The Orange County Soccer Club won two battles this past week: a 1-0 win on Saturday over the LA Galaxy reserve team and a stadium to play in for the next year.
The two teams have been vying for a home at Irvine’s Championship Soccer Stadium for the past month.
On Tuesday the OC Soccer Club scored a guarantee from Irvine City Council members that they could continue playing at the city’s Championship Soccer Stadium for another season.
But city leaders were clear that the club’s future in the city isn’t set in stone, criticizing club leadership for mischaracterizing their discussions on the stadium’s use and calling out fans as rude.
The debate on what to do with the stadium was pulled to the forefront of Irvine politics last month when Irvine city staff asked city council members what priorities they have at the venue following years of resident complaints that nobody can get on the field.
Right now, OC Soccer Club has priority registration on any events at the facility through a contract with the city – an arrangement many community groups have criticized, saying it cuts out taxpayers from being able to use the public stadium in favor of private interests.
“The Championship Soccer Stadium does not belong to the OC Soccer Club,” said city manager Oliver Chi at Tuesday night’s meeting. “It’s intended to be a facility for the benefit and use of the overall community.”
LA Galaxy II entered the conversation when the team approached the city about using the Championship Soccer Stadium, pledging to take up less time than the current teams do and leave the field open for more community groups.
Galaxy representatives didn’t comment on the issue at last night’s meeting, but previously said in a statement to Voice of OC they’d be open to sharing the field with the club.
But a public discussion on what to do with the field never happened after hundreds of OC Soccer Club fans turned out to the council’s August meeting or wrote in from home, calling on the city to let them keep the stadium as their home field.
OC Soccer Club owner James Keston called Galaxy’s attempt to negotiate with the city an “attack,” in a letter posted to the team’s website that has since been taken down, saying city leaders had shut them out and they needed fans to fight for the stadium.
“Our club, built in Irvine and 100% Orange County proud, came under attack,” Keston wrote.
“The LA Galaxy have worked behind closed doors to convince City Staff to put up an option in the Irvine City Council on Tuesday to throw OCSC out of Championship Soccer Stadium,” he added.
“We cannot let our home be taken away from this soccer club and this community.”
The stadium has a special meaning to many of the club’s fans, as their first stadium that lasted longer than a season or two and gave them their first real home in Orange County.
“The thing that makes this stadium is that as a group, an organization and a community we’ve seen tremendous growth in Irvine there,” said Blaine Jenks, founder of the County Line Coalition, the team’s official fan club, in an interview with Voice of OC. “We can go play somewhere else, but it would really slow down that growth.”
For the second meeting on Tuesday, the club took a different approach, asking fans to come out but not to speak, leaving their official comments to Daniel Rutstein, the club’s president of business operations.
“None of us want to be here. We as a soccer club, we want to be just providing family friendly entertainment for our friends,” Rutstein said at the meeting. “We want to leave this council tonight with a guarantee.”
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, who’s also a former Irvine mayor, came out to speak in favor of the club as well, calling them an “absolutely fantastic corporate citizen,” and telling the council to find a way to keep them around.
The council unanimously approved Councilman Anthony Kuo’s suggestion to extend the contract with the team for another year, on the condition that both sides immediately begin negotiations about the future of soccer at the stadium.
“I know that a great deal of the anxiousness coming from this item is there’s a desire to have certainty, and I can appreciate that,” Kuo said.
Some council members and city staff criticized the approach taken by the team and its fans.
“We all want the best, and you don’t win favors when you’re accusing us of being corrupt,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim. “I don’t know enough about soccer to be corrupt even if I wanted to be.”
City officials also said the team was in regular contact with city council members and staff, despite what OC Soccer Club leadership had previously said.
“To suggest there’s not dialogue is not true,” Kuo said.
“From the staff’s perspective there’s been misrepresentation as to what’s happening,” Chi said. “Our staff has, in my opinion, been treated in a way that’s less than professional.”
Rutstein apologized for the team on behalf of fans who’d sent inappropriate messages to the city, and in a phone call with Voice of OC Wednesday morning praised the city council’s decision.
“We went in clearly asking for one thing, which is certainty over whether we can play at Championship Soccer Stadium in 2023 … and we left with certainty,” Rutstein said. “We’re delighted with that outcome.”
When asked about concerns over the communication between the club and the city, Rutstein said all of his dealings with city staff have been “fantastic,” and he hopes for a productive discussion going forward.
“We heard what they said about the community and we heard what they said about us being difficult to work with, and though I’m not sure I agree with everything that was said, now is not the time to be arguing,” Rutstein said.
“This is about fans wanting to watch soccer in a soccer stadium and we need to find a way forward, we look forward to sitting down with all the city staff,” he added.
City councilmembers also directed staff to look at converting the field from grass to synthetic turf at a future meeting at Councilman Mike Carroll’s request, regardless of who ends up using it.
A previous city staff report on the issue pointed out that turf would save the city at least $490,000 annually and allow for more programming on the field because it doesn’t need days of downtime.
Right now, the field is only available around 40 weeks per year, but if converted to turf it would be available year round.
The extension to the soccer club’s contract is not set to come back before the city council again, but any potential future contract will have to come back sometime before November 2023.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.