A Burgeoning National Soccer League, with Santa Ana Origins

The United Premier Soccer League launched in 2011, when Santa Ana Winds FC leaders reformed their club in this new league, outside of the National Premier Soccer League, where they had a season-long stint. Winds FC started the league with other Santa Ana clubs including La Máquina and Ozzy’s Laguna, in addition to Orange County area clubs like OC Crew and Irvine Outcasts, etc. By 2016 two more Santa Ana clubs, Cal Arsenal and CF Cachorros, joined the UPSL.

The league is turning seven and now has an upward and national trajectory that’s mostly taken off in the last year. Much of this boom, arguably, came from one of their more successful clubs, La Máquina, that made a splash in the 2016 national US Open Cup. 

For those that need a primer or a reminder, La Máquina shattered all expectations of an “Open Division” or “amateur” club in that tournament. The club defeated other clubs from longer-established and supposedly better quality leagues including the Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League. La Máquina made it to the fourth elimination round where they faced the LA Galaxy and lost on a controversial deadball play, a play in which the referee officiating the match later admitted he was wrong in allowing. (See Máquina – Galaxy: The Aftermath).

Incidentally, fellow club LA Wolves of the UPSL deafeated another club from another supposedly superior league, the OC Blues, of the United Soccer League in the same 2016 Open Cup.

This performance on the national stage, one representative of the league put on by La Máquina and LA Wolves demonstrated what is possible outside of the existing system/s found in the PDL/NPSL/USL, etc.

Come 2017 and the UPSL has seen interest from clubs around the country interested in joining their model:

It’s gotten to the point that the UPSL has identified regional directors to oversee growth and nationwide expansion. The league is positioned to be a national league by 2018:

The UPSL makes up part of the frontier of American soccer, a league existing outside of the wall that is the closed system and the status quo involving the youth development to collegiate player drafting method. This league, like other regional leagues, proves that there is undeniable talent in the “Open Division,” outside of said closed structures.

It’s a league like the UPSL that leads reputable American soccer figures like Eric Wynalda to affirm that US Soccer isn’t functioning at its maximum potential by overlooking talent in leagues like the UPSL, instead opting for the current collegiate/PDL, etc player drafting model.

Wynalda reached this affirmation, or reaffirmation, in Santa Ana, on the night of April 1, after the club he now coaches, LA Wolves, lost to La Máquina at Santa Ana Stadium. (LA Wolves are still trying to find that elusive win over La Máquina, btw):

Santa Ana Soccer: Forgotten History, Forsaken Potential

Visit the LA Times online archives and you’ll find some nuggets of history concerning pro soccer at Santa Ana Stadium. You’ll see a story of international matches and local pro league matches that took place at this stadium, long before the creation of Major League Soccer, in 1996.

You’ll see a period when soccer flourished at the stadium, followed by a period of stagnation in the face of other developments in pro soccer, and pro sports, in the LA area. Before there was a Home Depot Center or a StubHub Center, there was Santa Ana Stadium as an option for international soccer matches. This stadium as a soccer venue was hindered even further with the removal of its natural grass and the installation of an artificial American football gridiron.

You’ll see a city’s replacing of the sport of international soccer, with all of the economic potential that it had back then, and has now, with a favoring of American football for the city’s private Catholic high school, Mater Dei, and the city’s public school district teams. Is it any wonder that Mater Dei games are what usually fill the stadium nowadays, attended by friends and families of kids that generally aren’t from, nor live in Santa Ana?

International soccer at Santa Ana Stadium, since its advent

International soccer began being programmed at Santa Ana Stadium soon after it was built in 1963. The stadium was the site of a match between a local team named the Orange County Soccer Club, and none other than historic German powerhouse, FC Bayern Munich in 1966.

Side note: Information on pro soccer at Santa Ana Stadium for nearly a 20 year period is unavailable here, as the research for this article is limited to the Los Angeles Times’ online archive, which only goes as far back as 1985.  

Whoever the promoters were putting on international soccer at Santa Ana Stadium knew what teams would draw well there given the city’s demographics, those teams being Mexican clubs Chivas de Guadalajara and Club América. It was common practice to see a club face a national team, like in the cases of Guadalajara’s 1-0 win over Honduras, on March 15, 1988, and a 5-4 goal fest Chivas took over the United States, a month later on April 24, 1988. Club América defeated Bayern Munich 2-1 on January 14, 1989 and East Germany by a score of 3-1 on August 2, 1990 at this stadium. América faced the United States at Santa Ana Stadium on March 25, 1989 prior to their match with East Germany, in a match for the “Santa Ana Soccer Cup,” a game in which the “team from Mexico City” (Club América) won 2-0.

There was at least one game with tinges of CONCACAF regional tournament play, with Central American clubs Herediano of Costa Rica facing storied club Olympia of Honduras, a game which Herediano won 1-0 on August 28, 1988.

American pro soccer leagues and club ventures at Santa Ana Stadium

Santa Ana Stadium was the home of the now-defunct clubs California Sunshine (American Soccer League, defunct), Orange County Zodiac, later rebranded Orange County Waves, (A-League, now known as the United Soccer League). Most importantly, what did these teams have in common? None of them used the Santa Ana name, thus failing, fantastically, to form a club that would resonate with the Santa Ana market.

Another factor that contributed in part to burying pro soccer in Orange County (and more importantly, Santa Ana), until the LA Blues of the USL rebranded themselves “OC Blues” in 2014, is the formation of Major League Soccer and that league’s goal of subjugating USL, and placing MLS development teams there, so as to not have a rival to its soccer “business,” which is really an ongoing monopolization of the “First Division,” or, “Major League” status, which is really no much more than a tag set by monetary criteria and not sporting merit, through promotion and relegation among divisions, which is how Division 1 status is attained in leagues around the world. But not in the USA, ’cause what works for pro basketball, baseball, football in this country, works for soccer is their thinking. Getting back to the original point of this paragraph, Orange County went without pro soccer for 14 years, the Blues now play in Irvine, the city next door, but Santa Ana Stadium hasn’t had a pro team since the “OC Zodiac,” which made a last-ditch effort to save themselves by moving to Santa Ana Stadium, (they moved out of Irvine) but it was too late, and they insisted on branding themselves generically as the “Orange County Waves.”

So we see this timeline of pro soccer at Santa Ana Stadium beginning in the 1960s, with some information missing on the 1970s missing from the LA Times online archives, although it can be deduced that soccer was played there throughout this decade, given that the sport has always been popular in the city and given that a Santa Ana soccer player, José López, worked his way up through UCLA to eventually play on the inaugural 1974 LA Aztecs of the first North American Soccer League. It’s safe to say that Santa Ana Stadium remained a destination for soccer during that decade and it was such through the 80s.

In the 80s we see a number of international soccer matches, particularly ones appealing to the city’s Latino (mostly Mexican, and or Mexican-American) demographic, one that the city has been strongly associated with since then and prior. In the 90s we see the inclusion of American soccer leagues that came and went, one flopping out entirely and one rebranding itself as the United Soccer League.

At the start of the 21st century we see the growth of MLS and its stymying of organic growth in soccer cities like Santa Ana, because of that league’s and the US Soccer Federation’s refusal to implement promotion and relegation. For the LA Galaxy to continue being what it is, an unchallenged franchise clinging to a division 1 tag, no other team and city in the LA region can grow a team and reach division 1 status through sporting merit. For the LA Galaxy to continue as is, soccer cities in the LA region must remain subjugated, at best allowed to exist as a mostly irrelevant club trotting along in a MLS development league, which is the case of the OC Blues.

Afterthoughts

One this is abundantly clear. Santa Ana has always been a soccer destination. It’s soccer potential is still great and better than ever before, due to population growth, along with the popularity the sport enjoys. “Every place you go in the community is about soccer,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Rick Miller. The Galaxy knows this and that’s why they’ve always tried to treat Santa Ana like nothing more than a market. It is much, much more than a market. MLS knows this and that’s why they squatted on santaanafc.com, which is absolute pettiness on the part of the shot-callers at that league, which are backed NFL, MLB and NBA money.

Just recently the LA Galaxy struggled to move on in the US Open Cup versus a Santa Ana amateur team known as “La Máquina.” What would’ve that result been if a Santa Ana club had the competitive advantages of a pro club? Things like fulltime training, physical trainers, doctors, nutritionists, and at least the opportunity and incentive to receive the necessary cash injections to compete regionally? That full potential is capped through US Soccer’s locking out of all clubs not already bought into (literally) “division 1” and the exposure that’s associated with that tag. And that’s done to curb competition, don’t be naïve.

 

 

 

Máquina – Galaxy: The Aftermath

The fourth round of the US Open Cup has concluded with MLS teams inching past NASL ones in most cases. In fact, it took most MLS fourth round entrants more than 90 minutes to move on to the fifth round. So much was MLS’s struggle in the 4th round that the league’s flagship LA Galaxy needed more than 90 minutes, and a highly questionable goal, to get past an amateur club, La Máquina.

The goal in question caused such a stir that La Máquina and their league, the United Premier Soccer League, exercised their right to protest the match the following day. At first it seemed that the club would have no case, some scoffing it off, but a series of very revealing tweets showed that the referee that handled the match, Ramón Hernández, admitted to a mistake in allowing the play that led to the goal to continue. It remains to be seen whether La Máquina’s request for a rematch will be granted by US Soccer, as of the time of this writing, June 16 at 11:36 pm, PST.

The tweets came from another referee, Edgar Martínez, who attended the match and who knows Ramón Hernández, get this, because they’re both still attending refereeing school, known as RPD for Referee Professional Development, offered through Cal South.

Galaxy players admitted, as revealed by their writer Adam Serrano, and also by former MLS and ESPN writer, the reputable Scott French, that they too were surprised with the referee’s allowing of the play by saying things like, “If I were them [La Máquina], I’d be pissed,” or “Am I allowed to shoot this?”

And so it remains to be seen if La Máquina’s protest will be upheld. But most commentary on Twitter has been sympathetic and favorable towards La Máquina, if not outraged, over the allowance of the controversial play that opened the floodgates for the Galaxy.

La Máquina, on to the next round

Santa Ana-based La Máquina FC of the United Premier Soccer League defeated Sacramento Gold of the National Premier Soccer League in an elimination game in the Second Round of the US Open Cup on Wednesday night May 18 at Westminster High School.

La Máquina dominated their rival since the start of the match but could not capitalize on their chances until the 70th minute when Edwin Borboa broke through. Midfielder José Castro Pérez scored a goal on a volley at the 79th minute to kill the game.

The next opponent for La Máquina will be LA Wolves FC, a team that is also a member of the UPSL. It will be the first time in the history of the Open Cup that teams in this league meet in an elimination game in a later round.

The match between La Máquina and LA Wolves will be played at Westminster High School in Westminster, CA at 7 pm on Wednesday, June 1. The winner will face the LA Galaxy in the Fourth Round.

Gio Dos Santos in Santa Ana: What’s the Meaning of This?

Soccer is so important to my heart, to the community here in Santa Ana… – Kenney Aguilar, Director, Santa Ana Police Athletic and Activities League

The LA Galaxy and the Santa Ana Police Athletic and Activities League recently opened a mini soccer, or futsal, pitch at Jackson Elementary School (right next to Windsor Park, in Ward 4, east of the Santa Ana River and north of Centennial Park) in Santa Ana. Galaxy striker Giovanni Dos Santos was in attendance for the official ribbon cutting.

So what does this all mean? It’s marketing, for one. The mini soccer pitch is marked with a large LA Galaxy logo in the middle of it, and all kids in attendance were given t-shirts with Galaxy logos as if to say, “property of LA Galaxy,” or “this is Galaxy country,” etc.

It’s not the first time that the Galaxy has made its presence in Santa Ana. The Galaxy has placed ads on billboards, buses and bus stops, for years, in Santa Ana. The Galaxy and the SAPD have a longtime relationship with kids being taken to the StubHub to watch games. They have an “official” pub at the Olde Ship near Santa Ana College. This further demonstrates the importance of the Santa Ana soccer market, just in case there are any doubters left out there.

Santa Ana College Dons coach José Vásquez played for the Galaxy and set a record with them way back at the beginnings of the league, current Galaxy defender Robbie Rogers played at Mater Dei, and these reveal more Santa Ana-Galaxy ties.

So why hasn’t a team calling itself “Orange County’s pro team,” meaning the Orange County Blues, done the kind of marketing and outreach that the Galaxy has done here, for years? Why is Santa Ana good enough for the Galaxy, but not the OC Blues? Do the OC Blues need the Galaxy’s permission to market in Santa Ana? Given that MLS and USL have an agreement not to compete with each other, except for the in the seasonal US Open Cup, this may be the case. Like I’ve said, the failure of that team to realize the importance of the Santa Ana soccer market shows in their attendance.

Santa Ana is an important soccer market, this is an exhausted fact. This is something that the North American Soccer League needs to take seriously if they’re going to setup an expansion team in Orange County, which is rumored to be in the works. It’s one thing for the Galaxy to setup a mini soccer pitch in Santa Ana, it would be a much greater move to setup a pro club at Santa Ana Stadium, and the NASL has the opportunity to do this, because neither MLS nor USL will. They haven’t shown the will to do so.

Santa Ana on the National Soccer Stage

There have been some soccer players over the decades that were either born in, developed in, or played in Santa Ana that went on to win championships on a national level. There is also the case of the Santa Ana College Dons, that as a unit was an overachiever first under coach J.P. Frutos, then coached by former Chivas de Guadalajara, Atlas, Celaya, L.A. Salsa, Orange County Zodiac and L.A. Galaxy player José Vásquez.

Santa Ana in the Los Angeles Aztecs

We’ll begin with José López, who was born in Mexicali in 1951 but grew up in Santa Ana and played soccer at Santa Ana Valley High School. He went on to captain UCLA soccer and was drafted to the inaugural Los Angeles Aztecs squad in 1974. López and the Aztecs won the North American Soccer League Championship that same year.

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L.A. Aztecs No. 15, José López of Santa Ana. Photo source: nasljerseys.com

Reign of the Dons 

The Santa Ana College Dons started dominating the Orange Empire Conference in 1976, winning the conference 26 times. The Dons dominated consecutively from 1976-78, and most impressively, consecutively, from 1994-2011. And the 80s? They owned that too: ’83, ’84, ’86, ’87, and ’88. The Dons became a force at the state level in California, winning seven state championships, and two national championships within this time frame. So what’s the moral of the story, coupled with a word to the wise? There’s tremendous soccer potential in Santa Ana.

The Dons are still coached by LA Galaxy record holder José Vásquez, who is credited with one trophy, the 1998 Supporters’ Shield, with the Galaxy.

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Galaxy record holder José Vásquez, coach of the Santa Ana College Dons. Photo source: LA Galaxy Star Map

Mater Dei’s Robbie Rogers

Mater Dei High School, a private Catholic school, was established in Santa Ana in 1950. It has a reputation for having good American football teams, and has two national championships to its name in that sport, but one of its former players went on to win two MLS Championships in 2008 with the Columbus Crew and in 2014 with the LA Galaxy. That player is Robbie Rogers.

Now, Rogers and some others like him tend to say things like, “I went to school in Orange County,” and aren’t as specific by saying, “I went to school in Santa Ana,” (because the Santa Ana name is still taboo in some people’s heads) but we’ll forgive him and count him as a win for Santa Ana. Granted, Mater Dei isn’t part of the Santa Ana Unified School District and they don’t even compete with Santa Ana schools, but they have the luck of playing at Santa Ana Stadium and are lucky to call Santa Ana home.

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Robbie Rogers, of Huntington Beach, played at Mater Dei High School, in Santa Ana. Photo source: LA Galaxy Star Map

Sueño: A Dream Forged in Santa Ana

A kid named Jorge Flores, who later changed his surname to Villafaña in honor of his mother, grew up playing soccer in a Santa Ana youth league, with the club Santa Ana Juventus DSP. This kid had a dream of playing pro soccer and tried his luck with the first-ever Sueño MLS tryout, which he went on to win, eventually earning a spot on the Chivas USA Academy then first team, before being moved to MLS’s Portland Timbers. Villafaña culminated his MLS career in 2015 with a championship and then moved on to broader horizons with Club Santos Laguna in Mexico, in a league he dreamed of playing in.

VillafanaSantaAna
Jorge Villafaña (right) at Santa Ana Stadium. Photo by Omar Ávalos Gallegos.

 

The Contenders

There are contenders to these made champions listed above. There was another Sueño MLS winner from Santa Ana named Armando Flores, now playing at Cal State Bakersfield.

armando_flores_t750x550
The Second Sueño MLS Winner from Santa Ana: Armando Flores

 

Kevin Huezo played for the CF Pachuca Academy in Mexico and currently plays and fights for minutes at Murciélagos FC of the Ascenso MX division in Mexico.

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Kevin Huezo of Santa Ana (2nd from the left, first row).

 

Daniel Antúnez trotted the globe playing soccer before signing with MLS and Chivas USA. Antúnez suffered a knee injury that ended his MLS career before he got back to playing with club Arizona United of the United Soccer League. Here’s a rare interview with Antúnez, who played in Finland, Brazil and Mexico before coming back to the States.

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Globetrotting Footballer Daniel Antúnez, of Santa Ana. Photo source: SB Nation

Special mention goes to Minnesota United striker Christian Ramírez, who was born in Santa Ana and developed his game in the neighboring cities of Garden Grove and Irvine. Ramírez played college ball nearby before signing with Minnesota United of the North American Soccer League, where he won a 2014 Golden Boot, 2014 Player of the Year, and NASL Best XI in 2014 and 2015.

Christian Ramirez
Minnesota United Striker Christian Ramírez, Born in Santa Ana. Photo source: NASL.com

 

 

Reality Check Time for MLS & Chivas USA

“L.A.S.C.!,” exclaimed the Black Army supporters group in section 138 repeatedly minutes before the kickoff to the 1st edition of the 2014 Clásico Angelino, aka SuperClásico, last Sunday.

Spirits were high in the stands and in section 101, where the Union Ultras take center stage.

But motivation was not enough combined with an awfully deficient Chivas USA squad that failed to string together passes and generate offense.

There is support from people that want an alternative MLS option in LA. The 2014 version of Chivas USA are that team that the league is trying to build to manufacture an LA derby like the league wants to do in NY, but that team on Sunday was completely erased from the field against the Galaxy. And this is insightful if not ominous. And those games against the Galaxy are the ones that this second LA side needs to win above the rest, save for a playoff game or two, if they ever return to the postseason.

Will a rebranded Chivas USA continue to disappoint when matched against the Galaxy fast forward to 2015 or beyond? The first sign, this most recent loss to the Galaxy, is telling.

Maybe it’s the years that the Galaxy have playing on their home pitch, their familiarity with it, that has them dominating Chivas, or most other teams anyway. They have more continuity as a unit and under one coach and one style of play. Speaking of which, the Galaxy’s display on Sunday, their wide style of grounded passing, reminded me very much of CF Pachuca under coach Enrique “Ojitos” Meza, the team that won a Mexican league, 2 CONCACAF Cups, the Copa Sudamericana, and a SuperLiga, this last one they took from the Galaxy.

And it’s the absolute opposite at Chivas USA. There have been 5 coaches at Chivas USA (Preki, Vásquez, Fraser, Real, Cabrera) during Bruce Arena’s time at the Galaxy. What is MLS to do to fix the problem of its 2nd LA franchise? Are they going to continue hitting the reset button every season with a different coach and staff? Again, it’s said that MLS has been steering Chivas USA, in part, years before it’s acquisition of the club.

The team shown on Sunday is not the caliber opponent needed to take on the Galaxy and attract an LA audience and build a market around it. Maybe it was coach Cabrera’s lineup, that started with speedy left-winger Leandro Barrera on the bench, which was a odd. The midfield was a disaster, as 2nd year player Carlos Álvarez is not the seasoned midfield orchestrator and decision-maker that he needs to be. He tends to complicate himself more than necessary when in possession, thus losing it.

The kind of team needed to remain in LA needs a long-term process. This explains why Cabrera was brought on, in part to instill his philosophy in the reputable Chivas USA Academy. He’s stated that he doesn’t emphasize possession…well surely the match on Sunday showed his team deplete of ideas of how to attack when on possession.

To MLS’s credit, they’ve been very patient with their 2nd LA franchise over the years. But now, again, a new process is in order, one drawing from an academy system and one that, hopefully, MLS has all the patience in the world to see develop into an ideal franchise before other expansion-hopeful cities come knocking. It’s back to the drawing board, yet again, with Chivas USA and or Los Angeles FC/SC.