“We see this is a great opportunity to bring families together, bring the community together and safely enjoy game nights,” Garner said. 

OCSC head coach Braeden Cloutier spoke on how people in the stands will impact his team. 

“Fans should generate a lot of enthusiasm,” Cloutier said. “Just to have 30% capacity, it should make for a really good atmosphere and it has been long overdue for a lot of the guys.” 

OCSC will take the pitch with a retooled roster, which includes the addition of experienced and young players.  

Finnish midfielder Mikko Kuningas, Finnish forward Eero Markkanen — whose brother Lauri Markkanen plays for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA — and German goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky join the team after spending the previous season in Finland. American midfielder Tommy McCabe moves from MLS club FC Cincinnati, while American forward Adam Jahn comes on loan from Atlanta United.  

Orange County native midfielder Chris Wehan returns to play for his local club after being at New Mexico United, where he used the preseason to develop a strong relationship with the captain and fellow OC native defender Michael Orozco. Wehan joined the OCSC team after a long offseason. 

“It’s great being a part of a team where someone on the team has done more than you in their career, and it’s exciting to talk to them, hear their stories and really get to know them,” Wehan said. 

Upcoming American midfielder Jack Imperato was acquired from Villarreal CF’s Academy in Spain to join OCSC’s young core of players and learn from the seasoned veterans. 

“I was thrown straight into the wolves and since then I’ve really adapted well,” Imperato said. “I am excited to play with a lot of veterans and experienced players as well as in front of the fans.”

Imperato rounds out an unusually experienced young core that includes new signing of Haitian forward Ronaldo Damus and Laguna Beach native midfielder Francis Jacobs. At 14 years old, Jacobs became the youngest American to sign a professional soccer contract when he joined OCSC in 2019. Now, the 16 year old says he feels good heading into the new season. 

“I am just looking forward to just playing,” Jacobs said. 

American midfielder Raymond Drai, who made his debut with the club late last season, along with Estonian defender Kirill Antonov and American defender Kobi Henry are also key contributors to the club.

Scottish defender Rhys Breen and Scottish midfielder Jack Thomson were also brought in on loan from Rangers F.C in Glasgow, Scotland. This arrangement acts as part of the clubs’ strategic international partnership that is based on soccer, youth development and commercial activities. This will be the second year that players from Rangers F.C. have been sent on loan to Orange County. Former OCSC goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes became the first OC player to complete a transfer to Scotland. 

Rangers F.C. competes in the Scottish Premiership, which is the top division in Scotland, and the team just capped off a championship season with a record of 32W – 6D – 0L. Coached by Liverpool F.C. legend and former LA Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard, this marks a historic feat for the Scotland-based club. 

In addition to the new signings, OCSC announced that they have signed 18-year-old midfielder Hunter Hanes and 17-year-old goalkeeper Anthony Anderson to USL Pro Academy contracts. The contract allows the two players to play with both the senior team and U-19 Academy squad in the club’s youth system. 

“I am most looking forward to the games and playing at the highest level,” Hanes said. “With the fans it gives you a little extra energy to go that extra step which helps you mentally more than anything else. I’m looking forward to learning from the older guys and picking up what they’ve learned so I don’t make those same mistakes.”

The rest of the team consists of American veteran defenders Kevin Alston and Brent Richards; American midfielder Seth Casiple; American forward Darwin Jones; former UCLA Bruins defender Nathan Smith and midfielder Brian Illoski; Irish defender Rob Kiernan; Danish forward Thomas Enevoldsen; and American goalkeepers Abraham Romero and Danny Faundez.

“With the tremendous amount of games in a short period of time, and the depth of our squad, the opportunity for younger players is going to be there,” Cloutier said. “I expect to see competition within the team itself to be higher than anticipated.”

President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Oliver Wyss said the team is ready to build off from a solid preseason performance. 

“We feel this is the year we could win a championship for OCSC,” Wyss said. “[Young players] are training everyday, they have to prove their worth and they are learning from some of the absolute best players in their positions. We feel the young players are ready, we need them and we expect them to contribute this year on all fronts.” 

OCSC will have home games all throughout the summer until early fall, when the USL Championship playoffs kickoff. This gameday experience is located at the Orange County Great Park, which is just 15 minutes away from UCI’s campus. OCSC offers gameday promotions for families and young adults such as family game nights, fireworks, giveaways, Military Appreciation Nights and Beer Fests

In accordance with state, county and local ordinances, attendance is expected to return to full capacity at the beginning of June. Single game tickets are available online, and games can be viewed on ESPN+ and Cox Communications TV. 

James Huston is a Staff Writer. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu